So why aren’t more people doing it?

On Monday I read this article (and what an appropriate post for Green Tuesday):

Bicycle Commuting is green, healthy and cheap — so why don’t more people do it?

It’s May, which means it’s Bicycle Month. Cities and cycling clubs around the country are promoting bicycle riding by sponsoring group rides and bike commuter events , culminating around Bike to Work Day on May 21. But the presence on the American calendar of a designated month to encourage bicycle transportation underscores the fact that most people in this nation get around by driving cars, not by riding bikes.

Public transit and bicycle commuting are gaining ridership, but it is estimated that only 0.05 percent of Americans use a bike as their primary means of transportation — even though 40 percent of our daily trips and errands require less than 2 miles of travel, according to the National Household Transportation Survey. Continue reading full article

In March I had the pleasure of meeting Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, and Chris Phelan, founder of the Ride of Silence, at the Michigan Bicycle Summit.
andy clarke and chris phelan
Both men had valuable insights about safe riding to share with the group.

What’s your response to get more people on bikes? I think the answer is that more and more people ARE riding bikes, commuting by bike and rediscovering the joy and functionality of the bicycle! THe League of American Bicyclists’ report on Bicycle Commuting Trends shows the increase since 2000. But, I also think that the infrastructure – and road sharing – has lots of catching up to do to truly make the roads “complete streets” and safe for all users… so that every month and every day is bike to work day!


  1. Richard

    I agree. At least for me, it is infrastructure and road sharing. In order to bike to retail areas I have to either share the road with drivers who would rather not be sharing with me, or ride on the sidewalk (which is not my preference). Sad thing is that these are NEW sidewalks within the last year, and Indianapolis is committed to biking. Yet they are only slightly wider than a standard sidewalk, nowhere near the width that some of the more affluent suburbs have utilized that they then mark as bike routes. Another foot on these sidewalks would have made for a designated bike path safe for riders and walkers.

  2. Matt

    Biggest obstacle is perception of safety. As long as people feel that it is unsafe, a lot won’t do it. Education helps some… but infrastructure needs to change, ultimately. Looking at Boulder, Davis, Portland, etc. it’s obvious that when the infrastructure gets changed, many more people start biking.

  3. Ghost Rider

    Yep, that perception of safety is a HUGE hurdle to overcome — and on-street bike lanes/painted sharrows don’t do a whole lot to counter the fears.

    I’ll go out on a limb here and blame things on laziness — in my experience a very U.S.-based phenomenon. Why do today what we can put off indefinitely, even if taking those steps is the right thing to do?

    Sure, plenty of folks know that bike commuting can be a smart means of transportation, even folks who wouldn’t or couldn’t necessarily try it on their own. But we’re overwhelmed by so many convenience options that push us toward our cars — drive-up windows, broad expanses of free asphalt parking lots, loads of road choices to every corner of the city, etc. — that it is hard for people to let go of those cars and try something else for a change.

  4. George

    I’d agree that the infrastructure is the biggest thing that’s lacking – there needs to be a major push in (say) converting parking lots into bike racks and roads need to be made more cycle friendly.

    Of course, the best thing is just for word of mouth to spread the idea that the car could (gasp) be left at home in favour of a bike. Reckon that’s likely to get the most converts 😉

  5. ChipSeal

    There are not many bicycle commuters because there are so few folks who want to ride bicycles.

    Hopping into a car to get to work on is a normal everyday event… It is just the way it is done, dontcha know? Riding a bike means messed up cloths and hair, maybe some sweat, and long travel times.

    Those of us who love cycling are willing to overcome these obstacles because of the sheer joy of cycling. In fact, we don’t see them as obstacles at all. But your co-worker does.

    American bicycle mode-share is not likely to grow much, no matter what the street-scape is like. Folks just use the safety excuse as a convenient out for avoiding something they perceive as unpleasant.

  6. Jamey

    Lack of facilities at most workplaces. Period.

    For some reason, the one place possibly on earth that SHOULD be cycling-friendly (and encourage businesses to promote cyclo-commuting)–New York City–is remarkably cycling hostile. And nowhere so much as with most buildings’ facilities management. My workplace is in a building owned by one of the largest holding groups, Vornado Trust, and these guys are just incredible dicks.

