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Let’s Stop Miseducating Society About Cycling

by Fred Oswald, Bicycling Safety Instructor

‘Good Advice’ Gone Wrong

A typical example of the bad advice given in bike safety programs is “stay out of the way of cars”.  Do you know what’s wrong with that advice?

First, it is based on fear.  We don’t teach beginning swimmers to fear the water.  Instead we teach them to relax and stay afloat.  But there are more reasons not to teach “stay out of the way”.

Think about how one might follow this advice.  Many novices stay out of the way by riding on sidewalks.  This makes them much less likely to be seen when they unexpectedly cross paths with turning traffic at intersections and driveways.

That’s why sidewalk cyclists have a much higher crash rate (two to nine times higher) than cyclists on the adjacent roadway.

Another dangerous way to stay out of the way is to ride on the wrong side of the road to “see traffic coming”.  This leads to a crash rate about four times higher than cycling on the right.  Some novices even veer from side to side to avoid traffic.

Staying out of the way leads to poor lane position, even among those who ride on the right side of the road.  “Hugging the curb” invites passing motorists to “squeeze by” where there is not enough room for safe passing.

It also leads to other mistakes such as trying to make left turns from the right side of the road, rather than merging to the proper position in advance.

When Right is Wrong

Most states have a traffic law that requires riding “as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable”.  This is often misinterpreted to mean as near as possible.

Where bike lanes have been added to a street, the lane stripes encourage cyclists to stay to the right and motorists to stay left.  In several situations this is contrary to safety.

  • Where a motorist is making a right turn near a cyclist, the motorist should either pass well before the intersection or merge to the edge of the road (into any bike lane) behind the cyclist.  Unfortunately, a bike lane stripe encourages the motorist to stay left, and then cut across the cyclist’s path.  This “right hook” is a dangerous mistake.
  • A cyclist turning left has two methods to choose from:  (1) The beginner’s method involves turning in two steps like a pedestrian.  This is safe but very slow and many cyclists prefer a better way.  (2) A much more efficient method is making a “vehicular” turn, as you would do in a car.  This means merging to the center of the road in advance, waiting for oncoming traffic to clear (or for a turn signal) and then turn.

    If a bike lane stripe is present, novices tend to stay to the right until they get into the intersection, and then they swerve across traffic, as in a “shooting gallery”.

  • A faster cyclist who wishes to pass a slow car should pass on the left, not the right, unless the car is about to make a left turn.  This is the same rule you would follow if you were passing in a car.  But a bike lane stripe keeps the slow car to the left, so there is no room to pass there; instead there is a tempting clear channel on the right.  But watch out if the car suddenly turns into a driveway or parking space.
  • A driver who is about to turn left is less likely to see a cyclist approaching in a bike lane at the edge of the road.  Thus, a bike lane makes “left cross” collisions more likely.
  • Some bike lanes are placed in dangerous locations, such as too close to parked cars (in the “door zone”); and some direct straight-through bicycle traffic to the right of a right turn lane.

Cyclists should move left for other situations too, such as where passing is not safe or reasonable, where stopped or parked vehicles create a “screen” that blocks visibility or where debris or broken pavement make the edge of the road unsuitable.

People in our society are badly misinformed about bicycle operation and safety issues.  This miseducation supports beliefs — completely erroneous — that it is too dangerous to operate bicycles on busy roads, that bicycles don’t belong on the street, and that cyclists are inferior users of the roads.

Bicycle transportation requires dealing with motor traffic.  But, we are not taught how to ride in traffic.  Instead, we are mistaught to fear being hit by passing vehicles.  This “fear from the rear” is very strong although the actual danger is extremely small.

This notion was originally invented by the motoring establishment to get cyclists out of the way so cars could go faster.  There has never been evidence that passing traffic causes many collisions.  But the fear persists.

Authority figures such as parents, school teachers and police teach “bike safety” to our children.   Unfortunately, most of these authorities are not cyclists and they do not know how to operate bicycles properly in traffic.  Their teaching consists of repeating advice that “sounds good” but is often wrong.  (See sidebar at right.)  This is how most of us were taught when we were young.

“Bicycle advocates” promote the bicycle as a transportation alternative.  After all, cycling is a great way to commute to work or otherwise get around on short to moderate distance trips.  But those advocates who actually do use bicycles for transportation typically do not know how to operate correctly in traffic.  Moreover, some of these “bicycle advocates” are actually car-haters trying to use cyclists as pawns in a misguided attempt to take space away from motorists, rather than promoting safe cycling methods.  This leads to support for segregated facilities that promote incorrect traffic behavior and perpetuate the unreasonable fear of traffic.

Segregation encourages both cyclists and motorists to violate the rules of the road, increasing the danger of collisions.  Yet the “fear from the rear” is so strong that most advocates ignore the hazards they create.  The sidebar article “When Right is Wrong” explains why segregating cyclists in bike lanes creates hazards.

