How likely am I to break my face (or other things) riding a bike?
November 10, 2017 1:17 AM   Subscribe

I want to start riding a bike as a part of my commute. I've known two people who have flipped over the handlebars and broken their jaws/teeth/general face area. One person did it twice! Are accidents just part of the deal? How often do you hurt yourself (more than pulled muscles)?

I'm not athletic, and have hypermobility syndome, so my tendons are loose and my muscles aren't well developed, especially my legs. I'm trying to rectify this. I've started swimming 3-5 times a week, which is the most exercise I've ever gotten and it's going well. I think biking my 3-mile work commute each way would be a good next step. But the fear of hurting myself is freaking me out. Is falling common? I would wear a helmet, of course. Are there other things I can do/wear to mitigate my risk?
posted by greermahoney to Health & Fitness (59 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in the Netherlands, and because you are not saying where you are, I will assume you're in the US; biking culture is really different here. Everyone I know owns one or more bicycles. I don't think I know anyone who has ever hurt their face while riding their bike.
Most people don't wear helmets here (except when racing or riding mountain bikes off road) because head injuries are not common at all. But this is a bike-oriented country with lots of bike lanes, so the situation is not the same.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:27 AM on November 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

It's going to be incredibly variable of course, but as a datapoint, I have been cycle commuting regularly in Cambridge UK (so a mix of narrow streets with cars and bikes interacting and off-road cycle paths) for about 15 years. During that time I've had 2 accidents that were painful enough to remember, both resulting in cuts and bruises. Anecdotal evidence of people at my work who cycle is in a similar range, but of course there have been a couple of serious accidents resulting in broken bones in that time.
posted by crocomancer at 1:29 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

No, falling is not common. Personal anecdata: I’ve come off my bike once in twenty five years of daily commuting, on a patch of oil outside a small factory. Didn’t hit anything.

There’s no law that says you have to ride like a bat out of hell. Ride within your comfort zone, make sure your bike is well maintained (working brakes are more important than a helmet!) and you’ll be fine.
posted by pharm at 1:30 AM on November 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Edit: I just realized I know 3 people, not 2, with the broken jaw from biking thing. I know this is anecdotal. Just seems higher than I'd like.
posted by greermahoney at 1:30 AM on November 10, 2017

Wait! I came off my bike when I was 17 and stupid: sprinting head down + went straight into the back of a parked car + over the top to land in a heap in front of it. Don’t do that :)

Didn’t break anything then either.
posted by pharm at 1:31 AM on November 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've been riding full time for 4 years, no accidents. My best friend has been in the saddle for the same timespan and had a wildly different outcome. No spills riding 40mi a day in bike-hating Phoenix. Then no spills riding 10mi a day in bike-friendly Portland. Finally, three major-but-not-life-threatening accidents riding PDX side streets in nine months. So! It depends.

Wear bright, reflective colors, always use lights at night and ride defensively. Assume no one can see you! Signal your turns, but that doesn't mean motorists will understand your arm gestures. Scan the environment far in advance. It helps to plan your routes to avoid heavy traffic or rush hour craze. I ride bike paths and quiet residential streets whenever I can. When riding in the dark, don't forget about potholes and debris. It's nice to sit up and stretch sometimes, but if your hands are off the bars you lose control and response time. Match your tires to the weather and strap on fenders for rain, it helps you cut skid too. Keep your brakes sharp. Check behind you frequently and look left right left before going through any intersection, even if you have the light or right-of-way. Make eye contact with motorists when you need to merge or cross a busy street, it makes them feel guilty and assures safer passage.
posted by fritillary at 1:33 AM on November 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

Pharm, that's because 17 year olds bounce! I'm 45. I'd snap :-D
posted by greermahoney at 1:36 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

All of my bike-related spills have been skinned knees from tipping over somehow, while going very slowly. I think that happened twice in one summer, and that is the extent of my bike-related injury. Granted, the total time I've been on a bike is low: I have had a bike for two summers, one college school year in between, and now, I use dockless bikeshare weekly.

I think the trick to avoiding head injury is to not really go very fast. The bikeshare bikes are ~50lb, and it's a struggle to get them to even modest speeds on flat; on big declines I brake so I never reach speeds that would toss me over the handlebars.
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:45 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Don’t go sprinting down roads blind & I’m sure you’ll be fine :) (Still can’t believe I was that dumb - I’d pretty much forgotten about it until you reminded me.)

I’m going to hazard a guess that the people you know who’ve broken their jaws have all gone over the handle bars after grabbing the front brake in a panic? It’s a classic novice cyclist problem: if you grab the front brake and squeeze as hard as you can then the front wheel will lock up and you’ll go straight over the handlebars and into the front face first, but without experience or teaching novices often do just that.

Braking hard under control is a something that it’s worth practising so that you don’t just grab the front brake and squeeze as hard as you can when under stress.

