Every activity brings with it a degree of risk. Some risks are within the control of the participant, including perceived risks whereby the participant anticipates events which may or may not happen, and actual risks which can be mitigated by actions designed to avoid them. An example of the latter would be an equipment safety check. This type of risk reduction is easier to implement because there is no psychological component.
Perceived risks, like the probability of being struck by a car while riding, are harder to avoid because they involve fear of the inevitable. Although the risk of getting hit by a car — or having any dangerous encounter with a car — can be greatly reduced through specific practices, fear of lack of control often wins out. Fortunately, this apprehension is often replaced with a sense of greater control over one’s fate after gaining experience riding in traffic.
Certain risks are never considered by the majority of cyclists, probably because the media does such a poor job of reporting on them. An example would be the risk of assault by someone who is neither a driver nor a pedestrian.
If road cyclists were asked who they think is most likely to assault them when they are riding their bikes, the answer would probably be drivers. Cyclists, in great numbers, have had altercations with irate drivers who have exited their vehicles, often in the middle of a busy road, for the sole purpose of fighting with a cyclist.
Such assaults are often the result of driving situations where drivers believe that a cyclist has done something wrong, like cutting them off or banging on their car to avoid getting hit. Drivers don’t understand why cyclists would bang on their cars because they don’t realize how easily they could have knocked the cyclist off of his or her bike.
Road rage is also a common cause of aggression towards cyclists, as is the occasional tiff between a cyclist and a pedestrian. But, there is another case which we rarely hear about, namely, random strangers attacking cyclists.
How often this happens is difficult to know. No agency tracks this type of incident. If the assault is reported to the police, it’s listed under the general category of assaults for that city or town, and not differentiated as assaults on cyclists.
By following U.S. cycling news, one becomes aware of a disturbing number of assaults on cyclists. Without data on such attacks, it’s difficult to establish a pattern of behavior or to educate cyclists about specific risks. Blind assumptions, based on general knowledge, may not hold true.
When dealing with little data, the unexpected often happens. For example, contrary to popular beliefs, males seem to get attacked as often as females (or at least frequently enough to consider the event something other than an anomaly). Accounts of these attacks make a few things clear: these crimes are often perpetrated by several males who ambush a cyclist. In some cases, the males are quite young, sometimes even preteen. And they rely on opportunity to choose their victim.
The perpetrators usually don’t know the victim. They select a target at random. In some cases, these attacks occurred on bike paths where the perpetrators expected to see cyclists, and may have been waiting for someone to come along.
Their goal is to rob the cyclist of money, possessions, and often their bike, as well. Given the gender of the perpetrators, it’s not difficult to imagine a preference for men’s bikes over women’s bikes, even though female riders would make easier targets. This could account for the surprisingly high number of male victims.
In some of these assaults, the cyclist was badly injured. Injuries can occur from falling when being knocked off of the bike or from being beaten by the perpetrators. The details of the incident reports are so sketchy that, in many cases, it’s difficult to determine how risky the area was and why the victim was chosen.
A bad neighborhood has a high probability of being a dangerous place to ride. In a high crime area, riding a bike would be no different than walking down the street. Common sense dictates that cyclists should steer clear of bad neighborhoods, especially when riding alone.
Expensive bicycles can also attract would-be thieves. Certainly, cyclists on expensive bikes should be aware of how others see them. Dressing nicely, such as in business attire, is probably nothing to worry about. But, wearing expensive sport or dress clothing can make a thief think a cyclist is carrying a lot of money or valuables. And, it’s certainly easier to knock someone over and take their bike than it is to break into a car to rob someone.
Even something as seemingly innocuous as a smartphone can attract the wrong sort of attention. Today, so many cyclists use smartphones, either for navigation or entertainment while riding, that it’s unrealistic to advise them not to use these devices on a bike. Still, it might be wise to take a few precautions.
Cyclists should be cognizant of the fact that they are more vulnerable than road users who are protected in the confines of their cars. Being out in the open makes it is easier for anyone to harm them, not just cars.
Street smarts should prevail. Cyclists should avoid low traffic areas whenever possible. They should not go out on their bikes, alone, looking as if they are worth a million dollars. Smartphones, and other consumer electronics, should be carried and used in the most discreet manner possible.
And, cyclists should always be alert to their surroundings. If a gang of youths is standing at an intersection, or near the side of the road, a savvy cyclist should move to the center of the lane, as far away from the group as possible. It’s not necessary to become paranoid; multiple youths might be nothing more than a group of friends, but it’s not worth taking any chances.
When riding at night, having good lights on a bike prevents a cyclist from becoming a target. Criminals prefer not to be identified, so a well lit bicycle will act as a deterrent.
Other things cyclists can do are to ride in pairs when going anywhere where the risk of assault might be higher than normal, and to keep an eye on fellow cyclists. If a cyclist appears to be in trouble, it’s best to either ask them if they’re all right, or to call the police if they’re actively involved in an altercation.
Cyclists can make a world of difference in cycling safety by looking out for one another. While assault can’t be accurately measured, or entirely prevented, for most cyclists riding in average towns, the risk is probably very low. It’s just one more thing to be aware of, and to prepare for both mentally and in practical terms, to make cycling as enjoyable and safe as possible.