Bicycling is a relatively safe activity and safe mode of transportation. As with any other activity, some individuals are more prone to risky behavior than others, and the unsafe behaviors of those bicyclists make the overall risk seem higher than it really is for the reasonably cautious person.
Bicycling has some inherent safety advantages compared to automobile travel. Slower operating speeds give cyclists more time to see, react to, and avoid hazards and conflicts. The bicycle’s narrow profile allows for greater maneuverability. The lack of a steel and glass body means the cyclist can see and hear better than a motorist. By being physically active, a bicyclist is generally more alert than a motorist.
Based on data from the American Community Survey and the National Highway & Traffic Safety Administration, American bicyclists travel about 9 billion miles per year, and about 750 per year are killed in crashes with motor vehicles. This means the average bicyclist will travel 12 million miles before a fatal crash. (And at least half of those deaths involve bicyclists behaving in a very risky manner, such as cycling at night without lights, biking while intoxicated, or darting out mid-block onto a high-speed highway.) About 40,000 cyclists per year suffer injury crashes with motorists, for an injury rate of 225,000 miles per crash.
Characterizing bicycling as dangerous is detrimental not only to the activity’s reputation, but to individual bicyclists as well, as many resort to ill-advised behaviors out of fear – behaviors that unfortunately actually increase their risk.
As a typical bicycle is a two-wheeled vehicle operating on paved surfaces, driving one carries some level of risk no matter what type of infrastructure or environment. Some bicycle-specific facilities may indeed reduce these risks, but not to zero. We support facilities that follow independent rights of way (trails) and ones that do not guide or compel bicyclists to violate the normal rules of movement for vehicles. The context in which a bikeway functions is a critical aspect of the risk it presents to users. The same type of bikeway could be relatively free of conflicts in one context, yet conflict-prone in another. Trade-offs are made in every public infrastructure project.
We support efforts to make our streets more humane by reducing motor vehicle operating speeds and making other improvements that benefit all users.
As an educational organization we see our job as training drivers of bicycles how to navigate a built environment consisting of facilities designed for a wide variety of users including motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians. We teach strategies for avoiding or mitigating risks wherever we identify them, no matter the nature of the facility.
While the relative risk of cycling is low, we can still do things to reduce it further. Bicyclist education and training can reduce not only the actual risks, but also the perceived level of risk, encouraging more people to bike more often.
Bicyclist education and training are essential no matter what type of facilities are provided, as no facility can reduce risk to zero. Roughly two-thirds of serious injuries to cyclists do not involve a motor vehicle, instead involving mechanical problems, rider errors, surface hazards, other cyclists, animals or pedestrians. Most bicyclists will inevitably travel on streets and roads without specific bicyclist accommodation, even if segments of their trips are on bikeways. Motorist-caused conflicts still occur on most bicycle facilities, as motorists and cyclists must inevitably cross paths at intersections and driveways. At least 90% of crashes between motorists and bicyclists occur at such conflict points. Bicyclist education and training are necessary so that cyclists can understand how such crashes occur and how they can avoid them.
The critical skills and strategies for bicycling in regular travel lanes are achievable by most able-bodied adults and do not require athleticism or speed. (Indeed, faster cyclists are often at greater crash risk.) Traveling on bicycle-specific infrastructure requires at least the same level of skill and understanding of the conflict potential as cycling on a regular roadway. We teach bicyclists to avoid hazards and motorist-caused conflicts whether they are biking on a regular travel lane, a bike lane, a sidepath or sidewalk, or a path in an independent right-of-way.
Children can be progressively taught the rules of movement, bike-handling skills and traffic management strategies, and learn to apply them in increasingly complex environments as they mature. It is imperative that parents have an equivalent understanding of what constitutes safe cycling behavior so that they can effectively reinforce that behavior.
Some advocates of bicycling or bicycle infrastructure contend that there is a “safety in numbers” effect, in which the bicyclist crash rate drops as the number of bicyclists increases, but assumptions made about the underlying cause for this correlation have no supporting evidence. In his 2003 paper published in Injury Prevention, Peter Jacobsen asserted that “Since it is unlikely that the people walking and bicycling become more cautious if their numbers are larger, it indicates that the behavior of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling. It appears that motorists adjust their behavior in the presence of people walking and bicycling.”
Another hypothesis is that new bicyclists venturing out onto the street network tend to be more cautious than many of the existing cycling population. Advocates describe the types of bicyclists who might ride more if presented with more bikeways as “interested but concerned,” indicating a cautious mindset. Such individuals should be less likely to commit egregious violations leading to crashes and be more cautious when presented with motorist-caused conflicts.
Until clear causal data can be developed for the “safety in numbers” correlation, the premise that “motorists adjust their behavior” when more bicyclists are present can only be accepted as an article of faith. Research from Europe has shown increases in some types of motorist-caused crashes after bike lanes or cycle tracks were installed.
We believe it is unethical to downplay the value of cyclist education and to ask individuals to instead trust an unfounded promise that motorists will get better at scanning for and interacting properly with them. Our approach is to show bicyclists – based on thousands of official police crash reports – the common mistakes motorists are known to make, and teach them the strategies, skills and equipment they can use to counter those mistakes.
Historically bicyclists have been treated as less-than-equal roadway users. The status of bicyclists having the rights and duties of vehicle drivers has been in place since the 1970s, but along with that status came the restriction to ride “as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge.” While this restriction also came with several exceptions, they are poorly understood by most cyclists, motorists and even law enforcement officers, due to the confusing nature of the statutory language. The conditions under which the exceptions come into play are actually far more common than those in which they do not.
The tendency for bicyclists to hug the right edge results in numerous close calls, conflicts and crashes (including solo falls due to debris and poorer pavement conditions near the edge). A roadway user’s need for adequate operating space and defensive lane positioning is important no matter how fast or slow he or she travels, and vulnerable roadway users such as bicyclists and motorcyclists need more lateral maneuvering room than auto drivers do. Just as motorcyclists are expected to have full use of lanes and to use that width to their defensive advantage, bicyclists should have the same. We support the elimination of the “as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge” language from all state statutes that include it.
We also support elimination of laws that require bicyclists to use bike lanes, sidepaths or paved shoulders (except along limited access highways). Bicyclists should not be required to use facilities that present more conflicts and more legal restrictions than the adjacent roadway lanes.