Cyclists Find No Safety in Numbers

The debate on bicycle safety, mired in conflicting beliefs and a dearth of conclusive studies, stretches back decades with few firm conclusions.

On August 7, 2007, John Myslin, 25, a high school teacher at Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, California, was crushed by a tractor-trailer making a right turn into his path. The driver of the truck had stopped at a red light on Mission Street where it intersects Bay Street on the city’s west side. From the curb lane, vehicles can either turn right onto Bay or continue straight on Mission. The truck’s right-turn signal was blinking at this point, police said. Myslin then rode his blue mountain bike along the right side of the semi. As the light turned green, he tried to pass in front of the truck as the driver began a right turn onto Mission Street, witnesses told police. He didn’t make it.

According to the police report, it was a clear day. Neither Myslin nor the driver had been drinking, and neither was using a cell phone at the time of the crash. It appears as though the driver just didn’t see him.

Santa Cruz is a town modified over the years with bicyclists in mind. City buses have folding bike racks, there are bike lockers for commuters around the city, and many of the city’s streets sport bicycle lanes. In January, the League of American Bicyclists recognized the city as a “bicycle-friendly community.”

Yet cyclists like Myslin still die in clashes with automobiles on Santa Cruz roadways. Nationally, the number of cyclists killed has hovered around 800 for each of the past six years, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (see Figure 1 below). Unfortunately, this database provides few clues as to whether devices like bicycle lanes might reduce the toll. Meanwhile, experts with opposing viewpoints champion safety strategies based on long-held beliefs, rather than statistical evidence. So what might be done to prevent accidents like the one that cost Myslin his life?

Junction Dysfunction
As any bicyclist will attest, certain parts of the road are more dangerous than others. Nearly a third of all fatal accidents involving cyclists in 2006 occurred in intersections. Myslin’s collision is of a type so prevalent that bicycling pundits refer to it as a “right hook.” In the midst of a right turn, the semi’s front bumper collided with Myslin’s bicycle. The driver jammed on the brakes and skidded 10 feet, twisting the truck slightly as the front left tire pinned the bicycle to the ground. Myslin suffered severe head injuries and medics pronounced him dead at the scene of the crash. Police would later need a tow truck to lift the front end of the semi off the mangled bike pieces that lay strewn across the surface of the street.

The curb lane at this intersection is unusually wide, probably to allow trucks like the semi to make the tight right turn onto Bay Street. To execute the turn successfully, an eighteen-wheeler would have to be as far to the left of the lane as possible. Myslin may have seen this and—missing the truck’s blinker—assumed the truck was continuing straight on Mission. Or, it’s possible he was just trying to take the shortest path through the intersection, figuring he could clear the truck’s front end before it turned right.

Without absolving motorists of any culpability, authorities agree that accidents could often be avoided if more cyclists obeyed rules of the road, especially at intersections. “To be brutally honest, a lot of [fatalities] are some idiot cyclist who ran a stop sign or was going the wrong way down the street during the middle of the day,” says Mike Dahmus, a member of the Urban Transportation Commission in Austin, Texas from 2000 to 2005 and long-time bicycle commuter.

Police did not assign blame for Myslin’s crash in their report. But if he had been faulted in the collision, the accident would likely fall under NHTSA’s category of “improperly crossing of roadway or intersection.” On the driver’s part, it’s likely that Myslin was “not visible.” These factors are two of the most frequently cited in the reported data for fatal collisions involving cyclists (see Figures 2 & 3 below).

bicycle safety illustration

A Line on the Pavement
Given widespread ignorance of the correct rules for engagement between motorists and cyclists, it’s possible that Myslin or the driver—or both—didn’t actually know what the correct course of action was. Massive motorist- and cyclist-education campaigns are rare, because it’s difficult to reach large numbers of either group to justify the effort or expense. Instead, traffic engineers aim to make the rules as apparent as possible through roadway design, conspicuous signage and street markings. Many cities have bicycle lanes, creating a separate path for bicycles on the right-hand side of the road. Indeed, communities with many miles of these partitioned thoroughfares—like Santa Cruz—are held to be the most hospitable to cyclists.

But bike lanes divide more than just traffic. The relative safety they confer is a contentious issue, passionately championed by some and fiercely opposed by others. Michael Ronkin, former Bicycle and Pedestrian Program manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, looks to bike lanes to encourage safe behavior on the part of cyclists. “A lot of us in the profession…share the opinion that bicycle lanes are the best way to get cyclists off of the sidewalks and onto the roadways with traffic,” he says. Experts say that riding on the sidewalk is the cause of many accidents. Where these footpaths meet roads, “Drivers just aren’t looking for cyclists,” Ronkin says.

From a motorist’s point of view, a bike lane at least signals that drivers should stay out of that portion of the road, Dahmus argues. “They understand which side of that stripe they need to be on,” he says. “That’s what the stripe buys us.”

Several years ago, Dahmus did an anecdotal study to test this belief. He estimated the passing berth given to him by cars on one road in the Austin area that has a bike lane for a stretch and then does not. Dahmus found that the average allowance with the bike lane was greater, though without the bike lane, some drivers gave him a more generous berth and others passed, as he perceived it, dangerously close.