  7. ha1ku

    We don’t see more people cycling because of the fear. Folks are afraid of the hostility between motorists and non-motorists, the fear of getting struck by a car. It’s a very unfortunate culture that has been promoted for many decades and has become embedded into the American way of thinking.

  8. Wendy P.

    People I’ve spoken to have also said, in addition to what has already been mentioned, that they would feel they would look silly on a bicycle. I have caught people laughing at me as they passed by, a middle aged woman on a 20 year old mountain bike. There’s still a social stigma attached to riding bikes. It’s for kids, it’s for losers, it’s for crazy people, it’s for health nuts…
    Recently, in the last couple of years though, I’ve heard people say “Good for you!” and “Go, lady, go!”
    So it seems public opinion is changing, especially if the media gets on board and promotes cycling to be not only a good thing for you, the environment, etc, but that it’s also cool. And drivers should be educated on cyclists rights to the road, I used to be ignorant of that, myself, and as a motorist used to honk at cyclists for being in “my” way… now I know better.

  9. Ghost Rider

    @Wendy — good point. In many circles, seeing a person riding a bike for transportation suggests that the rider is poor or got a DUI or similar. There is still a social stigma attached, but at least that is lessening as bike commuting and the “green movement” gets more positive press.

  10. Tom

    It’s more than a question of infrastructure. We would like to increase the bicycle share for daily transportation, but no one seems to sell transportation bicycles. The bicycle industry is all about sport-specific bikes for road racing or mountain trails. Go to your local LBS and count how many bikes have racks, fenders, chain guards and lights. I doubt you’ll find any. We need more places that sell bikes that can be ridden in street clothes and hold a couple of grocery bags.

  11. Paul Souders

    I theorize that most people, on most issues, are well-intentioned but lazy. You can pull at good intentions but sometimes what we really need is a good push.

    Safety, social stigma, infrastructure, messy hair … somehow none of these things are issues in Denmark where unleaded at this very moment is kr. 11.15/l, or about US$7.40/gal. Put those apple-cheeked Danes in mind and you realize every excuse is just another way of saying “we were too lazy to follow through on those good intentions.” Either too lazy individually (“my hair will get messy”) or too lazy collectively (“we can’t afford bike infrastructure”).

    When gas hereabouts hit $4/gal I was swamped with friends wanting to take up bike commuting. A few of them, maybe 1 in 5 or 1 in 10, even stuck with it. So you get maybe a 10% mode conversion for every $1.50 change in price. If gas were $7/gal — and assuming the US economy isn’t reduced to a smoking crater as a result — that’s about $4.50 difference, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see something like a 25% mode split then. At that price, the average commuter would save something like $1000/month, definitely worth sacrificing perfect hair.

    ChipSeal says something very astute: “Hopping into a car to get to work on is a normal everyday event… It is just the way it is done, dontcha know?” That’s the laziest shorthand for lazy thinking, as any parent of teenagers can attest: “everyone’s doing it.”

  12. Matt

    For me it is a fear about my safety, distance, comfort and laziness. A lack of interest is also a big part.

  13. Elizabeth (Post author)

    @ChipSeal – you make a good point in that “there are so few folks who want to ride bicycles.” Riding a bike is simply not for everyone. And I respect that.

    But a lack of infrastructure, especially in the suburbs, where 4-lane roadways with minimal sidewalks (and no room for bikes) are definitely a challenge. Our car-centric society hasn’t yet created the space for bikes yet because they don’t see the need. But as Andy Clarke pointed out – if you build it, it will be used. You can’t have stats for something (e.g. a bike lane) that hasn’t been created yet. And in the grand scheme of infrastructure, bike infrastructure is affordable. I have hope that shareable “complete streets” will soon be more prevalent.

  14. Ghost Rider

    @Elizabeth…I don’t know about that. There are quite a few painted bike lanes here in Tampa that are deserted, so just building them doesn’t guarantee they’ll get used. On a typical commute day, I am the only bike rider I see on my favorite bike lane, yet I see a handful of riders up on the sidewalk.

    @Paul, we experienced that, too: when gas was $4.00 a gallon, we had reporters clamoring to talk to us for interviews. I must have appeared in a dozen newspapers! Also, our site traffic skyrocketed. When the price went back down, it was crickets around here.

