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[hpv] CPSC proposals

David Gordon Wilson dgwilson at MIT.EDU
Sun May 22 17:43:21 PDT 2005

The letters so far reacting to my proposals to the CPSC have sickened me and made me very angry. Almost everyone agreed with Gabriel DeVault, so I will respond to him. But let me first give some background to explain my considerable unhappiness.

A few years ago my wife and baby were almost killed. They would have gone out on the Trek bike I had bought for her, and had put a baby seat on the back, except that I borrowed the bike for a short run. The straddle cables of the two Shimano cantilever brakes broke without warning, first one and then the other. I was going uphill. She would have gone downhill and would have tried to brake hard at a dangerous intersection down the hill. I found that the Shimano brakes were of an appalling design in which the straddle cables flexed through a large angle at a bolted joint and were absolutely bound to fail in fatigue in time. The straddle cables were shrouded by a plastic tube so that any fraying could not be seen. I designed a fix that would cost a couple of cents, photographed everything, wrote a report and sent it to Shimano and to this list. I wanted to save lives and to prevent serious injuries. All I got for my trouble and concern were a whole lot of nasty letters, mainly from people on this list, who implied that I was a muddled academic and that I was (in some way that I couldn't discern) responsible for my family's near elimination. Shimano sent a perfunctory acknowledgement. At least it has incorporated quadrants to prevent cable failure in brakes that it has since designed.

So I knew that I was sticking my neck out when I wrote to this list about other bicycle hazards. Again I have been treated patronizingly as if I were a well-meaning but muddled academic "Dave suggested ., . . good on the surface, . . yet he provided no actual solutions." Your ignorance is shocking. None of you asked me for my offered copy of my letter to the CPSC. None of you apparently read any of the interim reports I have been sending out over the last several years about the loose-tire problem, principally to Human Power, culminating in a full treatment in the last issue. Three successive students have done research on it. We quote supporting statements by many experts, including a senior person in a major bike-tire company and, incidentally, by Bill Volk. We propose exact standards, but allow for the possibility of a committee being set up to propose something better. What right have you languidly to dismiss years of unpaid effort for the public good because you are too damn lazy to read the literature?

Apparently also you have no idea why the bicycle regulations are so bad. They are that way because they are written, as are a large proportion of the laws of our great country, by lobbyists for special interests. Those special interests are the manufacturers who want to be able to put out lousy products without being sued. Our senators and representatives listen to them because they get all kinds of gifts from them and because they then don't have to do any work on any laws they pass. If you don't want to get off your asses to help to write better regulations, you should at least support Common Cause, a wonderful organization that is trying to clean up the mess that government in this country has become.

I met someone of the same ilk as y'all when I was asked by Paul Dudley White, Eisenhower's heart surgeon and a bicycle booster, to join his Committee for Safe Bicycling. What an opportunity to improve the safety of the sport, I thought. But the committee was largely dominated by a lobbyist for Schwinn, who complained about my talking about needed improvements when bikes were perfectly safe already.

This was at a time when we had almost zero braking in wet weather. My students and friends and I labored for around ten years and produced a brake that was almost perfect (I'm rather modest about it.) It worked as well in the wet as in the dry, it was self adjusting, would fit in the same place and with the same brake levers as regular brakes, and the pads would last almost for ever. (I used a Positech brake for several years as the only brake on my first recumbent at a time when I was riding around 10,000 miles per year. It never needed new pads, and only one cable adjustment was required in that period.) We worked with three companies to try to get it adopted. A lawyer who read about the brake in Bicycling petitioned the CPSC to have its performance specified on bicycles. The bicycle industry didn't want this, it dithered, and then suddenly switched to aluminum rims to avoid having to use our brake. So now we have rims that, if used long enough, will certainly explode - I have had six do so. If you are unlucky you could be converted into an instant vegetable for life. The bike industry knows about this but is apparently uninterested in doing anything about it.

I've tried to switch to disk brakes to avoid the exploding-rim problem. I'm now on my third make: Shimano Deore. On my worst day this winter, when there was a deluge all day, I left the house with the pads perfectly adjusted. At the end of my eight-mile commute there was zero braking. Shimano uses some type of water-soluble pads. The mechanism is such that when the pads have worn to the point that I would like to adjust the cable, the actuating lever comes up against a fixed stop without warning. Why the hell has Shimano done that? I set the pads again at lunchtime, a long process that requires that the whole brake be loosened off its mounting and that thin shims be inserted to get the brake centered over the disk with small clearances - not something you could easily do in a deluge on the road. By the time I reached the steep downhill to our house eight miles later, all braking was again totally gone. A month or two earlier I replaced the disk pads on both front wheels of my wife's car after over 100,000 miles on the original set. It took me less time and was less expensive than replacing the pads on my Deore brakes.

To replace the Trek (on which other components, like the BB axle, had broken) I bought my wife an expensive German Kettler Alu-Rad "City Shopper". All kinds of simple things have broken on this bike. It has V-brakes. She frequently says to me "Honey lamb" (she's a Southern gal) "I have no braking again on either wheel - could you please look at the bike? She uses the bike on her visiting-nurse rounds. And in some irritation I go through the extremely fiddly job of replacing the pads and getting them set properly, and adjusting the cables that don't have enough adjustment to handle a new set of pads.

Since the manufacturers are unconcerned about our safety, our alternatives are regulations or trial lawyers. The lawyer route is expensive. First someone prominent has to be killed. (If my wife and baby had been killed there would have been a perfunctory police report that "subject failed to stop at stop sign". Bush and Kerry are just show bikers: they don't put enough miles on to run into any problems.) Then years of discovery and pre-trial stuff goes on during which more bicyclists are killed and seriously injured,and then usually the case is settled out of court. (I have frequently been involved as an expert witness, and it is not pretty.)

For heaven's sake wake up!

Dave Wilson

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