Another dominant argument for bicycle lanes is that they encourage residents to ride bicycles. In these communities, “People are just more used to seeing cyclists,” Ronkin says. With more cyclists on the road, he adds, drivers are attuned to how their behavior might affect the bicyclists’ safety. And drivers are more likely to be cyclists themselves and therefore sympathetic to the limitations of a two-wheeled, human-powered vehicle. Unfortunately for Myslin, however, motorist habituation to cyclists in a bicycle-friendly community didn’t do him any good.

The Illusion of Safety
Critics argue that the safety claims made for bicycle lanes are unfounded. “There’s no scientific evidence that’s ever been found anywhere that bike lanes make cycling safe,” says John Forester, a cycling transportation engineer from Lemon Grove, California. “It doesn’t do anything for the turning and crossing movements, which all have to continue.”

Forester and his followers—they call themselves “Foresterites”—advocate what they term “vehicular cycling.” In vehicular cycling, a cyclist operates a bicycle as if it were a car. Forester has created courses that teach cyclists how to break away from what they had been taught as youngsters. Instead of staying glued to the gutter at the right edge of the roadway, the vehicular method calls for cyclists to enter the flow of traffic when appropriate.

If Myslin had subscribed to this school of bicycling, so the argument goes, he would have entered the stream of traffic and stayed behind the truck as any car would have, instead of pulling along its right side. He would have followed the truck and crossed the intersection after its sweeping right turn, avoiding that vicious but all too common right hook.

Forester’s opinion is that bike lanes were not devised to keep cyclists safe, but rather to keep them from interfering with car traffic. In the past century, many American cities have grown with, and even because of, the automobile. As a result, most bicyclists have been relegated to a sort of second-class citizenry on the road, trained from an early age to avoid cars by staying as far to the right as possible, Forester says, and bicycle lanes only reinforce this mindset. Vastly outnumbering cyclists since the 1930s, the political pressure came from motorists. “They talked about cyclists ‘impacting’ the roads, as if it were a case of constipation,” he says. If children are indoctrinated with a philosophy that cyclists should stay as far to the right as possible, Forester believes, they’ll be more prone to accidents.

Even if the data were there to either support or refute the safety of bike lanes, safety is not the only, and often not even the primary, consideration. “There’s this illusion out there that traffic engineering is about safety,” says Ronkin. “It’s not.” Though reluctant to admit it publicly, highway and road architects agree that their primary goal, ahead of safety, is to move traffic effectively and efficiently. As an example, Ronkin pointed to a mainstay of urban roadways: traffic lights. “Traffic lights do increase crashes, but they help traffic flow more smoothly during the day,” he says. Regardless, with bicycling—for pleasure, commuting or any other purpose—there just aren’t enough cyclists on American roads to produce statistically viable studies that show bike lanes are the best strategy for safety.

safety signsThere have been other attempts at using road markings to communicate with cyclists. “If you create something that works and everybody gets it—they know what to do without having to retake their driver’s test—you’re headed in the right direction,” says Mia Birk, a transportation consultant with Alta Planning and Design in Portland, Oregon. Birk and her firm did a study in 2004 to look at how another strategy called “shared lane markings” affected cyclists’ behavior in certain parts of San Francisco where streets are too narrow for bicycle lanes. In general, her conclusion was that the most highly visible markings discouraged dangerous cycling behavior, such as riding on sidewalks. Again, however, the sample size was too low to draw any statistically important conclusions.

Could more instructive road markings have saved John Myslin’s life? If something had signaled to him that traffic would be crossing in his path—many bike lanes trail off into a dotted line in advance of an intersection, for instance—he may have expected vehicles to cross in front of him and avoided the truck by passing it on the left. But Mission Street at the site of the accident lacks a bike lane (Photograph 1). About a mile east of the intersection with Bay Street, there is a vague sign imploring drivers to “share the road,” presumably with cyclists (Photograph 2). Perhaps Myslin would have felt more comfortable using the entire lane, had he seen a more explicitly worded sign, like the one on High Street, which runs roughly parallel to Mission Street in Santa Cruz (Photograph 3).

Answering the questions raised by the deaths of Myslin and other cyclists are difficult without statistically sound data because of the myriad factors involved. Accurate comparisons require accounting for weather, traffic conditions, street conditions, roadway design and a host of other confounding elements. If cyclist safety was the primary goal, then yes, the roadways could be made safer, Ronkin says. Increasing the number of unambiguous signs, more comprehensive education campaigns and intensive intersection studies have that potential, but the experts agree—with the lowest rates of cycling in the developed world and bicycle-related deaths at less than two percent of all traffic fatalities nationwide, the political will is just not there.

“So few people ride a bike,” Ronkin says. “Safety is an extremely important consideration, but it’s not the most important.”

[Ed. note: This article, which originally appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #2,  was writtern by John C. Cannon, with illustrations by Kevin Nierman and photos by John Cannon. Click here to subscribe to Bicycle Times and here to purchase Issue #2 as a single copy. The charts below are exclusive web-only content that did not appear in the original article.]

Figure 1:

bicycle safety chart 3

Figure 2:

bicycle safety chart 1

Figure 3:

bicycle safety chart 2

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