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  • Posted Oct 1, 2001

Common sense says that riding your bike after you've had a few drinks is not a good idea.

A study in last week's Journal of the American Medical Association confirms it–even one drink dilutes the skills and judgment needed for safe cycling. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore studied 124 Maryland bicyclists who were in serious accidents and found that one third of those fatally injured had elevated blood alcohol levels. Just one drink, they calculated, multiplied the risk of serious injury or death six times, and four or five drinks multiplied it 20 times.

But common sense is not the watchword for many cyclists. Each year in this country, more than 500,000 people are treated in emergency rooms and 20,000 are admitted to hospitals for bicycle-related injuries. And while helmets and parental supervision have helped lower the death rate for riders under age 16 by 70 percent since 1975, the adult death rate has risen by 60 percent. Ridership has more than doubled in the last 20 years, but alcohol, reckless riding, and poor safety gear also contribute.

No amount of caution will eliminate all cycling accidents. "If you ride long enough, you will eventually crash," says Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute in Arlington, Va. "All it takes is a pothole, some loose gravel, or someone's dog running under your wheel." Accidents like these generally result in scrapes and bruises. Roughly 800 bikers die each year on the roads, however, usually when they tangle with cars.

Swart and others say that riders can minimize the risks–but many don't bother. Studies show that riders wearing helmets are 85 percent less likely to incur a head injury than riders without them, yet only 38 percent of adult cyclists wear one regularly, according to BHSI. But Swart cautions that helmets won't guarantee safety. "Avoiding the crash in the first place is a lot more preventative than wearing a helmet."

Get attention. Michael Klasmeier, program director for the League of American Bicyclists, says it's safer to stay on the road than to dart across intersections from the sidewalk. "Cars can see you better and can anticipate your actions," he explains. Keep 4 feet away from parked cars, he says, so you don't "eat the door" if it suddenly opens. And signal before you turn or change lanes. "It's all about communicating with drivers and being assertive," he says. "If you act skittish, the drivers become unsure of what you are going to do."

Night riding is especially dangerous because you're harder to see. About 56 percent of bike fatalities occur between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. Klasmeier says night cyclists should wear bright, neon-colored clothes and use lights. "You should have a white front light and a red or amber taillight," he says. "And there's nothing wrong with strapping some lights or reflective tape to your clothes." But if happy hour is your destination, the best bet is to leave the bike at home.

By Stacey Schultz www.usanews.com

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