  15. Kagi

    Everyone has presented very good reasons here — I just want to add that complete streets, while important, aren’t enough. We need dense, mixed-use development, as well.

    In a lot of US cities, the downtown area (if there ever was one) is still a hollow doughnut hole without much retail or residential use; people have to travel long distances in suburbia (often between suburban areas scattered around the edges of a large metro area). Even if every street in, say, Dallas or Washington were redesigned for bikes, people would still have to travel longer than they want to.

    We have also put in too many car parking lots, which have a double effect: not only do they make it unsustainably easy to take a car where you want to go, but they also make the car traffic on the roads travel way too fast, compared to a similar road where the businesses and homes come right up to the sidewalk (see Tom Vanderbilt’s _Traffic_). So, it’s great to design the streets themselves for biking and walking, but you have to think about what’s built _on_ the streets, as well.

  16. Elizabeth (Post author)

    @Wendy and @ Ghost – you’re right. The stigma is lessening – with the green movement and now the concept of being Cycle Chic! How do you make cycling “look good”?

  17. BluesCat

    I think everyone here has brought up the most important reasons for a lack of rampant bike commuting: perception of cycling as dangerous, perception of transportation cycling as only for “poor losers,” laziness, lack of decent roadway infrastructure, lack of decent social infrastructure (parking, showering, etc.), etc., etc.

    I’d like to add a reason that I think is important, but I’m not sure where it sits as far as importance in the Pantheon of Excuses for the Lack of American Bicycling: I think the politicians in our governments, at ALL levels, are in the back pockets of the lobbyists for the automobile and gasoline industries.

    How else can we explain why GM and Chrysler are bailed out and called “too big to fail”? How else to explain why the electric car was killed off? How else to explain why gas mileage has hardly budged upward for many decades?

    And how else to explain why two senators from states with some of the WORST public transportation — Senators Coburn and McCain from Oklahoma and Arizona, respectively — would author a manifesto called “Out of Gas” which disses the very THOUGHT of using federal transportation money for bicycling infrastructure?

    Furthermore, how else do we explain how a U.S. president, who was against drilling for oil off the U.S. coast in 2008, came out in favor of it earlier this year, and now has changed his mind again as a result of the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

  18. Ghost Rider

    @BluesCat — it smacks of “conspiracy theory”, but I’m right there with you. The oil and automotive lobbies are very powerful and have some awfully deep pockets, especially come election time.

  19. Iron_Man

    Shoot, how many recreational cyclists don’t bike commute? Why wouldn’t they of all people? America just doesn’t see the bike as a very practical transportation tool. They don’t believe it’s safe enough. They don’t want to sweat a lot. They think it’s too slow. They can’t carry the stuff they think they need for work. They can’t run their errands after work or at lunch. They wear nice clothes that can’t be wrinkled. Yada yada yada…. I’ve heard it all before. I can’t break through that wall with the folks I work with, who see me day in a day out dispel their preconceived notions, but I haven’t persuaded anyone. I get a lot of talkers who ask for advice and say they might give it a try, but they don’t. I am easily categorized as a kook or “that guy” rather than someone that inspires them.

    Americans are just too stuck in their cars. Should gas go up like many fear, like it did in 2008, many will change their tune. But until folks make the leap to discover the practical side of cycling they’ll be content to drive their cars. To do that requires them to actually ride a bike to work (even if it’s just on a Saturday to scout the route), and that’s the biggest hurdle there is; just getting their butts on the dang bike.

  20. Chris Phelan

    GREAT article, Elizabeth!
    Thanks researching this and writing it up. Thank you also for being the force behind the Chicago Ride Of Silence.
    Keep up the passion for bikes.

    Chris Phelan, Founder
    The Ride Of Silence
    Wednesday, May 19, 2010, 7 PM
    One day. One time. World Wide.
    Let the silence roar.

  21. Steve A

    It’s about TIME for me. Last year, cycle commuting cost me over 400 hours compared to what auto commuting would have cost. Mostly, that was time taken from family, and from bike rides for the sheer joy of it. There is a practical distance limit to cycle commuting that depends on how much one loves to ride. As in many other things where cussedness wasn’t a factor, Forester had it right about cycle commuting. It comes down to how much time can you afford.

