Figuring out what safety means

Despite my best efforts, my daughter survives another weekend unscathed

A while ago we were riding around with the kids on the weekend, on the way home from a party with friends. One street was closed to cars for a block party, and we swung in to check it out. The kids were hoping for a bouncy house, no luck. But we did see a friend of my son’s from preschool and stopped to talk with his parents. When we last saw them they were miserable about their school lottery placement, but as often happens, they were able to transfer to a school they preferred mid-year, and they were feeling good.

A neighbor of theirs walked up to me, looked at my daughter in her child seat, and said, “My god, that’s totally unsafe!”

I looked over at his two sons, who had just begun whizzing wildly around on scooters, jumping sidewalks and nearly topping toddlers, all without the benefit of helmets, elbow pads, or knee pads. He looked over at them too.

“Ha ha,” he said after a moment. “I was just kidding.”

“Of course you were,” I replied.

There is reasonable evidence that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks (de Hartog et al 2010, Environmental Health Perspectives—open access), at least for the person doing the pedaling. The question of whether it’s safer for children isn’t directly addressed in that paper. But we know enough people who have had car accidents in which their children were hurt or killed that I no longer feel that cars are necessarily safe.

A practical city car, unless you have kids

I didn’t always feel this way. We have a minivan because when our son was born, continuing to drive him in our 2-door Honda Civic no longer seemed appropriate. Our struggles to get him into and out of the car seat were incredibly frustrating. At the time, we were living in the suburbs and always sharing the road with massive SUVs.  After my maternity leave ended, we had stumbled into a situation we’d never faced before: both of us were commuting by car. It was in many ways a difficult time for us. Although it ended well, with a move to San Francisco less than a year later, at which point we sold the Civic, the legacy of that period remains with us in the form of our minivan.

Just barely fits in our parking space

We bought a minivan when we wanted a new car because it was touted as a safe car for children. It was built from 2.2 tons of steel and had side curtain air bags. It felt like the right size in the suburbs; it was, in fact, a medium-sized car in that area. And it was much easier to get a car seat in a minivan than anything else on the road. But it is a wildly inappropriate car in the city; as one example, just to get it in our garage space, we have to flip in the side mirrors. And in this environment I no longer feel it is safe; the constant dings and scratches we pick up in parking garages and on sharp turns makes driving it feel like wearing a sombrero in a crowded bar.

Technically a Prius is a compact car

I would consider getting rid of a car entirely and seeing how relying on City Carshare worked out for us. Matt thinks this is insane. We do agree that it would make sense, in principle, to trade the minivan for something else. My inclination would be something cheap and small and used, one of the many style-free little cars one can buy for thousands less than the residual value of the minivan. This would lower the financial hit if wanted to put electric assists on our bicycles, which are now our primary means of transportation. Matt’s preference is a 2012 Prius, the plug-in hybrid version. There is no way that I would be willing to buy any new car now that I know what happens to cars in the city. Admittedly I’ve never been a fan of buying new cars anyway. And university housing is unlikely to agree to install a charging station no matter what we might want. Matt likes the idea of driving a Prius, particularly the low gas costs given how much he travels for business (these costs are reimbursed, but it takes a while, and that’s annoying on principle alone). Such a car would, it’s true, fit easily into our parking space. As we’re unable to agree, we continue to drag out the minivan when we want a car. It’s not a fuel efficient vehicle and although we now typically fill it up less than once a month, gas is expensive. But at least it’s paid for.

But the point: I no longer feel it is a safe vehicle. I’m not sure when this happened. But when I recently heard a colleague say she doesn’t feel safe driving with her kids in their small car, and will only put them in the minivan, my first reaction was disbelief. She lives in a very different situation and her kids spend a lot of time on the freeway, so upon reflection I realized why we felt so differently. I would have felt the same way a few years ago. But my worries about my kids now involve things like Nature Deficit Disorder. That’s why I send my son to nature camp on school holidays.

When I arrived at the library at 8am the bike racks were almost full (but those U-locks without bicycles are not reassuring)

As I’ve begun riding my bicycle more, I’ve noticed that my attitude toward driving has changed as well. I think on bicycle time and I almost never travel in rush-hour traffic, so I’m never in a hurry. By default I yield to almost everyone on the road, whether pedestrian, bicycle, or cross-traffic. Occasionally I get honked at for being unwilling to mow down some poor soul in a wheelchair who’s crossing at the crosswalk, but I can live with that. I often get appreciative waves from cyclists, which is nice, and reminds me I should do that more often when I’m on the bike myself. I don’t listen to music and neither of us let the kids yell in the back anymore. This is probably how we should have been driving all along. Despite all of this, I now feel that our car is often an unsafe (if sometimes necessary) way to travel. The shift in perspective is unnerving, but it also feels right.


Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

4 responses to “Figuring out what safety means

  1. sho

    don’t worry about U-locks w/o bikes– many of us leave them at our final destination b/c they’re so big and heavy.

  2. mizshan

    If you decide to keep a motor vehicle in the famlly, here’s one vote for the Honda Fit. Yes, it’s probably just what you think of as one of those style-free little cars: it looks like a shrunken minivan. But when our own 2 door Civic failed its smog test last year, we went five months car-free while serially test driving old Subarus that our mechanic then told us were all lemons. Nature deficit disorder started to set in (we love to hike, and taking our 20 month old to trailheads via bike and City Car Share wasn’t happening enough). We’re glad we upped our budget enough to get a 2007 Fit on craigslist. Good luck!

    • I am a big fan of style-free little cars as cars go, and the Fit is actually one of the cars I’ve been considering. Pretty much any econo-box whose name you can say while sneezing is on my short list (Fit! Versa! Yaris! Accent!) as they’re all small, reliable, and relatively inexpensive. It’s great to hear that it’s working for another biking family. Thanks for the information!

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