Having spent two years driving in Italy, I can attest how nerve-wracking the autostrada can be. And yet, I never felt safer on a bicycle than in the Veneto.
Why? The overwhelming number of cyclists in Italy. Weekend ride groups can be found all over, and boast hundreds of members in each pack. Even still, commuters comprise the largest group cycling traffic. They're a constant presence on every road in every town.
This has a two-fold impact on traffic. First, motorists are accustomed to seeing cyclists. More importantly, just about every motorist is a cyclist. The culture fosters both awareness and empathy.
The importance of these factors can't be emphasized enough. Most cycling buffs are aware that the first vehicular accident in New York City was a collision with a cyclist. A bit more on the fringe of transit trivia is that the first train accident occurred within hours of the first railway's official opening.
The circumstances were different, but the similarity of their root causes offers a profound lesson two centuries later. Both accidents involved a lack of familiarity with the vehicles, causing the victims to miscalculate speed and distance. People execute these sorts of calculations today all the time, whether pedaling a bike or driving a car. It becomes so natural that most don't even realizing they're doing it.
Once American society grows accustomed to how the bicycle interacts with the world around it, it becomes a matter of adapting the same instincts used when walking or running at a new speed.
For instance, most people can navigate around an orange cone in the street or the 18-wheeler in the slow lane easily. Drivers don't hit parked cars or pedestrians in crosswalks because they're aware that they need to be cautious when approaching these obstacles.
This contrasts with the early days of automobiles, when a car moving at only 4 mph killed the first pedestrian. The reactions and testimony of witnesses at the scene are worth reading. They show just how important the psychology of speed is. There's a learning curve that takes time to adapt to, and that comes only with practice and awareness.
The greatest safety improvement for cyclists, beyond helmets, bike lanes or even better cycling laws, is to make motorists more familiar with people on bikes. And the only way to foster that awareness and empathy is to get more cyclists on the road.
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