Cooperative Cycling: An Introduction To Bicycling Safely With Traffic
Imagine if everyone drove around the roads at random, without stopping, yielding, keeping a straight line, checking behind, or obeying any traffic rules. The public roads would be total, utter chaos. Fortunately, we have carefully designed, commonly accepted rules of the road, which make driving on the roads a well-organized, cooperative, and relatively safe activity.
Sadly, most bicyclists in the USA don't use these rules. It's not really their fault; most have no in-depth cycling education. Many have been told to do things that are illegal and dangerous -- such as riding on sidewalks or on the wrong side of the road. We simply don't teach bicyclists how to be safe by using all the rules of the road to politely cooperate with other drivers -- not just signaling turns, but merging, changing lanes, yielding to others, using lights at night, and more.
Yet because bicycling is so forgiving, the number of persons who die while bicycling in the US is very small: fewer than 900 per year. That's compared to 5,000 pedestrians, almost 40,000 in cars, 60,000 from air pollution, and hundreds of thousands from lack of exercise. Overall, bicycling is safer than motorcycling, horse-riding, water-skiing, or swimming. Even the overall risk involved in a bicycle crash is much less than in a car crash. Cars on highways crash at high speeds, with tremendous damaging forces, and tangle with tractor-trailers 30-40 times larger (a much greater difference than between cars and bikes).
-- About 85% of all bicycle crashes requiring medical treatment didn't involve a moving car at all; the bicyclist simply slid, fell, or ran into something. Thatís why helmets and gloves are important.
-- In the 15% that were car/bike crashes, over 9 out of 10 were avoidable; they happened with crossing and turning traffic at driveways, intersections, and in bikelanes.
-- Over 50% of adult cycling deaths were avoidable; they involved bicycling at night without lights.
So, improving bicycle safety in traffic is actually quite easy: most car/bike crashes happen with crossing and turning traffic at driveways, intersections, in bikelanes, and with unlit bicyclists at night. These are predictable crashes which can easily be avoided. The most experienced bicyclists have learned how to do so.
Cooperative Cyclists log thousands of miles in traffic, year after year, yet have 80% fewer collisions than untrained cyclists. Through study and practice they have learned that by politely using all the rules of the road to cooperate with other drivers, they can ride quite safely with traffic. A complete Bicycle Drivers Manual can be studied
by following the link on our front page.
That in-depth cycling education gives Cooperative Cyclists the freedom to travel on any road, day or night, with reasonable safety. Unlike bikelanes "cycling education is self-deployed wherever needed, increases in effectiveness with every use, at no additional cost, and provides complete coverage by being used at every time and location where its use is in any way advantageous." (John Forester). Bikelanes are a terrible substitute for an in-depth cycling education. A bikelane is not a protected space: crossing and turning traffic still has to be safely and cooperatively negotiated at all driveways, intersections, bus stops, and parking spaces.
"Cyclists Fare Best When They Act And Are Treated As Drivers Of Vehicles." (John Forester)
Under the law, bicyclists are supposed to follow the rules for slow-moving vehicles, the same as farm vehicles, construction machines, antique cars and horse-buggies. Slow vehicles travel to the right IF there is safe space. Faster vehicles wait until they can pass safely. Other than that, everyone follows the same rules.
The ride-to-the-right rule for bicyclists is simply another version of this, but is so widely misunderstood that most people believe it says cyclists must always stay right. This isnít so. While bicyclists share their lane if itís completely safe to do so, traffic law never requires them to squeeze over to the right for passing cars. Doing so often causes cyclists to collide with parked car doors, slide on sand or debris, or get squeezed between hazards.
In most states, the ride-to-the-right rule for bicyclists actually says:
"ride to the right *EXCEPT* when passing, turning left, or to avoid objects, parked cars, moving vehicles, pedestrians, animals, surface or other hazards; or when in a vehicle lane too narrow for a bicycle and another vehicle to pass safely, side by side, within the lane."
Conditions like these are quite common when bicycling. Traffic law clearly says that to avoid them, donít stay right. In these conditions the law specifically instructs bicyclists to be safe by behaving as other drivers do:
"Every person riding a bicycle shall have all of the rights and duties applicable to other drivers."
So to avoid hazardous conditions bicyclists should politely merge left, and ride nearer the center of a vehicle lane until the hazards are past -- just as any other driver would do. Some may think this unsafe for bicyclists, but this is normal practice for all slow drivers: drive to the right when itís safe, but use a full lane when needed. The law is the same for bicyclists precisely because this is the best and safest way to operate a bicycle in traffic. As one police chief says, "Itís just common sense and standard traffic rules."
Politely taking enough space for your own safety is the heart and core of safely cycling in traffic. You can't be safe unless you're willing to take some space; even if you have to delay some cars. The most experienced bicyclists politely and legally use the full lane when itís needed, and ride comfortably in a safe-space zone away from hazards. Doing so makes them safer by being more visible to other drivers at driveways and intersections, where most collisions occur. It prevents motorists from squeezing past in narrow lanes; they simply have to wait or go around. While a 20-30 second wait may be annoying, riding this way is the best way to ensure safety.
This is called Cooperative Cycling (also known as Vehicular Cycling and Bicycle Driving). It is the only national standard for safe bicycling that is based upon using all the standard traffic rules to politely cooperate with other drivers. There is extensive science to support it: the decades of overall traffic-safety studies, plus studies of common bicycle and car/bike crashes, and studies of how the most-experienced cyclists log thousands of miles this way in traffic, year after year, yet have 80% fewer accidents than untrained cyclists.
Of course, there is much more to it. Cooperative Cyclists ride in a straight line along with traffic, and move sideways by politely merging; exactly the same way other drivers change lanes. They create a safe-space zone around the bicycle by riding about 4 ft. away from parked cars, curbs, or hazards. They merge, yield, and change lanes just like other drivers. They always use lights at night. They avoid getting squeezed in narrow lanes or when hazards are ahead by politely merging left, and riding near the center of a vehicle lane until the hazard is past. For more, please study the Bicycle Drivers Manual at www.bicyclinglife.com .
Cyclist education is the key to cyclist safety. Everyone operates in traffic throughout their lives: children walk and ride on sidewalks (with cross traffic at driveways), cross the streets, and then bicycle on neighborhood roads. Later they bike in traffic, and then start driving. We should be teaching traffic education continuously through-out the grade school years, in a progression from pedestrian to cooperative cyclist to motor vehicle operator.
"Nobody ever died from not knowing how to play flag football. Yet we spend tax money teaching kids its nuances in gym classes, while bicycle safety is still foreign to most school curriculums." Don Cuerdon
Even a simple public awareness campaign can help. In Charlottesville Va., area police and media reminded motorists that bicyclists have equal rights to use a full lane when needed. Libraries distributed the Bicycle Driverís Manual mentioned above. Many bicyclists reported slightly increased cycling, and better behavior from both motorists and cyclists.
Thatís all it takes: educate cyclists, educate the public, and encourage fair and equal enforcement of existing traffic laws. Every person, without exception, has a fundamental civil right to use and be protected by the law on our public roads. Every road user, including bicyclists, should practice safety first. Traffic rules define the safest way known for sharing public roads: apply the same principles, the same rules, and the same rights to every individual: and hold each individual responsible for their behavior, and their behavior alone. We not only have to share our public roads -- we should be sharing the ideal of safety for everyone on the road.
Thank you for your time and consideration. And thank you for bicycling! Comments? CycleMedia@hotmail.com
(c) 2002 Lauren Cooper Permission to copy with credit, and distribute for free, is granted.