Your Biased Brain and the Real Risk of Not Riding Your Bike

Wouldn’t you think that if some smart folks had solved a problem more than 300 years ago, that the problem would have gone away?

In the 1650s a gambler asked his smart guy friend, Blaise Pascal for help with gambling. Pascal was intrigued, and struck up a correspondence with another smart guy Pierre de Fermat — and probability theory was born.

Probability theory pretty much determines what is a good bet, and what is a longshot; the mathematical difference between a low risk and you’ve got to be stupid.

Yet 300-and-something years later, suckers are still playing Live Keno in casinos, and people still believe that bicycling is dangerous.

There seems to be no hope for a vaccine for cognitive biases — those irrational mental holdovers that make us human no matter how Vulcan-like we aspire to be.

In his presentation at the National Bike Summit — just a day after the Women’s Bicycling Forum — Tom Bowden explored the futility of mansplaining away the safety concerns many people have about cycling.


If, after that, you still believe it’s possible to cure cyclophobia with reason, here is Bowden’s law. Knock yourself out.

Bowden's Law
It’s hard to argue with that.

Source materials referenced by Bowden in his presentation:

This presentation was already put online by The League of American Bicyclists, but without the slides. The League’s video is used with their permission. This is just my remix including the slides and the video I shot simultaneously.

My participation in this years’ National Bike Summit was made possible by these sponsors.

Bike Shop Hub Flagstaff Biking Organization Bike Virginia

Sign up for our Adventure-Packed Newsletter

Get our latest touring, commuting and family cycling posts and sales delivered to your inbox!
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

10 thoughts on “Your Biased Brain and the Real Risk of Not Riding Your Bike”

  1. Dan says:

    Nice talk. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Mike says:

    Another red herring! Cycling isn’t cool. Full stop. People who ride are eccentric and different. Until it becomes more socially acceptable, riding wont be seen as “normal”.

    Look at smoking. Everyone knew it was bad for you. Even the slow moving federal govt FINALLY came out and said so in the 1960s. Didn’t matter at all. Not until it became socially unacceptable did the rates of smoking drop.

    Look at the pockets of smokers that persist. They are social groups. Cancer never enters their minds.

    I’d be interested to see some deeper analysis of bicycle commuters. My hunch is that they are mostly independent thinkers. Atheists and agnostics, independent politics, marriages outside their normal social groups…..

  3. Matt says:

    Interesting reply, Mike. At the very least, removing the excuse of “but cycling is DANGEROUS!” gives people who think cyclists are weird one less way to explain their behavior with anything but the truth.

  4. Alan says:

    Interesting assumptions by Mike above. Does he realize his categorization of commuters as counter-culture is influenced by the same prejudices he denounces? Hmm.

    I am as conservative as they come. Engineer. Graduate degree. Federal employee. Republican. Gun enthusiast.

    I ride my bike to work, when I can, not to prove anything. I do it because it’s fun, costs less than driving, and gives me a workout and much-needed stress relief.

    I have to go to work. I like to ride bikes. I just realized I could combine the two.

  5. Ted Johnson says:

    The funny thing is that Tom’s presentation came shortly after a talk from a spokeswoman for AAA. Her talk was about the partnership with the League, but she couldn’t stop talking about safety, safety, safety.

    I don’t know if she stayed for Tom’s talk.

    Tom: The one point you make that I question each time I watch this (and since I edited this together, I’ve watched it a bunch of times) is when you say, “People in America have a 15-times greater likelihood of dying in a car crash than in a bike crash.” (At about the 3-minute mark.)

    Is that weighed by hours of exposure, or is that based on absolute numbers? If it’s weighted, that’s a pretty impressive number. If it’s absolute, it’s a pretty scary number for cyclists.

  6. Tom Bowden says:

    Ted – simple answer to your question is I don’t know, but I will try to look it up and report back.

  7. I watched Tom’s talk, and I loved it! Thank you so much for posting the reference links. Tom’s talk, and the one that followed it, gave me a lot to think about.

  8. Even though I was made disabled, and put into a coma, after being hit by a pick up truck, while cycling, I’m still an avid cyclist.

    I normally ride with my walker strapped to the rear of my trike.

    By doing so, I hope that I show people how positively powerful the influence of something simple, like a bike, can have on your life.

  9. Fred Richard says:

    I loved this talk when I first saw it on YouTube and immediately wanted to see the slides. I asked the LAB for the slides with no response, couldn’t find an e-mail address for Tom, and so it went. Thanks so much commutebybike for putting it all together, providing the references, etc.! This is wonderfully informative and humorous. Great job Tom!

  10. Tom Bowden says:

    Just so we are clear, the formula is totally made up – I mean, obviously the exponent should be negative, when you think about it.

Leave a comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


20% off ALL Ortlieb Bag Closeouts! Shop Closeouts

Scroll to Top