  22. Dottie

    I absolutely agree with you, Ms. E. Safety, safety, safety. We need real infrastructure. Until the roads are objectively and subjectively safer, I can’t blame anyone for choosing not to ride. Not everyone is as cool as we are 🙂

  23. BluesCat

    Steve A:
    Actually, the time works out on the plus side for me. It takes me 15 minutes to drive to work, right at 30 minutes to ride. However, before I started bike commuting, I was under orders from Doc to start getting some exercise (or he threatened to start pushing MORE pills on me) so I joined the gym right next door to my office. I was driving to work in the car and working out for 45 minutes in the morning. Bicycling to work means I can skip the workout, I’m already getting my exercise. Here’s how the numbers work out:

    Car Commute:
    30 minutes commuting time + 45 minute workout time = 75 minutes

    Bike Commute:
    60 minute commuting time + 0 minute workout time = 60 minutes

    I save 15 minutes every day I bike commute. Added bonus is I don’t have to workout in a gym smelling everybody else’s workout, I workout in the fresh air and sunshine.

  24. Kagi

    Again, if you want to do something about the time problem — which is real — do something about development and parking. The more time and hassle it takes to park a car, the more attractive biking looks. When I lived in Charlottesville, VA, for instance, to go from my house to Downtown took about seven minutes by car or fifteen minutes by bike — but unless I wanted to pay to park in a garage, I’d have to spend at least ten minutes driving around looking for free parking. The bike looked good. Here in Greenville, NC — almost the same in land area and population, but really different in land use — that’s not the case. So, hardly anyone bikes.

    Get rid of the free parking lots, build attractive homes and shops in the urban core instead, and the rest will follow.

  25. Ghost Rider

    @Kagi — that’s been my experience, too. Driving a car to where I work saves only 5 minutes…which I would gain back in spades in looking for a parking space (and then forking out a fortune in daily or monthly fees). With a bike, I can park even closer than our director — he parks outside in a garage; I park inside the building. And my parking space is ALWAYS open and free!!!

  26. Iron_Man

    I ran this topic by some coworkers and they pretty much reinforced my opinion; to them it’s not that there is any one hurdle to get over, rather it’s a whole series of hurdles to clear that keeps them off the bike. Certainly safety is a big hurdle, but if they manage to clear that one (by realizing it’s not as dangerous as they thought) they are still staring down the lane at a bunch more hurdles. All the hurdles add up to make it appear impractical or impossible. These folks live within five miles of the office. Get them past safety they now worry about hygiene, get them past hygiene they worry about appearance, get past appearance they worry about time, get past time they worry about the stuff they need to carry, get them past that (if you’re lucky) and they still got four more hurdles, but have likely given up by then. Safety, time, exertion, appearance, hygiene, convenience, the elements, hauling gear, social stigma, etc, they all seem overwhelming.

  27. Ghost Rider

    @Iron Man…so what are WE (bike commuters) doing wrong? Because it is none of those things — not dangerous or dirty or requiring a bunch of special equipment. We don’t necessarily need to haul stuff but it’s nice to be able to, and it doesn’t really take much longer than driving, provided one lives within about 5 miles of their job.

    How do we get all this past potential commuters — that it is FAR easier than it may appear on paper?

  28. Ben

    When anyone asks me how I do it, or how they can do it, I keep it real simple. I say “Do you have a bike? Ok, Then you just need to ride it to work.” Everything else works itself out. It’s not rocket science.

  29. Iron_Man

    Ghost, that’s what has been frustrating to me come Bike to Work Month the last few years. I’ve pretty much dispelled any myth the folks I work with have, especially for the folks that live within just a few miles of work, but they simply ignore me. Granted there are certain folks that I work with that wouldn’t ride to work even if gas was $20 a gallon, the weather was always perfect, and they could ride in a suit coat and never get messy, but there’s a few folks that truly do want to give it a go, but never manage to pull the trigger. The guys that are too far out, the middle aged women (sorry just being honest), the managers that wear suits, I don’t hold out much hope for them, but the folks that really could ride just never get past the point of trying it. I’ve made myself available and answered any questions I could, but in my seven years of bike commuting I’ve only been able to help one guy give it a shot…and he’s since stopped.

