Composite Risk Management and Bicycling

Reading through the endless arguments for high-visibility clothing at BikePortland today recalled to me how the Army taught me to use Composite Risk Management. You can follow along with ATP 5-19, the current guidance on the subject. Remember, your tax dollars paid for the development of this tool!

The five steps of Risk Management are:

  1. Identify hazards,
  2. Assess the hazards,
  3. Develop controls and make risk decisions,
  4. Implement controls,
  5. Supervise and evaluate

The Army’s goal is mission accomplishment. Same thing for civilians on a bicycle: we just want to get where we’re going, safely.

So, assuming mission is nighttime bicycling trip, some of the hazards are:

  • Collision with motor vehicles,
  • Poor road conditions (including ice, snowbanks, potholes),
  • Collisions with pedestrians,
  • Mechanical failure of bicycle.


The Army has a risk assessment matrix (see page 1-7 in ATP 5-19), with frequency along the x-axis and severity along the y-axis. We evaluate hazards along both axes to determine the risk level for each hazard, and then the highest risk of all hazards is the overall risk level.

Assess hazards:

  • MV collision is occasional and critical, high risk;
  • Poor road conditions are occasional and moderate, medium risk;
  • Collisions with pedestrians are seldom and critical, medium risk;
  • Mechanical failure is seldom and moderate, low risk.

Develop controls:

  • Use off-road paths to avoid MV traffic;
  • Be predictable to MV traffic;
  • Increase visibility to MV traffic by wearing bright clothes and using lights and reflectors (check batteries before trip!);
  • Allow extra travel time (to keep from stressing out and making bad decisions);
  • Avoid arterial roads with speeding MVs.

Maybe that pushes the risk level of an MV collision down to unlikely and critical, or low-risk. The advantage of the matrix is that it helps to clarify the nature of the risk. Collisions with a speeding motor vehicle are of critical severity. Collisions with a slow motor vehicle may only be of moderate severity. Either way, reducing the frequency of the incidence of collisions will reduce the risk level as well.

As for road conditions and collisions with pedestrians, I leave listing the hazards as an exercise for you, the reader. For mechanical failure, ensure that your bicycle is in good working order, with good brakes, batteries in lights, and trued wheels.

So implement your controls, and complete the mission. When you get home, evaluate the controls you used and consider adding other controls. Maybe avoiding left turns in traffic and using Copenhagen (two-step) left turns. Maybe getting a louder bell to warn pedestrians you’re coming. Maybe switching to the bike with disc brakes on really wet days.

From the risk-management perspective, wearing more high-visibility clothes is just one possible control against motor vehicle collisions. There are others. You get to choose which ones you want to employ, because it’s your safety at stake.