Something that I’ve heard other people talk very highly of here in the UK is cycling tuition - there are a myriad little skills that contribute to on-road cycling which lone cyclists take much longer to acquire & a short course from a good teacher can make a huge difference. I know the CTC runs short courses. Maybe there’s something similar near you? Alternatively just going out on rides with more experienced riders will let you absorb a lot of these little bits and pieces by just watching what other people do.
posted by pharm at 1:45 AM on November 10, 2017 [14 favorites]

Oh! Also, assume anyone in front of you is liable to make a sharp right at any time. Stay out of the blind spot, don't ride directly parallel to cars, and avoid the dooring zone at all costs. Better to take up the whole lane and get yelled at then hug the margin! When you're at a stop sign or stop light, edge forward until you're in front of the car next to you... tall trucks often don't see you otherwise, and cars on the opposite side of the street will lose you in the visual cacaphony unless you're notable.

You want 70% back brake, 30% front brake squeeze.
posted by fritillary at 1:46 AM on November 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Are there other things I can do/wear to mitigate my risk?

Gloves. The one time I've come off (and it was my own fault, I braked too hard too late) I went over the handlebars and landed on my hands. My hands came away completely unscathed thanks to my gloves (which were ripped badly).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:54 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Occasionally commuting by bike for the last 15 years or so; zero incidents (well, except that one time I tried to ride home from a drunken party - do not recommend). I do generally skip riding in bad weather (rain and snow and ice make everything slippery, although a little rain just means I'm going slower than usual) and always pay attention to the traffic around me (vehicles and other bikes and pedestrians). But I'm doing this in Europe, in a city with at least some bike infrastructure, so YMMV.

Avoid car doors, don't ride stupid fast, don't death-grip the front brake, don't run red lights, avoid oil and sand and any obstacles on the road, don't hang anything on the handlebars (bags can get caught in the spokes of your front wheel and the effect is like going full speed into a brick wall).

Also, I never jump curbs; instead I stop and get off the bike and push it over the curb. Do what you're comfortable with.
posted by gakiko at 2:11 AM on November 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

I have used bicycles as my primary form of transport all my life, first in nz as a kid, then in cycle friendly parts of Europe, and for the last 15 years in cycle-unfriendly cities in Australia. I have fallen off two or three times as an adult and never had worse then scrapes and bruises. Twice because I got hit by slow cars pulling out of driveways without looking and once because I was drunk in a dark park and hit a tree. I also once got hit by someone throwing a can from a car, once by a hubcap and once I got assaulted by a motorist. Still only bruises from those incidents though.
posted by lollusc at 2:12 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wear sensible shoes to grip the pedals, and make sure your pedals are grippy.
Buy a comfortable helmet, with good straps.
I cant' second gloves enough, they also take a lots of the bumps out (I've still have a non-suspension bike).
Glasses are a good idea to keep bugs, grit out of eyes.

I toured and commuted full-time for 3 years in early 90's. Only crashed when I was going really fast or trying things that you'd never do in traffic. Also got knocked off by a car in Belgium - they failed to stop at a stop sign. Also a bus in Zurich pulled out ignoring me and the first I noticed was that I was getting pushed sideways. Also watch for car doors - try and stay a doors' width out - not always easy.

Just as you would in a car, assume EVERYONE else on the road is an idiot (writing from an NZ perspective where this seems to be true).
posted by unearthed at 2:12 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I commute year round i Denmark and have been doing so for 30+ years.
Nothing broken ever.
I've had spills, sure. Mostly on black ice, which I don't recommend riding on without spiked tyres.
Other than that I can recall one fall about 15 years ago, due to a chain that broke while I was trying to accelerate. That one gave a bit of bruises and small cuts.
I don't recall falling since then. Getting old, probably :-)

As for mitigating the risk, I'd say good awareness + helmet, gloves and grippy pedals as mentioned above.
Also, learn to brake. The advice in the linked article is a bit sports-oriented, but still sound.
You might want to find a safe place (park or empty parking lot) to fool around on your bike to learn it's limits.
posted by Thug at 2:50 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's natural to be nervous when starting cycle commuting and to focus on the risks. But there are risks associated with any form of travel, it's just that the risks of morbidity due to inactivity from sitting in a car every day aren't as dramatic as crashing a bike. So let me encourage you instead — cycling is enjoyable, it's good exercise, it's inexpensive, it's environmentally friendly and socially responsible.

The one piece of advice I would give is to try out different routes in order to find the best one for cycling. As you gain experience with a commuting on a route, it will be clear to you where the dangers arise, and if you can reroute to avoid them then you'll be much happier, even if it takes a bit longer.
posted by cyanistes at 3:08 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Of all the people I know who've had accidents while commuting (and I work in a hippy business in London where bike commuting is actively encouraged), I've never once heard of someone going over the handlebars. To me that sounds like user error, not a common cycling watch-out.

