Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Dangers of Bike Lanes

I read an article today from the Madison Capital Times titled "Bike helmet crushed, but head fine." In brief, a cyclist was proceeding through an intersection in a bicycle lane when a truck suddenly made a right turn in front of him. He attempted to stop, but ended up being thrown off the bike and under the wheels of the truck. The truck ran over his head as it rounded the corner. Miraculously, thanks to his helmet, the cyclist was fine.

This is the exact kind of accident that bicycle lanes cause.

A bicycle lane creates the impression, particularly in the inexperienced and/or poorly educated cyclist's mind, that "this is where bicycles belong, not in the travel lanes with the motorists." Further, many non-cyclists think that the presence of a bicycle lane makes it illegal for the cyclist to use the regular travel lanes or, for that matter, for the motorist to use the bicycle lanes.

None of these beliefs are true.

The cyclist in the above article obviously intended to proceed straight through the intersection. If that was the case, his proper position was in the center of the through lane, not at the extreme right. If a cyclist stays too far right when proceeding straight at an intersection, they invite motorists to squeeze by and turn right into their path, and that's just what happened. This error is so common, it even has a name: a "right hook."

Further, a cyclist making a left turn at an intersection must shoulder check, signal and merge into the left turn lane or, on a two lane street, merge to the left side of the lane near the center line, in preparation for a left turn regardless of the presence of a bike lane. Again, inexperienced cyclists and non-cyclists don't tend to realize this, either.

That's the problem with cycle lanes. They are usually painted at the extreme right. This tends to guide the inexperienced cyclist to stay right all the time, even when it's not appropriate to do so. For that matter, if a cycle lane is somehow damaged, filled with debris or is situated in the "door zone" along parked cars, a cyclist does have the right to choose to ignore the bike lane altogether and use the main travel lanes for their safety.

"Why should cyclists be allowed in our lanes?" many motorists would argue. "We're not allowed in their lanes."

Surprisingly, that isn't true, either...

A motorist intending to make a right turn at an intersection with a bike lane is required to merge into the bike lane in preparation for the turn, just as they would if the cycle lane was an ordinary right turn lane. By doing so, the motorist signals clearly to any cyclist approaching from behind that he or she intends to turn right, thus preventing the cyclist from riding up alongside them and getting right hooked.

So, not only are cyclists not supposed to stay in the bike lane all the time, neither do motorists have to stay out of it all the time. Choice of lane, particularly at intersections, is all about your destination, not the vehicle you're driving.

Accidents like the one above are among the many reasons why I think cycle lanes are useless, and can be downright dangerous if people aren't properly educated in how to use them. Under certain conditions, there are rules that allow motorists to share the cyclists' lane and the cyclists to share the motorists' lanes. If you just paint the cycle lanes without providing education on how to use them safely, accidents like the above are inevitable.

This is also why I feel that cycle lanes only complicate matters, adding additional rules that motorists and cyclists must learn that really aren't necessary. A road with ordinary travel lanes is already an elegant means for all vehicles to share the road, provided everyone follows the rules and is patient with the varying operating characteristics of the wide variety of vehicles out there.

This was obviously an inexperienced cyclist traveling too fast for his experience level. The fact that he flipped himself over the handlebars suggests he didn't know how to modulate his front brake in an emergency stop and, if he was unable to stop in time, he should have executed a quick turn with the truck to avoid the collision instead of trying to stop, anyway. The cycle lane only made things worse by encouraging him to stay too far to the right.

I maintain, and I will always maintain, that there is only one way to increase the safety of cyclists on North America's roads: education. Cyclists and motorists alike must be made to understand the cyclists are vehicle operators with the same rights and responsibilities as any user of the road.

If we can get that message out, we won't need any special lanes for cyclists.

On May 16, 2007 11:50:10 AM ADT, Anonymous wrote:
The fact of the matter is that, as far as it appears from the article about this collision, and in most right hooks, the motorist is 100% at fault for the accident.
I disagree. The cyclist was in the wrong lane for his destination. Any vehicle operator who goes straight through an intersection in a right turn only lane (which is what cycle lanes, at intersections, essentially are) is entirely at fault if he/she gets right hooked by a vehicle that is using the lane for the right turn it's meant for.

