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Bike Riders With Headphones Or Earbuds Are a Danger

Could the increased risk of accidents harm DC’s growing biking culture?

If there was any doubt that Washington, DC, is becoming a cycling town, at least on weekends, Saturday lends proof to the fact we are approaching Portland and Twin City rates of people getting around on two wheels.

Capital Bikeshare set another ridership record on Saturday. The cycling service tweeted that riders took the trademark cherry-red bikes on 11,368 rides. Why not? The weather was balmy, the cherry blossoms were bursting and falling, the Nationals were playing.

Tourists on bikes jammed the Mall and monuments. But cyclists filled the uptown bikes lanes and boulevards, as well. Cars and bikes shared Pennsylvania Avenue, 15th and 16th streets, L Street, and smaller streets across the city.

Great news! But it makes me worry.

Call me paranoid, or a curmudgeon, but I fear we are one bad biking accident away from nipping DC’s booming biking culture in the bud. All it takes is one tourist or a commuter badly hurt or killed while biking.

This fear came to mind Saturday as I was driving my four-wheeled monster down 23rd Street toward Washington Circle. Lanes were open, cars were cruising along at speed, but a guy on a Bikeshare cycle caused a jam at L Street. He was taking up a lane, pedaling slowly, minus a helmet, oblivious to the automobiles. Worse, his earbuds robbed him of awareness of his surroundings.

I wanted to pull up next to him and tell him to ditch the buds—but he wouldn’t have been able to hear me. He was an accident waiting to happen.

Biking advocates tell me the more bikes on the road, the safer the city becomes, as drivers get accustomed to sharing the streets. Perhaps.

Bike traffic was up 21 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to DC’s transportation department. It counted 7,113 bikes moving through major intersections at rush hour. But transportation officials also reported that bike crashes increased from 260 in 2006 to 435 in 2010. This tracks with DC police records that logged 829 reports of bike accidents in 2011 and 2012. One particularly nasty crash in February 2012 involved a tractor trailer and a cyclist on a Capital Bikeshare rental. The accident sent the biker to the hospital, but police said the injuries were not life-threatening.

There was one cycling fatality in 2008 and zero in 2009, but two cyclists died from crashes in 2010, according to the transportation department. A man was killed in January when he was riding with a barbecue grill tied to his handlebars, the string caught in his wheel, and he was thrown over the bars.

The city has done its duty to teach riders and promote safety. The transportation website is jammed with programs and safe routes. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association does its part with safety classes and advocacy.

But take it from a regular biker who has been knocked off his saddle a few times, leading to broken ribs, a punctured lung, separated shoulders, hospital stays: Pavement is hard. Going down is never good.

I still ride every chance I get—for fun and to get around the city. But I never wear earbuds. I keep my eyes and ears alert to cars and trucks and doors that are about to open, other riders passing me, pedestrians stepping into the street or warning me to stop. Wearing earbuds on a bicycle in downtown Washington is one step away from cycling with blinders. It’s asking for trouble and certainly increasing the chances of getting into an accident.

Ditch the buds, for your sake and for the continued growth of bikes in DC.

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  • DanielBag

    accidents usally happen due to lack of concentration not music, though music can be a distraction, moden noice cancelling headphones like the can usually filter out the frequency range of ambient noise, but surely if you keep an eye on the toad then accidents can be avoided

  • jock

    if you wear just the normal headphones and not the noise cancelling one or over the ear ones, then you should be able to hear alot of the outside noise

  • Wear them on bike paths, but not on roads with cars on them.

  • nodice

    Can you hear cars in your car? don't be a jackass. alertness has very little to do with sound - you LOOK for cars - if I were hearing my way around DC I'd be dead.

  • ibc

    Paranoid! Curmudgeon!

    Seriously, though. You know, every couple of years someone gets ground to death under the wheels of a turning dump truck. It's sad. Everyone moves on. What are you expecting? A mass casualty event?

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