The weirdest accident I ever heard of actually happened to me, and was because my pedal snapped off the crank (really!) during a particularly energetic acceleration. Bike and I separated across the asphalt and everyone was very lovely about picking me up and handing back the snapped pedal. Not sure what they thought I could do with it. Minor bruising and grazes only.

Everyone's advice here about cycling safety is very good and would prevent the kind of accidents I do know people have more commonly - which are generally related to cars or other road-users.
posted by citands at 3:16 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think, as mentioned above, your style of cycling will greatly influence your chances of injury. It's a bit delicate to talk about this, because many (most?) accidents are not the fault of the cyclist, and many accidents could be avoided by better and safer cycling infrastructure. That said, within the parameters of what we've got right now, there are many different ways of cycling to work, and some are higher risk and some less so.

For example, I regularly pass very sedate, very careful commuters that would simply never go fast enough to go over their handlebars. They ride big heavy dutch or hybrid bikes and they settle in, and it must take them an hour to do a three mile commute, but it works. I also pass and am passed by many jittery speedsters, who burst through junctions and make crazy manoeuvres that rely on cars behaving predictably. These people have decided to trade some risk for speed. And there's everything on the spectrum in between.

I have been cycling in Dublin for many years, and have never had an accident or even a fall, really. I am either good or lucky, it's become difficult to tell. Probably both. I go fast on clear open stretches, and slow through junctions and traffic. I stop at red lights. I watch the road surface. I go as fast as I can uphill and as slow as I can bear downhill. This usually averages out to being faster than most of the jittery speedsters, but I feel very safe.
posted by distorte at 3:33 AM on November 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

I'm based in the same area as crocomancer and know at least one person who broke their face/teeth in a bike accident - I think it's as much about the safety/cycling culture of the place where you'd be cycling as it is about your own skills and ability.

I also have significant issues with hypermobility, and cycle commuting is out for me because of the huge range of ways I could injure myself - not just smashing face, but if bike falls the wrong way/someone knocks me/I'm unstable for any reason, any number of bits of me could get twisted wrong in a way that I'm going to regret. My joints are ruined enough (and I'm not even thirty yet) that I don't want to risk more injuries. If I was looking into cycling for strengthening, I'd be doing it in an exercise setting (gym/off-road cycling on a flat, safe surface) rather than also relying on it as a way of getting around, because the potential for injury in a cycle commuting setting near where I live just seems way too high.
posted by terretu at 3:48 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thug's learn to brake link above is worth reading, as it's a bit counter-intuitive/the opposite of what a lot of people recommend.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:49 AM on November 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've gone over the handlebars a bunch! And hurt myself badly! As an adult! However, I didn't break anything.

One time another cyclist who was going very fast hit me, one time I hit the edge of the curb-cut while crossing a street that intersected the greenway and one time I hit a patch of black ice. I've also fallen and hurt myself other times. I bike year-round in a snowy climate.

With the exception of the first one (which was my partly my fault because I swerved unpredictably, although the person behind me should not have been following close and going fast on a narrow, crowded road) those were not particularly my fault, nor were they the result of over-braking.

However, many years I never fall at all. Those accidents were all exceptions over about twenty years of city biking. I would say that every couple of years I have a minor winter fall.

I guess my thought would be that it's not super likely that a careful, slow cyclist on a predictable route would have a serious accident in good weather. I think that going over the bars and breaking your jaw is unlikely, but what happens if you have a lesser accident? How bad will it be?

Would you be biking on a protected path or on very low-traffic streets? Are there a lot of hills? Are there a lot of cyclists where you live? Do you know how to ride a bike? My worry wouldn't be so much that you would go over the bars and have a serious injury but that it is pretty common to have a minor fall every now and again, especially if you are not biking on a bike path. If you think that a minor fall would not be too much of a risk, and you are biking on bike paths or low-traffic streets, it seems like it would be worthwhile to try.

For what it's worth, I don't know anyone who broke their jaw cycling.
posted by Frowner at 4:11 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Along with eye contact with motorists and pedestrians who step out into the road, don't be afraid to use your voice. A loud "HEY!" or "WATCH IT!" can really help especially riding in an urban environment. If you're sharing a path with walkers/joggers/other cyclists, use the proper passing etiquette to avoid any surprises.

If you have a local bike club or cyclist league, they might have outreach programs to help adults get into cycling safely, or possibly a mentor to ride the route of your commute with the first time.

I do a lot of cycling, and know a lot of cyclists, some bicycle couriers and semi-professional racers. The biggest risk factors for accidents I see are road racing or extreme mountain biking, riding home from the bar drunk, and being a man over 55 who is easily distracted by a woman in lycra.
posted by peeedro at 4:38 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Going over your bars means that your bike has come to a sudden stop, either by hitting something or extremes braking. As that link on braking technique demonstrates, the front brake gives you the most stopping power. That's what I use most of the time and I have yet to endo. As far as falls off the bike, it will probably happen, but it doesn't have to be a major-injury-causing event. Scrapes and bruises are much more likely.