    I work with a guy who lives within four miles of work, is constantly complaining about needing to get healthier and drop weight. He hates the price of gas (though drives a pickup truck) and that’s only getting worse from here. He’s got a bike (I sold it to him). He lives just off my route so I’ve offered to swing by and ride in with him. He’s in his friggin’ 20’s. Yet he just doesn’t pull the trigger. I think the one thing that really holds him back is that he likes to go out of the building at lunch, often home, and that would have to stop if he rode (in particular heading home). I have made it my goal to woo him to give it a shot just once this summer. I’m not going to hound or badger him, but I’m going to try my best to get him to give it a shot at least once.

    Sometimes I don’t believe I’m a very good ambassador for the bike commuting because I tend to be a little too hard core. Not in my personality or my remarks, but because I do ride through just about everything…and I wear cycling kit. Because I ride through the sub freezing winter and through rains and wear the tight clothes, I might look too “extreme” to them. I don’t know.

  30. Foraker

    I am guilty of not cycling to work when I should, and frankly safety is a big issue for me. The cited article suggests that the perception of safety problems is a misconception because only 716 cyclists were killed in auto accidents in 2008, but I disagree because there are so few cyclists in the first place.
    In 2008 there were approximately 300 million Americans. The article says that only 0.05% use a bike for everyday transportation, so that would be about 150,000 people. 716 deaths is 0.5%. OK, seems small. Let’s compare that to cars. There were approximately 35,000 automotive-related deaths in 2008. Assuming that the rest of the population not relying primarily on their bicycles relied on cars (a number that is probably inflated by people who rely on mass transit in larger cities), those 35,000 deaths are 0.01% of the car-dependent. A much smaller number, which makes bicyclists seem a lot less safe. In fact, for 35,000 deaths to occur at the same rate as cyclists, we only need 7 million drivers or 2.3% of the population!
    The perception of a lack of safety is reinforced by the experience of cycling in traffic. I’ve been in my car when someone passed me driving more than 50mph faster and it was startling but didn’t feel life-threatening. Thankfully that is rare. I’ve also been on my bike and had cars fly by at only 20mph faster speeds and been scared to death. And it happens all the time. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that a cyclist suddenly falling less than 20 feet in front of a car traveling at 40mph, due to a pothole or crack or whatever, is probably going to either the emergency room or the morgue. I’ve had plenty of near-misses, cars coming up too close from behind and zooming past too close to be comfortable on my commute. Don’t belittle the safety concerns if you want more people to commute on their bikes. We need to make cycling safe enough for little kids and wobbly old men to attract the masses.

  31. Ghost Rider


    your calculations are off — according to the 2008 American Community Survey, there were 0.55% of workers 16 and over using a bicycle as their primary means of transportation. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 million people.

    Take a look at this article: and follow the links to the ACS tables for 2008.

  32. Ghost Rider

    Oops…791000 people, not 7 million. Still a pretty big difference than your calculations.

  33. Iron_Man

    @Foraker, one of the things I’ve pondered is if anyone has broken down cycling accident stats according to degrees of rider knowledge/behavior. The commonly quoted stats are basically about cyclists in general, meaning if you ride a bicycle for any period of time you’re a cyclist. I’ve never seen a breakdown of cycling accidents of inexperienced riders vs experienced / trained / knowledgeable riders. So I follow the rules of the road, make myself highly visible, take the lane, etc, yet I am lumped in with the ninja cyclist riding against traffic without a helmet who gets hit, or lumped in with a child that lost control and hit the curb with no car in sight. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I can never find a breakdown to suggest otherwise.

  34. Ghost Rider

    @Iron_Man — the kinds of statistics you seek (and ones that would be INCREDIBLY useful for these kinds of conversations) are logistically impossible to get. Crash statistics are compiled from police reports, eyewitness accounts and interviews with the involved parties. As I’m sure you know, the police reports are flawed, at best, and no one is going to admit that they were drunk or high on crack or doing something stupid when the incident occured.

    Until there is a rigorous and uniform police reporting tool (and the wherewithall to use it correctly), we’ll just never know how these crashes break down into experienced vs. inexperienced vs. stupid or careless.

