The “Ghostbike Paradox”
Rolestorming focus group: Cycling travesty or statistical insignificance
It wasn’t a car or a truck that drove me and my bike off the road—it was a boat in the mountains around Lake Tahoe. No angry guy in a truck or frantic mom in a mini-van. We were on a bike ride and this was a seemingly nice man on a boating trip with his family.
In the Fall of 2023 I assembled a creativity focus group that uncovered a puzzling phenomenon. The assembled team of cyclists followed the rolestorming focus group rules and assumed assigned roles to generate ideas on reducing bicycling fatalities on American highways. The instructions are to clarify the issue statement; assume a role and offer solutions based on each role you are playing. By mimicking powerful, generic or even dastardly personas, normal inhibitions and fear of ridicule are reduced while novel and innovative ideas build upon each other.
During and after that 90 minute idea session something we’re calling the “Ghostbike Paradox” began to emerge. Cyclists fear being hit and killed on rides yet, only 2% of all motorist highway fatalities involve bicyclists. Cyclists see 1,000 deaths in a year and wonder why the world is not enraged. Motorists, traffic planners and legislators learn there is one cyclist road death out of 50 and accept this statistic as sad but, insignificant—the Ghostbike Paradox.
What is a Ghostbike?
Ghostbikes are stripped down bicycles that are painted white and chained to a stationary object where a rider was maimed or killed. The Ghostbike Paradox is the disconnect between cyclists who think one thousand deaths per year is a tragedy and the public who believe that 2% of cyclist fatalities (1,000) is an insignificant number to warrant major change. The cyclist’s eyes see one ghostbike but, their heart feels the pain, cost and finality of 10 silent messengers chained throughout the community. The motorist might zip past a ghostbike and wonder what it was. The paradox highlights how both sides of this issue can be right...or wrong.
This is NOT your 1950s Brainstorming
This rolestorming creativity tool is more than an extension of traditional brainstorming. It replaces Alex F. Osborn’s 1950s tool invented to storm the brain for ideas. This newer technique is listed as one of the top five creativity and problem solving tools in the world. Our stakeholder group employed the tool to take action in the face of a seeming barrage of roadway misfortunes. For our session, we used the “ghostbike” as a physical and mental metaphor for what many cyclists perceive is an unfair, out-of-control and life-threatening travesty.
Rolestorming Focus Group “What can we do to reduce cycling fatalities?”
Issue statement (Quid Novi) What’s New - opportunity, prevention or problem
Saint-Sinner-Winner imagination roles
42 Ideas generated
Vote & narrow → 6-8 runners up
Discuss & vote → 3-4 finalists
Lightbulb consensus winner
“Big Brother Can See You”
Curated Ideas to Multiply Imagination
Our session began with participants assuming various roles and then coming up with over 40 ideas from those characters. After generating ideas from roles, the first vote (private and written) began to narrow down the larger set. After numbering and clarifying the 42 role-stormed ideas, our session used consensus voting to identify the next two rounds of runners up and finally the number one, lightbulb solution. In rolestorming, it is essential to trust the roles and build the consensus.
The facts ebb and flow depending on which U.S. agency you might cite. Here is my list of facts and perceptions that contribute to the Ghostbike Paradox:
Killed per year
Killed per day
Safety Loss of Lanes & Parking
‘Ride like hell’ 'Going to be late’
Reason to ride/drive
Social, health, commute, tourism Job, errands, leisure, tourism
Safety, debris, punctures Cars, tickets, arrival time
Not being visible or signaling Speeding, distractions (angry/ intentions. risky behavior)
% of all crash deaths
Male/Female % crash deaths
Male- 89% F- 11% M- 71% F- 29%
A travesty Statistically insignificant
The guys are angry
Not every motorist is killing cyclists. Maybe our paradox is the result of a few motorists killing cyclists in frightening, almost special effect ways with vehicles outweighing them (200 times) and traveling at three times their speed. The United States has more car accidents and fatalities than any other first-tier developed nation. While driving, males tend to display more aggressive and masculine-type behavior that becomes magnified while driving under the influence. Among the 2% of highway fatalities that are bicyclists, 79% are males. Eight times as many male cyclists die on the road than female cyclists.