Current commuting situation: 16 miles round trip daily, average 4-5 days a week, mostly on roads, on my road bikes on clipless pedals.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:53 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm 45. I'd snap

I'm 72 (today's my birthday) and I've commuted by bike in NYC since my early 20s. Only once did I break anything in all that time (not my face). I'm about to bike from E 7th street to W 75th. It's not a particularly risky thing to do. Time for me to go . . .
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:56 AM on November 10, 2017 [26 favorites]

I've had enough incidents in my life that I think a helmet is worthwhile, but beyond that I think your likelihood of injury depends on if you're riding with traffic or a protected bike lane, your local biking culture, etc.

I will say that in a striking contrast, my mom and a teacher from the local high school each fell off their bikes on the new bike-only path in my hometown (so no cars anywhere). My mom was wearing a helmet and scraped her chin; the teacher was not and has been in ICU for months.

My only serious bike accident was getting doored once in college, and I flipped over backward headfirst into the curb. Helmet did its thing, I was fine.

So I think the risk-reward ratio on wearing a helmet is pretty good.
posted by telepanda at 5:03 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I don't have a citation handy, but, you stand a higher risk of a head injury walking or driving. fwiw.

wait now i'm struggling to remember where i read this - take it with a grain of salt till i can verify.
posted by entropone at 5:12 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another vote here for “you will probably not break your face.”

Your very fear of it is your best defense. You won't likely be engaging in speedy risky cycling behavior, so that reduces your chance of injury dramatically. Ride cautiously, watch out for others, assume drivers don’t see you, and keep a steady casual pace. Watch the road ahead for potholes or other hazards.

I’m not an every day cyclist but have ridden a fair amount, often commuting 5 miles each way to work. I don’t remember ever crashing, except as a kid first learning to ride. I certainly have not crashed as an adult and my face is unbroken.
posted by The Deej at 5:20 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

If practiced riding with clear focus and care, it's a pretty low chance of going over handle bars. The one I knew of was taking a drink down a long hill and chatting away, panicked grabbing the brake too fast. So first just ride, don't think don't play music, don't talk much, be totally aware of the road and what's coming up. Learn defensive skills. That's my personal mantra, just ride. Spend practice time getting a visceral muscle memory of which break hand is front, which is back. The front break fast stop is good to learn but first be total comfortable breaking balanced between wheels and just never get into a fast breaking situation. You'll be fine and it's so worth the minuscule possibility for the joy and benefits of biking.
posted by sammyo at 5:20 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

You're not going to get much valuable information out of a load of anecdotes. A quick google got me this article about cycling in Britain, which is where I live (basically it's definitely dangerous, far more so than driving a car although not quite as dangerous as riding a motorbike. The stat someone quoted about you having higher risk of injury while driving or walking is 100% untrue for the UK, dunno about other places.) I don't know where you are though, and that will change things - as will being in a city versus the country, as will a whole load of other things. The fact that you know many people who've been in serious accidents suggests you may be living in a more risky area, but if you can find actual stats that will be better.

The other factor here, of course, is your own personal skill. I would love to cycle, but I live in London and I have almost nonexistent coordination, so it's not happening. I managed to fall off a bike and take off the top layer of half my face while cycling in rural Germany, surely one of the safest places in the world to cycle. In particular, if your hypermobility affects coordination, proprioception or similar I would be very cautious.
posted by Acheman at 5:34 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also bear in mind there is going to be a strong survivorship bias here - the people who got killed or seriously injured while riding bikes may not be posting answers to AskMeFi questions.
posted by Acheman at 5:35 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

While I'm not disputing the figures given in the BBC article linked to by Acheman, it is quite misleading to compare major injuries to drivers and cyclists per mile, because cars are covering a much greater number of miles in a shorter amount of time. So of course cars seem safer per mile, because they're doing so many more miles. If cyclists were doing all the hours necessary to do car distances (perhaps 6 times their current hours) then it makes sense that they'd have more accidents. But 8 hour commutes by bike is obviously not the reality.

There are papers and articles that make comparisons based on "per hour" rather than "per mile" cycling and driving, and cycling comes out much more favourably than in Acheman's article. As safe or sometimes safer than driving. I don't have a good paper to hand but here's a blog post going into it.