That being said, yes the motorist should have merged into the bike lane in preparation for the turn. The motorist is at fault in that sense. However, general public perception is that motorists are supposed to stay out of the bike lanes at all times. The motorist did make a mistake, but it wasn't a mistake of negligence on his part. It was a mistake of cultural misconception.
Focusing on what the cyclist could have done better detracts from the responsibility of the motorist.
Not at all. Actually, the fault is pretty much 50/50 in this case. Both cyclist and motorist were in the wrong lanes for their intended destinations, and both where in the wrong lanes because of lack of public education on the rights and responsibilities of cyclists and motorists when interacting with each other in traffic in the presence of a bike lane.

I focus on the cyclist because a vast majority of cyclist/motorist collisions are the fault of the cyclist because (in my experience) so few cyclists recognize the fact that the bicycle needs to be driven in traffic just like any vehicle. That, and the fact that, despite the motorist's error, the collision could have been completely avoided had the cyclist been in the correct lane position.

On May 16, 2007 11:54:45 AM ADT, Frank H. wrote:
Madison (where this accident occured) has many of these [separate cycle] paths, and I must say there is a certain sense of ease, calm and safety riding on these paths compared to on the street. However, as this accident points, you still need to be fully aware and cautious at intersections with streets. This sense of safety gets many people out riding their bikes for commuting and exercise when they might otherwise choose to drive.
I've seen so many people focusing on how bike lanes and paths will get more people out biking. Maybe it will, but at what cost? As this incident proves, just getting people out on their bikes could be dangerous if they don't have the necessary education in how to interact safely with traffic. We need to be less anxious to get people on their bikes so bloody fast and more anxious about educating them first before they put their butts in the saddle.
For example, try convincing a parent of a young child to tote their kid around in a bike trailer on a busy street. Not gunna happen
I have known parents who have done just that... ;)

The thing is, doing that only sounds crazy to the cycling neophyte. The experienced cyclist with the proper traffic skills knows that doing that is actually no more or less dangerous than taking your children out for a ride in the car.
I regularly rode down a busy four-lane street for four miles to work . . . I am an experienced cyclist and it was scary to me . . . If I had a bike lane on this street, at least I would have some room to breath, a little more room between me and the menacing dump trucks.

[I]t sure feels better then having cars whiz by within inches of us every few seconds.
If cars were whizzing by you within inches every few seconds, chances are you were riding too close to the road edge.

Some lanes are just too narrow to share safely with other traffic. When they are, you must take the entire lane. Doing so communicates clearly to the approaching traffic behind you that they must move over into the other lane completely in over to overtake you. Assuming your experience dovetails with mine (and there's no reason to think it wouldn't), moving out into the center of the lane on such a road will cut your "close calls" to near zero.
I think your arguments are valid, but I don't think they detract from the usefulness of bike lanes, especially to inexperienced cyclist . . .
On the contrary. Cycle lanes are more dangerous to the inexperienced cyclist. The experienced cyclist at least knows when not to use them.
[A] few extra feet of space for me doesn't hurt either.
True, but I find a few extra feet of space more useful when that few extra feet of space isn't marked off by bike lane stripes. Wide outside lanes accomplish many of the same things bicycle lanes are supposed to accomplish without many of the cycle lane's inherent dangers.

5 comments:

  1. Anonymous11:50 AM

    Although I agree with most of your analysis about bike lanes and lane position of the cyclist, it is getting very tiring hearing analyses of accidents that seem put all the responsibility on the victim.

    Whenever there is a car-bike crash, you always read about how important it was that the cyclist was wearing a helmet, or how the driver somehow didn't see the cyclist (hence the cyclist must have been doing some wrong to cause the accident).