The Abrams tank and the Volvo
The average bicycle weighs 18 pounds. Compared to the 4,000 pound weight of the average auto, the crash impact ramifications are stunning. One car weighs about the same as 222 bicycles (4,000 divided by 18). We know who wins every one of these battles. Now, let’s make the same impact comparison between the average automobile and another object. When we multiply the average weight of a car 222 times we would need six 74 ton Abrams Main Battle Tanks to scale the car versus bike comparison.
We’re getting closer to understanding the wisdom in the focus groups’ Big Brother can see you final lightbulb selection. The answer to the paradox is not simply in the numbers but, the mis- match and the finality of what the cyclist sees (or doesn’t see) as six monstrous tanks. The initial 42 focus group ideas was a good start. The danger, like in traditional and unstructured brainstorming sessions, is stopping prematurely because you ran out of time. The result could be that a critical paradox is never unwound. As e-bikes, scooters and ‘single-wheeled’ oddities explode, we had better study and fix this now or the travesty will only multiply.
After several weeks of analyzing the results of the rolestorming focus group, studying national accident statistics and one more rude gesture by an angry male pulling a landscaping trailer, I saw the light. The Big Brother idea (#10) only needs to impact a few dangerous motorists. If bicyclists are victims in two percent of all traffic fatalities then the vast majority of motorists must be respectful and law-abiding citizens. It becomes evident that Big Brother’s task is the two percent that flaunt the laws, cause most accidents and sometimes flee the scene.
No, it does not go both ways. Motorists can relax, bicyclists do not appear in the top 25 causes of auto accidents. Bicycles are probably not in the top one thousand causes of automobile fatalities each year—the anger of a few is misplaced. The lone teenage racer returning from a training ride; the two couples filling their bucket list; the 10-year-old boy pedaling away on a warm summer day met up with their own Abrams tanks on the final ride of their lives. The numbers are small—the wallop is huge.
Divide & Conquer: Near-Misses, Accidents, Fatalities
The Ghostbike Paradox may improve with a strategy made famous over 220 years ago. The Corsican-born emperor Napoleon rose through the ranks of the French military with the divide & conquer strategy. He cut through enemy lines by stubbornly blasting at solid, centralfortifications—those no one thought would break. When they broke, few enemies could withstand the onslaught.
Our bicycle fatality enigma might be broken into three escalating segments: near-misses, accidents and fatalities. Just as our original idea focus group kept the issue statement at overall cycling fatalities, subsequent efforts might focus on pushing fatalities back to accidents. Another effort might center around moving accidents back to near-misses. Finally, another team may build consensus around turning near-miss auto-bike events into what we might label friendly passings.
The Deadly Triangle of Speed + Distraction + Anger
When the light turns green and the auto in front doesn’t move, you won’t find me honking. Yes, I’m annoyed by a distracted driver—mortified by one that gets angry. My theory is that most drivers are usually polite, attentive and forgiving. Two percent are deadly. Statistics show that two of the worst motorist behaviors are speeding and distracted driving. I am convinced that a third deadly behavior that kills cyclists and other motorists is outbursts of anger. The first two are major contributors in the nearly 43,000 auto fatalities each year in the U.S. Toss in anger (or a little alcohol) and we have a time bomb. The fuse is now lit.
Not Your Orwellian Big Brother
In George Orwell’s 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the leader of Oceania is always watching. The statement we recall is “Big brother is watching you.” Our focus group lightbulb finalist had a nuance. It said, “Big brother can see you.” Perhaps our focus group wished to soften the brash and intrusive image of Orwell’s ruling party, Ingsoc. What if we left most motorists alone and hounded the few who create the need to go purchase some white paint and a padlock?
At our annual picnic, a neighbor heard that I would be running this cycling focus group. He eased in with the disclaimer, “I’m not one of those drivers that hates bicyclists,” then continued, “But why do they have to take the whole road?” This reminded me that all cyclists are not innocent. I recall watching a young male college student zipping through arterial traffic on his bike. Mouths dropped as he slammed into the side of a car, flipped up and over the hood, landing on the asphalt. Running over to him, I checked for injuries. He shook himself off and repeated, “I’m alright, I’m alright, I just want to get home and smoke some more weed.”