Once you start crunching the statistics it's difficult to find people without a certain bias one way or the other, of course. It's a hot topic.
posted by distorte at 5:48 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I found personally that any risk of falling reduced significantly when I moved from a North American speedy style of bike to a step-through European commuter style bike. You sit lower, move slower, and are less horizontal which means even if you do, say, drive into a ditch once, you fall 1.5 feet as opposed to 3 downwards which is pretty great.
posted by notorious medium at 6:02 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

My experience is the same as distorte's. People have different tolerances for risk in their cycling style. There are people I see cycling around me who clearly have a much higher tolerance for risk and they go really fast on shitty streets with lots of bumps and potholes. My tolerance for risk is extremely low. I cycle just to get from point A to point B without the need to find a parking spot for a car, and I'm cool with going slow, stopping at stop signs (this confuses the hell out of car drivers because the vast, vast majority of cyclists where I live don't), and periodically riding slowly and carefully on the sidewalk to avoid sharing the road with cars on blocks that are especially terrifying, or even getting off and walking my bike. It takes me 20 minutes to go 2 flat miles and that's fine. I've never had any kind of accident or injury. Which isn't to say that some freak thing couldn't happen. People riding slowly and carefully still get hit by cars, no matter what they do. But I'm trying to at least lessen the chances of a single-bike accident featuring my face meeting the asphalt.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:47 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm a long time city biker and I'd echo the above regarding watching out for car doors. My only accident was hiting a car door while biking down a small side street. I have a healthy scar on my neck from the door but had no other injuries.

So, watch for people in parked cars about to open doors. If you're on a busy street and someone opens a door on you, throw your weight into the car and not towards the street. I believe that when biking in a major city car doors rather than handlebar accidents are more dangerous to cyclists.

It's not super likely though! I still bike 200 days a year and love it:)
posted by eisforcool at 6:57 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

If I were going to mitigate risk on a short ride:

1. Good bike lights for any low-light commute including dawn/dusk.

2. Get your bike properly fitted and try a bunch of them when you buy. Go to a real bike shop, maybe several. Don't rush.

3. Take a bike maintenance workshop (or view a video online). You don't need to be able to do major repairs, but you should be able to spot bent spokes, keep your tires full to the correct pressure, notice when your brake pads are getting worn and keep your chain lubed.

4. Pay for the best tires - flats are a drag, and they have really good anti-flat tires now.

5. Get helmets that you like. Helmets are controversial, the research is equivocal, I don't always wear one myself for short rides on bike paths, but they are good to have. If you have ones that are comfortable and that you don't find hideous, you are more likely to wear them.

6. Think about what you'll wear on your bike. I bike my short commute in my work clothes, but then I work where I can dress fairly casually, so I just bike in stretchy chinos, a button-down and boots or sneakers. Also think about how your coat and bag will work. As people are saying upthread, a commuter/step-through bike is a good pick because you can more easily wear skirts or longer coats.

7. Plan your route - you probably already have. Three miles on a bike path or side streets will dramatically reduce many city cycling risks like dooring.

8. Also, have you spent much time on a bike? I don't know how hypermobility works on the day to day, but I (a non-hyper-mobile person but sort of average clumsy) have occasionally gotten my feet sort of tangled and had a wobble or a ridiculous slow-motion fall. Maybe try out biking on a path or side street a bit to see how your body handles regular cycling?

It seems to me that slower cycling on paths and side streets is actually very safe if you're paying attention. As long as your health won't be ruined by something like a minor fall or semi-fall, it seems like you could do this safely.
posted by Frowner at 7:09 AM on November 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Re: working brakes, too: Get used to 'feathering' your brakes, rather than slamming on them. A lot of inexperienced cyclists tend to slam on the brakes, especially when they're not used to the speed they're going and such, and that often can result in a fumble which can result in a flip. Just take it slow and go at your own pace, and get used to observing everything around you.

And as others are saying, it's really, really dependent on where you live. For instance, I am a very experienced cyclists and even I am sheepish about many places to ride in NYC.
posted by knownassociate at 7:10 AM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I rode my bike constantly from ages 16 to 37 as a commuter and generally for transportation. I was the kind of biker that car drivers complain about though I will maintain that it was for my own safety - I ran lights when I could, I didn't slow down when I didn't have to. I didn't ride on the sidewalk except in places where I really had no choice. I rode in Minneapolis, Boston, a small LA suburb, Columbus OH, NYC, and Portland, Maine. I never went over the handlebars. In that entire time, here are the accidents I had: I had a car stop suddenly in front of me in the middle of a turn; I had someone in a car open a door right in front of me; I had a pedestrian step into me (fortunately I was going slowly and we were both fine); and during a rainstorm I had a minor encounter with another cyclist after which I had to replace my fork. The only reason I'm not out riding my bike right now is because I developed rheumatoid arthritis at 37 and haven't been able to ride since.

Get a helmet and get out there.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:32 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've cycled in Holland since I was 5 or 6 (cities and countryside - always on cycle paths because they're everywhere), in Toronto for 7 years (but not in snow), and in the UK (three years daily in Cambridge, and occasionally in London for the last four years). In this time I have fallen maybe three times. Once when I was about 12, going too fast down a hill and probably showing off some kind of trick. I flew over the steering wheel and scraped my elbow. Twice on icy roads in Cambridge. Both times I fell sideways and just got a bruise and some scraped palms from breaking my fall. I have never hit my head and don't really understand how that happens to people. Don't you instinctively use your arms to break your fall?