    The fact of the matter is that, as far as it appears from the article about this collision, and in most right hooks, the motorist is 100% at fault for the accident. Whether the cyclists could have done more to reduce the liklihood of a motorist being neglectful of their responsibilities is another issue. And yes, the cyclist will always be the one who loses, and so the cyclist should try to be as smart about things as they can. But that doesn't detract from the fact that the collision happened because of motorist neglect, and the cyclist was hurt because (mostly) it was in a collision with a vehicle 100 times its weight. Focusing on what the cyclist could have done better detracts from the responsibility of the motorist.

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  2. Frank H.11:54 AM

    First, I want to point out that the cyclist was riding in a separate multi-use aka bicycle path. Check out my post on the icebike list I have a link to the google map of the intersection. The bike path is typically 40 feet south of the street, but at this intersection the path swerves in towards the road and crosses the intersection like a wide sidewalk. This is why the "walk" signal indicated to him that he had the right of way, though he obviously should have know to look both ways before crossing the street as well.

    Second, I'd like to make an argument for the benefit of bike paths and lanes. The best bike paths are those that do not parallel streets but instead provide unique and faster (more direct), or more scenic, routes around town for cyclist. Madison (where this accident occured) has many of these paths, and I must say there is a certain sense of ease, calm and safety riding on these paths compared to on the street. However, as this accident points, you still need to be fully aware and cautious at intersections with streets. This sense of safety gets many people out riding their bikes for commuting and exercise when they might otherwise choose to drive. For example, try convincing a parent of a young child to tote their kid around in a bike trailer on a busy street. Not gunna happen So I think that bike paths are a good thing in most cases.

    I also need to make an argument for bike lanes. I recently moved to Madison, before that I lived in the Chicago suburb of Palatine, where, aside from some poorly routed bike paths, there were not amenities for bikes. I regularly rode down a busy four-lane street for four miles to work. The only other option would be for me to wind around on the suburban side-streets and double my commuting time, and I am too lazy for that. I should not have to take the convoluted back streets, I should be able to take the most efficient route to work like everyone else. So I was in the pot-holed lanes with cars and big trucks. I am an experienced cyclist and it was scary to me, I often made up excuses and just drove to work because riding made me nervous, or I would get up at 5 am to get to to work at 6 in order to ride before the traffic picked up for the day. If I had a bike lane on this street, at least I would have some room to breath, a little more room between me and the menacing dump trucks. Furthermore, the presence of bike lanes make drivers more aware that cyclist may be present and they (may) pay more attention.

    Now that I live in Madison and have many streets to ride on which have bike lanes, and other routes that do not, I will always choose the streets with the wide shoulder lane or bike lane to ride on over streets with no accommodations. Riding in bike lanes feels safer. Now it may be a false sense of security, and we must keep our guard up at all times, but it sure feels better then having cars whiz by within inches of us every few seconds.

    I think your arguments are valid, but I don't think they detract from the usefulness of bike lanes, especially to inexperienced cyclist, the exact kind of people we need to be encouraging to ride more often. Either way, your right better education is the key to the safe interaction of bicycles and cars in the roadway... but a few extra feet of space for me doesn't hurt either.

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  3. Anonymous12:03 PM

    if ever there was a modernern Ignatius Reilly, you are him for sure.

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  4. John,
    In general I agree with the points in this post. Just a couple of things to note:
    1. This crash was a right hook, but the bike facility in this case is not a bike lane at the edge of a street lane, but a separated two-way path that runs parallel to the street.
    2. The parallel street in this case is a .4-mile-long, 2-lane, one-way thoroughfare that's treated like a freeway by motorists. It's very intimidating to ride on Eastwood, and even I won't do so.
    3. I agree that education for motorists and cyclists is vitally important and often overlooked, but facilities design is important too. Some of us would like to get rid of Eastwood Drive altogether. Barring that, changing the way the bike path crosses Division and Russell streets would be a good first step.

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  5. Yeah, right. Education. Mandatory driver training works so very well for motorists (40K+ killed a year, thousands injured, billions in property damage...) Give me infrastructure improvement over education programs anyday. - Paul Dorn, LCI #1237

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