Novice cyclists who fear traffic often ride on sidewalks.  This puts them in danger at every intersection and even at driveway crossings because drivers turning or crossing their path do not look down the sidewalk for conflicting traffic.  Where novices do try riding in the road, they “hug the curb,” which encourages passing drivers to “squeeze past”.

Don’t Confuse Cyclists with Pedestrians

Many people think a person on a bike is some kind of pedestrian.  Wrong!  A bike can easily go 4 or 5 times as fast as a person walking — even faster downhill.  A bike cannot stop in a stride; it has brakes like other vehicles.  It cannot turn in place or step sideways like a pedestrian either.  These are a few of many reasons why riding on sidewalks is much more dangerous than driving on the roadway.  And why mixing cyclists and pedestrians is dangerous for both.

Correcting Misinformation

The key to correcting misinformation is teaching people the best practices about cycling and providing information about what the real risks are and how to avoid them.  Proper cycling is not difficult to learn.  The greatest obstacle to progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.  The toughest problem is unlearning the wrong information we have been taught.

Correct lane position prevents problems.  Consider a typical “main street” that has two lanes each direction for through traffic.  A cyclist should normally ride in the right-most through-traffic lane.  Her position in the lane would depend on the space available.  If the road is wide enough and it is otherwise reasonable for traffic to pass safely (i.e. a wide curb lane), then she should be far enough right to facilitate passing.  If the lane is narrow, then she should “use the full lane” to discourage faster drivers from trying to “squeeze past”.

Reaching the General Public:
We can begin to combat misinformation through public service announcements saying that bicycles are vehicles that belong on the road and that cyclists should follow the same rules as other drivers.  We must also inform media reporters so they do not repeat misinformation.

We must work with transportation agencies to educate society.  A few states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Arizona and Idaho) have issued a “Bicycle Driver’s Manual”, based on the booklet Bicycling Street Smarts by John Allen.  Information for motorists driving around cyclists should be added to the motor vehicle driver’s manual.  We need appropriate questions on state motor vehicle driver license exams.  Such questions will lead to better coverage in driver training classes.

Cities can distribute educational materials — flyers, posters, etc.  City officials can sponsor workshops to train police, transportation planners and engineers.  Properly trained police bicycle patrols can help significantly if officers ride correctly and conspicuously on the roadway.  City officials can also set a good example and gain local news coverage for their “rides”.

Teaching Children:
Children have the most to gain from proper cycling education.  Many children depend on bicycles for transportation and they have most of their life ahead of them to benefit from healthful exercise.  Children are easier to teach because they have fewer preconceptions and they are used to being students.

We must teach children and their parents that “a bicycle is a child’s first vehicle” and to “drive your bike.”  The key need is properly trained leaders and teachers.  For more information and resources, see Ideas for Teaching Cycling to Children.  Among opportunities for teaching children, consider:

Although bike rodeos are popular, they are very limited in their impact.  But a rodeo offers a chance to have a parents’ session and give parents educational handouts.  These can teach the parents for their own good as well as helping them avoid teaching erroneous concepts.  Programs given to parent groups (such as PTA) can also be very useful.

Classified Misinformation

Some “bicycle advocates” use an “ABC” classification scheme for cyclists.  “A” refers to advanced cyclists who generally know how to ride in traffic.  “B” means basic or beginners, who are frightened by traffic and thus prefer separate facilities.  Finally, “C” stands for pre-teen children presumed too young to understand how to follow the rules of the road.

These advocates estimate that only about five percent of cyclists are “advanced”.  They then assume this ratio will persist and are little interested in improving skills of cyclists.  Finally, they assume that the needs of the B and C cyclists are similar, and treat them the same.  This means that 95% of the cycling public are treated as children incapable of riding in traffic and unable to improve.

Bicycle advocates use this classification scheme to argue for bikeways: separate places for bicycles but not cars.  They claim that bikeways make cycling safe for people who do not know how to follow standard traffic rules.  However, no one has ever been able to identify any of the skills that are required for cycling on normal roads that are not needed on bikeways.  Indeed, knowledgeable cyclists report that bikeways increase conflicts with motor traffic, thus they require more skill.  Some of the more honest bikeway promoters now claim only that bikeways make people feel safer.

The very presence of separate bikeways undermines the legitimacy of cycling on the roads.  Bikeways encourage motorist hostility towards cyclists not using the facilities.  Many cyclists are intimidated by motorists who are convinced they do not belong in traffic.

Bikeways make teaching novice cyclists harder.  This is because novices are led to believe they need not learn how to deal with traffic and also because the bikeways “teach” riding in the wrong place (often too far right) on the road.

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© Copyright 2003-2015 Fred Oswald.
The author is a certified Bicycling Safety Instructor" and a professional engineer in Ohio.
Material may be copied with attribution.
For comments, questions, contact fredoswald_AT_yahoo.com.
Rev. 10/24/15