Like soren_lorensen, I generally cycle carefully. I would rather step off my bike at a scary intersection and walk it across two pedestrian crossings than to do that thing where you're frantically pedaling all the way across to make a big turn (e.g. turning right in the UK, turning left in the US) with impatient cars in every direction.
posted by easternblot at 7:47 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I bike commute. Went over the handlebars once when the front wheel got stuck in trolley tracks. So my advice is to avoid trolley tracks, or more generally road hazards like potholes or gravel where your bike may skid. Yes to "feathering" the brakes as well. You go over handlebars when your 10 mph forward momentum plunges to 0. Anything you can do to avoid that, will keep you upright.

Does your area offer urban bike safety classes? Those can be really great for boosting confidence and teaching you defensive riding skills. (I think they should be required for drivers, too, because my perspective as a driver has definitely changed since I became a regular bike rider.)
posted by basalganglia at 8:13 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm in my late thirties, not very physically coordinated, and bike at least 45 miles a week. The only time I've ever gone over my handlebars was about fifteen years ago, during my first week of biking after several years without, on an unfamiliar and not-especially-well-maintained used bike. No cars anywhere around, I just braked way too hard with my front brake and didn't shift my weight back at all. No injury beyond a knee scrape. I rode back home to clean it off, and took it as a good lesson to brake properly in the future.

The other kind of cycling accident that's likely to cause you to endo (end-over!) is having your wheel slip or get caught on train tracks. It's also an easy one to avoid: never ride across train tracks at an acute angle, always go perpendicular. Same applies with similar things like drainage grates or gaps in the pavement, or rutted dirt. (Don't ride too close to the curb. You've got nowhere to maneuver if you encounter problems like this.)

Another way single-bike crashes can happen: inadvertently running your bike off the edge of pavement onto dirt or grass (or the other way around). Not such a problem if your bike infrastructure's better-designed or maintained, but if it's not, that can happen when you're not paying attention. Ways to deal with that: pay attention! Use lights when it's dim (so you can see the edge of the pavement.) And if you go off the pavement, don't try to get right back on the same way, just maintain a straight line and slow to a stop.

And probably not something you're going to dive into immediately, but if it's icy out, slips and falls are a lot more likely. You can put studded tires (with actual studs, not just big treads) on your bicycle and that'll help a lot with avoiding slips. Also, you're a lot more likely to slip when turning, so when in doubt, maintain a straight line. The great news about ice slips is that usually you're really well padded with clothes since it's cold out, so the bruises aren't bad (injuries to your pride are a different matter.)

And yes to bike safety classes. It's really not very dangerous even if you're not coordinated, since if that applies to you, you know it, and cycle accordingly. I pick up more bruises in any given week (yes, I pretty much always have bruises somewhere) running into doorways and tables than from anything to do with biking everywhere, because I'm generally fairly slow and careful. (Though not three miles an hour careful, it's hard to stay upright below six.)
posted by asperity at 8:41 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Acheman, you get some kind of extra points for your comment about survivorship bias. It made me laugh! Very true.
posted by greermahoney at 8:57 AM on November 10, 2017

Ok, based on all this info, I think I need to take a class and see how safe I feel. I biked as a kid, but it's been over 30 years. My area gets no snow or ice, so that's in my favor. About a mile of the commute has a bike path, so I'd only be on the road with cars for about 2 miles. And I think I can find a decent route for those 2 miles. Thanks everyone, for the thoughtful responses. You're all just the best!!
posted by greermahoney at 9:02 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Look ahead for road hazards. The only time I've really hurt myself biking was sliding out in a patch of gravel. And if you do find yourself in the middle of something sketchy, like gravel or wet leaves, or you run off the road, it's probably best to hang on and roll straight through it. You can roll over lots of stuff but turning or braking quickly is where you'll lose traction and go down.

Finding a nice route is key. Even if it's longer it can be worth it. An extra 10 minutes of relaxing riding a day is much nicer than riding a white-knuckle shortcut.
posted by ghharr at 9:18 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

You could get hurt in a car or walking too. The joy and health benefits of riding to work every day make it worth the risk for me. I just want to encourage you to give it a shot.
posted by cccorlew at 10:00 AM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Your stance and weight distribution on your bike will make a difference in going over the bars. Are you long waisted and/or top heavy? Get a bike that fits. Front shocks will sometimes dive under braking, lowering the front of the bike. I leave a little more pull length on the front brake than the back to stop me from locking up the front so quickly.

I wear a helmet and gloves.
posted by bongo_x at 12:20 PM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Two bicycle accidents in my family. I was doored in a city where the bike lane runs alongside parked cars. No hitting the brakes in my situation - I flew over the door and slammed my jaw into my collarbone on impact. Both were broken and I'm very lucky I didn't break any teeth. Took me weeks to recover, and I was under 30.

