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Bicycle Blunders and Smarter Solutions

by Fred Oswald, Bicycling Safety Instructor

3.  Blunders on the Road

Many people have been taught to ride on sidewalks because “the roads belong to cars” and because they think their greatest duty is “staying out of the way.”  They fear traffic passing from behind.  They do not understand that sidewalk cyclists face collision risks at every intersection and even at driveways.  They fail to realize that other drivers are not looking for conflicting traffic coming down the sidewalk.

Crash studies show that sidewalk cyclists face a risk of collisions with motor vehicles two to nine times as high, depending on factors such as intersection and driveway density, speed of the cyclists, etc.  In Fig. 1 at right, note the cyclist (mostly hidden by landscaping) on the curving sidewalk.  This person chose the sidewalk even though the entire right lane was marked as a bike lane.  Paint on the road does not teach best practices.  Only correct teaching teaches best practices.

In Fig. 2, two boys are traveling against traffic on a sidewalk as they approach a busy intersection.  Landscaping makes them even less visible to motorist who will cross their path.

We often see people riding on the wrong side of the road so they can “see traffic coming”.  That is just what the wrong way rider in Fig. 3 told this author when the picture was taken.  Pedestrians walk facing traffic so they can sidestep off the road when vehicles pass.  But you cannot sidestep on a bike.  Riding wrong way or on sidewalks places cyclists outside the “arc of vigilance” of drivers on a collision course.

Bicycle collision studies show that wrong way riding has a risk about 3½ times as high than riding on the right side of the road, yet some authority figures still teach riding this way.

Most of the people who do ride on the right side of the road ride too close to the curb.  This error is related to fear of traffic and the perceived duty to “stay out of the way”.  The fear is developed by miseducation that makes people too much afraid of a remote hazard (being hit from behind) and too little afraid of much more likely risks from turning and crossing traffic.  Another problem is bad traffic laws, like those that say “shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb”.  These encourage unsafe practices, especially when misinterpreted to mean “as close as possible”.

The novice cyclist in Fig. 4 was riding on the gutter pan seam.  He was also veering back and forth erratically between the road and gutter rather than riding predictably in the travel lane.

Improperly trained cyclists sometimes make a left turn from the right edge of the road, swerving in front of traffic (the “shooting gallery” approach) rather than merging to the turn lane in advance of the intersection after yielding to any passing traffic.

Traffic laws in all 50 U.S. states require using headlights after dark.  Yet most nighttime cyclists have no lights.  The major cause of this problem is a failure in education.  “Bicycle Safety” advocates like helmet giveaways.  Why not a headlight giveaway?

A large part of the lightless rider problem is caused by the Consumer Products Safety Commission and its requirement of several reflectors for all bicycles sold in interstate commerce.  But they require no active lights, light mounts or even warning “hang tags”   Most of the mandated reflectors are nearly useless in preventing collisions, yet they look like safety equipment.  Their presence encourages the dangerous practice of riding in the dark without lights.

Cyclists are made to feel morally superior to motorists even as they are taught to act inferior road users.  This makes them believe they cannot and need not follow traffic laws, such as stopping for traffic lights or making turns from the correct place on the road.  In addition, a contributing factor for traffic light scofflaws is that many vehicle detectors at traffic lights do not detect bicycles.

You can read more about crash causes in an article by Ken Kifer: Cyclist Errors Which Cause Automobile-Bicycle Collisions, Illustrated.

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