*. Though reluctant to raise this topic in the past, after more than two years I feel ready to share my perspective. So here it goes, and I ask in advance that you help me keep any ensuing discussion civil:
When it comes to bicycle safety, I draw a categorical distinction between two facets that are often mushed together, but for me are entirely independent: (1) safe behaviour, and (2) protective gear. I believe that safe behaviour is essential and a matter of social responsibility. I believe that protective gear is secondary and a matter of personal choice. This distinction and prioritisation governs (i.e. biases) the views on transportational cycling that are expressed throughout this blog.
To clarify what I mean by "safe behaviour" on a bicycle, here are the points I consider crucial:
Riding a bicycle that is functional and road-ready
Taking reasonable steps to ensure one's bicycle will not fail on the road. This includes making certain that the wheels are secured and that the brakes, lights, and other crucial components are functional. Riding a bike with known mechanical problems, insufficient braking capacity, or any unusual features that make it intentionally difficult to operate, can have disastrous consequences in traffic.
Being in possession of basic bike handling skills
This includes being able to start and stop without faltering, to maintain a line of travel without weaving, to reduce speed when appropriate, and to safely maneuver around obstacles. It helps to ride the type of bike one is comfortable with and in a way they are comfortable with, depending on skill level and personal preference. Those who do not yet possess adequate handling skills should practice on trails and quiet side streets before mixing with traffic.
Adhering to traffic laws
Knowing and following local traffic laws, as they pertain to bicyclists. This includes respecting lane directionality, street lights, stop signs and right of way, signaling turns and intentions to merge, and in general behaving predictably.
Knowing safety maneuvers
Awareness of various crucial safety maneuvers and the ability to execute them. For instance: not positioning oneself in the blind spot of a car that could turn into one's line of travel, not cycling in the door zone of parked cars, and not passing other cyclists on the right.
Having sufficient lighting on one's bicycle, so as to be clearly visible to others on the roads in the dark and in inclement weather.
Paying attention while cycling; being cautious and attentive to what goes on in one's peripheral vision while resisting distractions. This includes not being engrossed in conversation with fellow cyclists, not chatting on one's mobile phone or texting, and otherwise not engaging in activities that detract from an awareness of one's surroundings.
You might not agree with me on some aspects of these points, but I believe in them and try to adhere to them to the best of my ability. In my view, this makes me a conservative and safe cyclist.
As for protective gear (helmets, knee pads, steel-toed boots, padded vests, pre-emptive neck and back braces, etc), these things are simply not relevant to the safe operation of a bicycle. We all have the right to expect safe behaviour from each other, when the behaviour impacts other road users. But we do not have the right to decide what each other's personal comfort levels ought to be, when this comfort has no effect on us.
In addition, I think that protective gear - whether we believe it to be useful or not - is secondary to safe behaviour to such an extent, that to stress it above the other stuff (as I feel is routinely done in safety campaigns) is misguided and even, dare I say, dangerous. As I write this, out of the window I can see a helmeted cyclist making a left turn onto a one way street against traffic, riding a bicycle with no handbrakes and no lights. I think this sort of thing is a direct result of promoting protective gear instead of safe behaviour, and I think it's evidence that we have our priorities backwards. I do not find that my views on this matter are radical, although sometimes I am made to feel as if they are. Whether you agree or not is entirely up to you.
*a small group of us (Dave from Portlandize, Matt from Bicycles, Books and Bowties, and myself) are working on a transportation cycling brochure, where the topic of safety will be covered. However, I am not the person who is writing that particular section, and the opinions expressed here - though congruent with those in the brochure - are my own.