My hubby recently went riding after a couple of rainy days and rode through what he thought was a puddle on a quiet road. It was actually a huge trench full of water, his front wheel fell in, he flew head over heels and landed on his face. Not a scratch on his helmet. He also had a pretty severe concussion that took a week to recover from enough to go back to work. He still has no memory of that day, and it is fortunate he was with his bike club, because it was they who called an ambulance. He was unconscious and bleeding. He still rides, but not alone and not after a heavy rain.

So please be aware that there are possible hazards in all situations, and it's best to be cautious and keep a close eye on your surroundings. Wear a helmet and appropriate reflective clothing. Use a bike light. Don't ride against traffic or on a sidewalk where pedestrians walk. Don't assume standing water is a benign puddle. Also best not to ride alone in remote areas in case you do have trouble.
posted by citygirl at 12:23 PM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

It appears you've heard some some unrepresentative anecdotes.

I've been constantly cycling for thirty years and never had accidents like you described. My first year I did have some stuff like slipping on sand, etc. You learn instinctively how to manage your body weight, but there's advice out there that can speed up the process. For instance, I went through a phase of reading all the bicycling magazines when I first started out. Here are a few things off the top of my head:

Relax your upper body, which usually amounts to dropping your shoulders, bending your elbows (don't lock them), using a not-too-firm handgrip, and unhunching your back.

Don't brake on curves, do it before.

Let off the brakes momentarily as you go over a bump. And remove weight from the saddle.

Going around curves: outside pedal down, with all your body weight on it and not the saddle, inside knee leaning out. And relax your upper body. Thank you Velo News!

When looking behind you, watch out for a tendency to turn the bike the same way your head is turned.

A whole bunch of others: downshift before stopping at a light, slipping on sand and wet metal plates but rarely oil, doors opening (only once in my life, just brushed against it. It was a cop car.) etc, etc. Google braking.

There have been times when I stayed off the bike for a couple weeks, and got a few heebie-jeebies when I got back on again, but they were gone the next day. Of course it takes longer when you're starting out, but eventually you'll wonder what you were worried about.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 1:00 PM on November 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

This is really about just not getting out over your skis. You'll probably learn very quickly and intuitively how to control the interaction between momentum and balance.

Other advice - sidewalk riding may seem more comforting at times but it is, almost without exception, more likely to lead to collisions and other problems. You didn't say this is what happened to your friends, but it definitely explains the few times I've gone over my handlebars.
posted by kensington314 at 2:57 PM on November 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've biked to work a lot over the years - I always take very mellow routes with bike lanes or limited traffic. Also I ride like an old lady - faster than walking, but not much. 3 miles going at a slow and relaxing pace is less likely to get your face broken.
posted by Toddles at 5:10 PM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a workout, I rode 2-3 times a week @ 20-30 miles at a time. Never injured, but 90% of my riding was on an extensive network of bike paths physically separate from roads.

Two bits of advice. First is never let your bike arrive somewhere your mind didn't get to at least 5 seconds earlier.

Several have mentioned braking so hard you lock up the front wheel. Prevent that by riding with 1 finger on the front brake lever - or 1 less than the number of fingers it takes to lock up the front wheel. Yes, the number of fingers to use is a judgement call, because you don't want to lock up the front wheel while experimenting how not to lock up the front wheel. Obviously, during a panic stop you will, voluntarily or involuntarily, add more fingers to apply more pressure in non-panic mode.
posted by Homer42 at 6:14 PM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

For what anecdata is worth, I went flying over my handlebars, back when I would not have known what "bike helmet" meant, and, while admittedly on grass rather than pavement, it was not a big deal at all -- I was a bit bruised and grass-stained, but nothing major; I hopped back on and continued on. I also cracked a molar in two going down some outdoor stairs on a BMX (I was of course very cool), but amazingly this happened without the slightest bit of damage to my face. You can have some gnarly-sounding accidents that don't actually mean much...

Please make yourself VERY visible. I have nothing to back this up, but, suspect, with all else being equal, loads of lights and reflectors and bright clothing offers more safety than helmets. The dark bike/dark clothes people are suicidal; the reflective jacket/LEDs everywhere/etc people are just so, so hard to miss.
posted by kmennie at 6:49 PM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

assume EVERYONE else on the road is an idiot

... and behave appropriately. Yeah, be visible, but don't be a target. Don't assume drivers can see you; stay out of their way in dodgy situations. Don't hog the middle of the lane except when waiting at traffic lights, and after you get through the intersection, get back over to the road's edge where you belong.

As for the injuries, I ride in traffic almost everyday and I've been a regular bicycle commuter; even went five years in my late 20s without owning a car. I'm an Old now, and I've been cycling since the 1960s -- and I've NEVER gone over the front handlebars. I thought the reason this happened most often was front tires getting pinched in a sewer-grate. (And maybe wearing toe-clips also prevents this?) But of course I've had numerous spills, been nudged over by a car, and hit once by a motorcycle, etc. The most common injuries are bruises, on the hips and shoulders, and scraped palms. Since the ONLY time I've had an injury to my head (face, actually) was when I was going way to fast, count me among the riders who don't wear helmets.

