Monday, May 13, 2013

Chicago Tribune Column: The Brutal Law Of Physics and Biology and Bike Accidents

On May 13, 2013, the Chicago Tribune published an interesting article by columnist Barbara Brotman, entitled "Chicago bike accident highlights the oft-brutal laws of physics, biology."  In the article, Ms. Brotman examines the lesser-analyzed laws at play in bicycle collisions--those of physics, biology, and probability--as the Chicago City Council considers Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposed changes to the City's traffic laws affecting bicyclists.

With respect to the laws of physics, Ms. Brotman analyzed the concepts of force and friction. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign physics professor, Mats Selen explained that the force experienced by a bicyclist in a collision depends upon the bicyclist's speed at the time of impact, the bicyclist's weight, and the speed with which a bicyclist comes to a stop. Ms. Brotman explained that a bicycle helmet reduces the force experienced during an impact because it spreads the force over a larger area and minimally lengthens the amount of time it takes for the head to come to a stop.

Friction comes into play in a bicycle collision in the form of "road rash," or the scraping bicyclists endure when they are propelled across the pavement. As one would expect, the faster the body is moving at the time of the collision, the more road rash the body will endure as it comes to a stop.

The laws of biology also come into play in a bicycle collision as the body experiences injuries and attempts to heal itself. Ms. Brotman conferred with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine assistant professor, Dr. Rahul Khare who explained that head injuries are among the most dangerous injuries experienced by bicyclists because the brain cannot swell beyond the confines of the skull if it bleeds following an impact. This biological limitation can be fatal. The bicycle accident attorneys at Keating Law Offices have seen first hand the number of head-related injuries that occur in a bicycle accident, even in those where the rider is equipped with a helmet. 

Finally, Ms. Brotman examined the laws of probability, exploring whether the odds of being in a bicycle collision increase the more one rides a bicycle. Dr. Gregory Lawler, a mathematics and statistics professor  at the University of Chicago explained in the article that the answer is not clear. On the one hand, the more you do something, the more likely it is that something bad will happen while you do it. Conversely, the more you do something, the better you get at it, which may translate into a better ability to avoid a bad outcome.

Ms. Brotman's article provides an interesting perspective on the other laws at play in a bicycle collision beyond the traffic laws that are the current focus of the City Council. While the City Council can adopt laws aimed at lowering the number of bicycle collisions, such laws cannot eliminate bicycle accidents altogether and cannot eliminate the harm that inevitably follows a collision.

To avoid a bicycle accident or the serious injuries that follow, the Illinois Bicycle Attorneys at Keating Law Offices strongly encourage all Chicago area bicyclists to take numerous safety measures, such as keeping a diligent lookout, obeying all traffic laws, and wearing a bicycle helmet. And perhaps most importantly, we urge all motorists to LOOK for bicyclists before opening car doors into traffic, turning right across a marked bike lane, and other actions where a bicyclist might be most vulnerable. In addition, state and local governments should continue to invest in infrastructure that makes bicycling easier and safer. All of these actions lead to a reduction in the number of bicycle collisions and the forces at play. 

If you have any questions regarding this post please contact Illinois Bicycle Attorney Mike Keating at 312-208-7702 or