Rocket Science and Bicycle Facilities

One of my friends likes to say “Advocacy for cycling isn’t like rocket science. It’s much harder.” (Reason: if the rocket blows up, everyone knows they screwed up. When a cyclist gets killed because of a bad facility, the designer of the facility has a folk-singing group to defend him, and assails the character of anyone who tries to do a failure analysis of what caused the death.)

There is a lot of truth in his statement. Following the
Columbia Space Shuttle
tragedy in 2003, NASA did a lot of sole searching over their policies. The former chief of safety and mission assurance wrote: “… what we had believed at the time to be rational risk management looked in retrospect more like rationalization of inconvenient warnings.” Potentially serious problems had been dismissed as “in family” because they had not yet caused a Shuttle crash.

There were many heated discussions between those who wanted to banish any “long poles in the tent” (i.e. anything that held-up return to flight) and others who wanted to effectively deal with the safety problems. NASA eventually found a workable balance between safety and schedule. Return to Flight occurred 29 months after the accident.

I was involved in some of the “Return to Flight” activities involving the mechanical actuators (gears and bearings) that operate flight controls for the rudder-speedbrake and body flap systems. We found badly worn and pitted gears, red (rusty) grease and a couple damaged bearings. We performed analyses and testing to show that the original design was reasonably robust to these faults and to establish conservative inspection and maintenance intervals. Much additional work was done by other teams to control the debris damage problem that doomed Columbia and to address other issues.

Rationalizing inconvenient warnings is almost universal among bicycle facilities advocates. Indeed, when safety problems are mentioned, they try to change he subject “But if we don’t install bike lanes, no-one will ride.” If that doesn’t silence criticism, they try to suppress the critics ability to give warnings.

Bicycle facilities advocates discourage education that teaches cyclists to assertively look after their own safety. Education is dismissed as “elitism” or as “fighting cars”. Wrong! — Anyone who thinks (s)he has to fight cars badly misunderstands assertive safety techniques. The photo at right shows assertive safety — the cyclist is passing the bus with generous clearance.

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