More reasons why you don't need a helmet.
posted by Rash at 7:36 PM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I live in Toronto, a mediocre biking city where many people bike- it's flat enough, but the bike lanes aren't great, cars will door you or cut you off, and the roads can be slippery.

My acquaintances- out of say 3000 people I know- have had the following city biking injuries, in decreasing order of severity:

2 deaths
4 concussions that left lasting cognitive disabilities that were still evident a year later
1 broken pelvis
1 ruined right hand (severed tendons that left a hand that can't grip any more)
1 broken jaw
2 broken collarbones
3 mouths with the front teeth knocked out
1 broken wrist
A bunch of whiplashes and backaches
millions of minor injuries

.... so.... I don't bike in my city. It honestly just seems like a death sentence to me.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:24 PM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I know people who have suffered facial injuries due to the front wheel FALLING OFF while going over a bump. I don't know if the quick-releases were loosened accidentally or maliciously, but it's safer (if less convenient) to not have one, provided you check the nuts don't loosen themselves as well!
posted by rocketbadger at 12:05 AM on November 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

In terms of bike safety:

I think a missing piece of research is the disaggregation of when and where accidents happen. Several people in my extended social circle have died in bike accidents, but one was hit by a drunk driver (which can happen to pedestrians or drivers) while biking late at night on a very busy street with no lights and one was doing something very, very dangerous while drunk.

Of my own serious accidents, none have happened while I was undistracted on a bike path or side street in good weather.

My point isn't that bad accidents only happen to bad people, because my most dramatic accident happened through a chain of minor errors on my part and the other cyclist's part and would have been hard to prevent, but rather that I think it is very possible to dramatically reduce risk in city cycling in most situations.

Going slowly instead of racing along like you're at the velodrome, picking your route, paying attention to conditions, being extra cautious in dim light (and having lights/reflectors), not surprising cars by darting out into traffic, being careful where you cross driveways and so on - in a city with decent bike infrastructure or a good network of side streets, these things will keep you much, much safer.

I have found the advice on Bicycle Safe very useful. Note that this person advocates biking in the lane rather than to the far right (where there is no bike lane, that is). I sometimes do this but usually judge my conditions. This person is very cautious about dealing with cars turning right. I have had no real trouble with this, but my solution is different than this person's - I pull right up to the very front, slightly ahead of the car. I also never cross until I'm sure what the car is doing.

This, from the website, is my guiding principle:

It's often helpful to ride in such a way that motorists won't hit you even if they don't see you. You're not trying to be invisible, you're trying to make it irrelevant whether cars see you or not. If you ride in such a way that a car has to see you to take action to avoid hitting you (e.g., by their slowing down or changing lanes), then that means they will definitely hit you if they don't see you. But if you stay out of their way, then you won't get hit even if they didn't notice you were there.

In my opinion, in a city with moderate cycling infrastructure, it is possible to almost eliminate car risk through your behavior and route choice, and through biking slowly and carefully, to almost eliminate sport risk, ie the kind of risk you take in any fast-moving sport like skiing or skating.

Many of us choose to take some risk - I bike a few blocks on a really crappy busy street every day rather than get up fifteen minutes earlier and take a longer, safer route - but most of us could virtually zero out our risk if we really, really wanted to.
posted by Frowner at 5:17 AM on November 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

All I can do is tell you what I do to make myself safe - I commute on a bike year round in Portland about 5.5 miles each way.

I invest a lot in bike safety - high vis riding gear, the best helmet I can afford, great bike lights. I ride within my ability, signal clearly, and still act like people won't see me.

The biggest hazard to a cyclist is a distracted rider or driver. You can control a lot about this by being aware of your surroundings and riding safely. Most of this is practice though, so the best way to get a handle on it is to practice riding, in daylight, along the route you'll be taking during times where there is minimal traffic - early mornings/weekends.

Facial injuries are incredibly rare, it's very rare to dump over your handlebars . You control most of this by braking and proper use of the rear brake, so again it's mostly just practice.

You can totally do this, I find it makes a huge difference in my personal mental health - it won't always be easy and you'll need to persevere a bit but making bike commuting a habit is one of the best decisions I ever made.
posted by iamabot at 10:54 AM on November 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Have you considered a recumbent trike?
posted by oceano at 2:05 PM on November 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oceano, I love that he gives his new beard as a possible reason for motorist respect.
posted by greermahoney at 3:34 PM on November 11, 2017

You want 70% back brake, 30% front brake squeeze.

This thread may be dead by now, but this is NOT TRUE. Read that guide to braking Thug posted above, or any other racing/cycling guide that gets that granular. Your front brake is by far the most important. Many fixed gear cyclists, self included, only ride with the front brake. Learn how to moderate your speed as much as possible without relying on it, and you'll be a much stronger cyclist.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:25 AM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

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