    My gut feeling, though, says that the overwhelming majority of bike crashes occur within the “guys on bikes” population (a term coined by our friend Raiyn). For the rest of us — people with an active interest in doing things safely and correctly — riding a bike for transportation is pretty damn safe.

  35. Iron_Man

    I totally agree Ghost. Even though I’ve been hit by a car before I still believe it is at least as safe as driving. In terms of chances of being hit. Once hit though your odds of getting hurt obviously go dramatically up on bike vs car.

    BTW, A coworker is telling me he’s “this close” to riding to work. So who knows? Maybe my previous posts were just a bunch of hot air from a disillusioned bike commuter.

  36. Ghost Rider

    I wish you luck in convincing someone else to take up two wheels! And, your comments have given me an idea to write up an article that may generate more conversation like this…

  37. Elizabeth (Post author)

    Next Monday we’re hosting a bike commuter meet-up at work to network and gear up for Chicago’s Bike to Work Week (officially in June).

    Just saw a local post about dispelling the typical ‘excuses’.

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  39. Foraker

    Sorry about the maths err.

    In 2008 there were approximately 300 million Americans. The article says that only 0.05% use a bike for everyday transportation, so that would be about 150,000 people. [So the article was wrong, actually 0.55% or 791,000 people.] 716 deaths is 0.09%, which still isn’t safer than the 0.01% of the car-dependent quoted above. Regardless, my point was that the article compared the absolute numbers rather than the percentages, and the percentages told another story.

    I think Iron_Man hits the nail on the head with this observation:

    “Even though I’ve been hit by a car before I still believe it is at least as safe as driving. In terms of chances of being hit. Once hit though your odds of getting hurt obviously go dramatically up on bike vs car.”

    So even if the accident rate were the same, I have concerns about mixing my bike riding with the far-heavier automotive traffic.

    (In an ideal world we’d walk or cycle within the city limits and push all the cars to garages on the periphery, allowing for vehicles to enter the city for deliveries only during restricted hours.)

  40. Elizabeth (Post author)

    That idea for car-free urban areas reminds me of this article about Freiburg, Germany, I read several years ago; it’s “Germany’s best-known environmentally friendly neighborhood and a successful experiment in green urban living.” I have yet to see a follow-up to it and would love to hear if any more cities really have adopted such city “green” lifestyles.

  41. Iron_Man

    @Foraker, everyone must come to terms for themselves with whatever level of risk they are willing to place themselves in. I used to think it was crazy to cycle on the streets, but with experience I now believe cycling is a relatively “safe” endeavor (nothing in life is 100% safe). The exposure on the bike is of course quite high, making an accident of car on bike quite serious for even the mildest of impacts. You can’t change that unless you wrap yourself in a steel box, but the chances of actually getting hit in the first place are, I believe, quite low when a cyclist takes care to ride according to the rules of the road, is constantly alert, rides defensively, and is as visible to motorists as possible. All those safe practices result in a highly visible and predictable cyclist that greatly decreases the chances of an accident with a car.

    4,000 people in the US die each year from drowning, which is nearly 7 times greater than cycling deaths. Yet when was the last time you heard someone tell you that they refused to go near pools, lakes or bathtubs because they were afraid of drowning? In fact cycling deaths stats are nearly identical to poisoning by gas. When was the last time you heard of someone afraid to go to sleep for fear of carbon monoxide poisoning? We’d think they were OCD.

  42. David

    I live in Alexandria City, Virginia, and commute by bike to my job in DC. Over the years, I’ve seen the number of bike commuters increase in the DC metro area.

    However, I don’t hold out any hope that bike commuting will ever be popular on a mass level, particularly with men. In addition to the convenience factor of automobiles, there is also a perceived gender/sexual orientation/political stigma attached with bike riding/commuting.

    I’ve heard guys make reference, in some form, to bike commuting as being “so gay” or “only faggots ride bikes” or “only chicks ride bikes” or “only eco-freaks bike to work.”

    Real men drive big trucks, damn it!

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  44. Travis Iver

    This may seem a little less serious for some but… there are studies suggesting that biking may cause infertility in men. I realize this can be solved through the use of different seats, types of bikes, etc. but it is a social stigma that comes with biking and won’t easily be overturned. I am not an avid bike rider but am looking to get back into it and frankly, this scares me more than getting hit by a car.

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