Cyclists, being the weaker and more vulnerable party in these interactions, might also consider sharpening their social skills. Some riders get so serious they wouldn’t offer a passing wave to their mother. It seems many imagine they’re training for the Tour de France and are obviously too focused to lift a hand to wave. This is not insignificant. It conveys just enough entitlement and condescension to piss others off. Paradox or not, friendliness builds upon itself and might just save one out of those thousand lives.
Based on the exploding number of unsolved hit-and-runs, the travesty is that a few drivers you follow or pass on the road have already struck a pedestrian or bicyclist and left them to die alone on the side of a road. Nearly every city struggles with hit-and-run fatal accidents. Big Brother— we need you.
In the 1970s a graduate school buddy and I starting doing 100 mile, Century rides. We pedaled to Yosemite National Park and later had the poor judgment to sign up for the the Davis Double Century. We completed the ‘200 miles in one day’ and swore to never do it again. I’ve twice ridden around Switzerland’s Lake Geneva and trekked from my college dorm to the Mexican border on my beloved Nishiki. To fame and accolades, I ruined a bike and injured myself when I broadsided a 7-point buck being chased by dogs in Saratoga, California. Like many a cyclist, I’ve been known to entertain motorists with slow-motion tip overs as I struggled to unclip a ‘bear-trapped’ pedal at the last moment.
In spite of the deadly scene-fleeing heartbreaks I read about, the only overt acts of aggression I have experienced on a bike have been an apple and a Coke thrown (separately) at me from a passenger window along with a few middle-fingers—for what, I could never decipher. Throughout this bicycling career, I’ve never been touched by a car—a boat, yes. The numbers suggest that most drivers, except those very few, seem to be quite responsible.
I Also Worry About Lightning
The Ghostbike Paradox runs deep. If I’ve not even been glanced by a car, why do I worry every time I suit up for a ride? I also worry about lightning. Maybe it’s because a long-shot with such pain, drama and finality carries a lot of weight. Motorists might better catch the vibe if each had to worry about collisions with 74 ton Abrams tanks. In 22 years, I’ve only seen two ghostbikes in my town of Fort Collins, Colorado. Yet, I changed a recent ride to avoid passing a white ‘ghost’ bicycle I knew was chained to a certain tree. For some unlucky soul, Big Brother had taken the day off. I hope the driver stopped—in a way, it’s personal.
One route out of town requires me to ride a medium stretch of road with no bike lane—not even a four-inch painted white line. On that bit of road, the asphalt meets the cement gutter with a half inch bulge that will snatch your tire from under you faster than a truck speeding to a job site on a country road. For my safety, I had no other option than to take a few inches inside the motorist lane—most drivers understand. However, on that day, a speeding black SUV came up behind me and blared his horn as he jerked his vehicle around my back wheel.
I resisted giving him a meaningful gesture. It’s strange but, by not responding, I was emotionally upset for the next 20 minutes. I fear what I would have done if driving my own vehicle. At that moment I understood the mix of shame and rage that leads to life-changing decisions (especially among guys). After shocking me from behind, the driver sped off and turned into the next neighborhood. Some quick calculations diluted my testosterone and brought to mind the Ghostbike Paradox. That driver was only one of about 50 cars that went by—2% of the passing motorists.
The Lake Tahoe ride was nearly over. We climbed the Nevada side, dodged tourists and dogs at South Shore and, back in California, triumphed over the Vista Point at Emerald Bay. Descending the mountains on a tight and traffic-clogged stretch I felt something creeping toward my left arm —it kept expanding. The timid driver nervously steered his new boat and trailer past our line of cyclists. As he passed me, the amount of road I controlled kept shrinking. Not sure if the boat or the fall hurt my elbow, the bike and I left the road and tumbled. The pines, Douglas firs and occasional redwood slowed and stopped the fall. It was a simple accident without anger.
Rick Griggs has written eight books including Professional Balance, Quality at Work, Personal Wellness, Bridges to Balance, and The Road to Optimism (co-author). He has published over 90 magazine articles.
Sources: NHTSA; National Safety Council Injury Facts; ASIRT; Consumer Product Safety Commission, BikeLegal, Statista, IIHS, FARS, Streetlight Data.