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A history of bicycle safety: re-inventing two wheels

July 26, 2013

The Growth of Bike Safety Initiatives

While biking is fun and healthy, it’s important to remember bicycle safety rules. In 2011, there were 38,000 injuries from bicycle/vehicle crashes in the U.S. Even in a completely bike-only area, one could fall and sustain a head injury. This has prompted the promotion of bike helmets in many countries; it is now common to see helmet and bike lane legal initiatives across hundreds of cities.

Safety is not a new concern for cyclists. Since they were first introduced, bicycles have both inspired cyclists and created fears regarding road safety. The two-wheeler is used by people of all ages, from children just leaving behind their training wheels, to adults driving to work. While everyone is at risk when operating any type of vehicle, knowing the dangers and taking the necessary safety precautions are some of the biggest steps you can take to ensure a safe ride home.

The history of the modern bicycle

Drasienne bike

The ancestor of the bicycle, the Drasienne, had two wheels but no pedals. It was moved by foot power.

Cycling has existed for around 200 years. The exact origin of the bicycle is unclear, but there are a few sources that laid the foundation for the modern bike. In 1818, Baron von Drais of Paris introduced a two-wheeled contraption he called a “Draisienne,” which did not have pedals. Popular among wealthy young men, the bike was similar to the Flintstones’ car: foot-operated.

The hobbyhorse became a popular activity as well, but it wasn’t terribly useful for any real travel. Velocipedes were the next personal vehicle. They had a large front wheel and a smaller back wheel; the front wheel was operated by pedals. However, the large wheels were inefficient and difficult to manage. While attaining a sort of cult following, velocipedes were never adopted with widespread use.

1884 first bicycle

First so-called safety bicycle invented in 1884 is the prototype of the modern bicycle.

It wasn’t until J.K. Starley and Sutton introduced their Safety Bicycle in 1884 that the modern bike existed. Their bicycle had much smaller wheels than the velocipede. The cyclist sat between the two wheels using pedals and a chain to control the back wheel. The frame was sturdy and was therefore used by men, women and children. Bicycles grew more in popularity in England, the United States, and Canada, all of which had bike patents filed in the late 1880s.

child on bike 1939

New York City 1939 – Students demonstrate the ability to remain between the two lines. Control of the bike shows the student is ready to take to the New York streets.

Bicycles grew in popularity and became a regular part of urban living since they were a simple alternative to automobiles. The photo above is from a New York City bicycle safety class in 1939. Once bikes had been absorbed into daily life, the need for safe riding became apparent.

Children were taught how to share the road, including the importance of hand signals. For example, in the straight line test, students had to stay between the two chalk lines to simulate a traffic lane. The ability to remain in control and stay between the two lines showed competency with the bicycle and meant riders were ready to take the road.

Bicycle safety for most of the 20th century focused on knowledge of traffic rules and of controlling the bike. This picture from 1959, shows a twelve year old boy demonstrating how to properly enter traffic on a bike. Learning to be mindful of cars was and is the most important aspect to bicycle safety.

child on bike 1959

Jun 28 1959—Alan Fortunate, 12 years, shows the proper way to enter street from alley with moving traffic.

The picture below shows a young boy learning sign regulations from teachers and a police officer. This type of instruction was considered important for any cyclist on the road, but the changing times soon led to changes in bicycle safety regulations.

child on bike with police officers

1950s – Here a young boy learns the rules of the road with a teacher and police officer explaining stop signs.

The Bike Lane

While cycle paths were built as early as 1895, they were neither popular nor widespread. The earliest known bike path was the Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, NY. Construction was planned for many more bike paths, but bikes didn’t remain a common method of transportation and the plans were abandoned. Cycle paths continued to pop up around the world, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that bike lanes gained popularity in the US.

During the 1960s and 70s, biking became synonymous with healthy living and was strongly encouraged. Cities like Davis, California fought to add bike lanes to their infrastructure. Many believed that adding bike lanes would increase road safety, especially by making motorists more aware that they were sharing the road. As bike lanes increased, more cyclists took to the street. Bike signs sprang up along roadways acknowledging the importance of being mindful of all moving vehicles, be it cars or bikes.

Woman on bike 1965

July 2, 1965-Bike lanes sprang up all around the US, as did signs to accompany them.

The Helmet

While bicycle safety was always a concern, helmets were not introduced until the 70s. Originally, they were much less effective than motorcycle helmets because bike helmets had to be lighter, thinner, and more ventilated and motorcycle helmets. Due to comfort concerns, helmets originally did not provide the kind of protection that they do today.

helmet 1970

In 1975, Bell Biker released a helmet with a polystyrene foam liner and a hard shell, considered to be the most effective and commercially successful helmet of the decade.

While the helmet industry was centered on product competition at first, it soon started focusing on safety. Studies began to show that helmets were useful in preventing head injuries. Since then, campaigns have been encouraging cyclists to wear protective gear. Some states have made helmets mandatory for all riders, while others only enforce a helmet law for children.

bike sign

Today many signs show bikers wearing helmets to encourage safety practices when cycling (view this sign here).

Right and Responsibility

In the past decade, one of the clearest indicators of helmet initiatives was the shift in signage. While earlier signs showed riders without helmets, bike signs today typically show the rider clearly wearing head gear. It’s important to remember that riding with care and respect can protect you and others on the road.

Regardless of what the signage shows, many people believe it is their right not to wear a helmet. It has become a controversial topic with people questioning the validity of helmet safety. While the evidence is mixed, the real issue with bike safety seems to be a decrease in safety instruction.

A better approach would be to increase the focus on traffic laws and rules and educate cyclists on how to best avoid accidents and injuries regardless whether you’re wearing a helmet or not. Of course, given that roads are unpredictable and can never be completely safe, a helmet is still extremely important. As a favorite activity for millions of people, bike safety should not be taken lightly.

According to the Outdoor Foundation Participation Topline Report of 2013, biking is the second most favorite outdoor activity (second to running). Supporters of bike-friendly lanes, initiatives, and activities grow each year. Cities like Seattle and New York are slowly changing their bike-hostile streets into cycling havens. But even with increased support for biking, remember to watch the road, obey the signs, learn the signals, and wear a helmet. With motorists and cyclists still learning how to respect each other, a little extra protection could save your life.

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Category: Road safety

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