Cycling safety discussions and efforts seem to place a lot of effort and focus on motorist behavior and more and more bikeways. It is easy to understand why this happens. After all, if there were no motor vehicles on the roads, cycling would be much safer. So, if we could just get motorists to change their behavior such that they never collide with cyclists, or cut in front of us, it would effectively be the same - - in terms of safety -- as riding on roads without motor vehicles. So the perception seems to be that if motorists were better drivers, cyclists would be much safer. So, we seek methods to "improve motorists".
As an engineer, I am trained to identify the root cause of problems before jumping to a solution. Let's look at cycling safety from this perspective, and consider the following facts:
- Most car-bike collisions are the cyclist's fault.
- Most motorists are reasonably good at obeying the rules of the road.
- Most cyclists are not reasonably good at obeying the rules of the road.
- In most car-bike collisions the motorist simply did not see the cyclist, usually because the cyclist was not obeying the rules of the road and/or riding in a road position that was unexpected, obscured, not very obvious, out of the way, etc.
- Even if every motorist magically became a perfect driver, most car-bike collisions that occur today would still occur.
- To cyclists who ride according to the rules of the road, the biggest threat is the drunk driver.
- Any efforts to reduce the incidence of drunk driving made by cyclists is likely to not make a big difference considering the amount of efforts already being made to do this by other factions of our society that dwarf all cycling advocates put together.
- Cyclists have much more potential effective influence over cyclists than over motorists.
When I consider this list and think about it, I reach the following conclusion:
The solution to significantly improving cycling safety cannot be about improving the driving skills of motorists, but lies within each individual cyclist
If we are serious about improving cycling safety, then trying to improve motorists driving skills is a waste of time and resources. First of all, in the U.S. alone we're talking about close to two hundred million drivers, most of whom could care less about cyclists and cycling, and there are relatively very few cyclists, of which only a fraction would be sufficiently interested to do something about this, so the impact we could have is insignificant. Secondly, even if we could significantly improve the driving skills of significant numbers of drivers, even if we could turn all motorists into perfect drivers, the effect this would have on reducing car-bike collisions would not be very significant (because most car-bike collisions are not caused by reasonably preventable motorist negligence). If we are serious about improving cycling safety, then we must take the current state of motorist driving skills as a given that we have no significant influence over.
So many cyclists are so focussed on the "moron drivers" out there, as if that's the problem that needs solving. It isn't. What few cyclists realize, either because they don't know how, or know how but don't believe it's true so are unwilling to try, is: when a cyclist rides defensively in the vehicular manner according to the rules of the road (almost) all of the "moron drivers" disappear!
Instead, convinced that the roadways are riddled with moron/incompetent/homocidal drivers, most cyclists result to at least some of these tactics that they feel are defensive, but, in fact, tend to cause collisions:
- Riding on the wrong side of the road.
- Riding on the sidewalk faster than ped speeds (4mph).
- Riding in a crosswalk faster than ped speeds.
- Riding at night without lights.
- Initiating a left turn from the right side of the roadway.
- Crossing straight across an intersection from the right curb (instead of merging left prior to the intersection to make themselves and their intent obvious: that they are going straight and not turning right).
- Riding too far to the right where he was not expected and not visible.
- Riding too far to the right in a narrow lane, thus communicating to motorists that he believes the lane is wide to safely share side-by-side, and inviting motorists to squeeze in (it is counter-intuitive to most cyclists to ride in the center or the right-tire-track of the lane when it is narrow like this).
- Riding in bike lanes even when doing so violates the rules of the road (typically by putting the cyclist too far to the right of traffic, making him less obvious and effectively invisible to motorists, including motorists who will be turning into him or his path).
- Riding in door zones.
- Entering and exiting bike paths without properly merging and yielding.
- Passing slow or stopped motorist traffic on their right, often in a bike lane, where the cyclist is not obvious and effectivey invisible to motorists, including motorists who will be turning into him or his path.
- Running a stop sign or red light.
- Merging into traffic without yielding first.
- etc. (can you think of any other examples of cyclist behavior that leads to car-bike collisions?)
It seems to me that cycling advocacy would be much, much more effective in terms of promoting cycling safety if we poured our focus, efforts and resources on educating cyclists to change cyclist behavior, and to promote vehicular cycling, rather than trying to change motorist behavior and promoting bike lanes (see my thread on bike lanes for why).
Our relatively feeble efforts (feeble because there are so relatively few of us as compared to the numbers of motorists) to change motorist behavior which has little potential impact on cycling safety anyway is a waste of our focus, time and resources.
We can have a much bigger impact on cyclists than we can on motorists. Changes in cyclist behavior towards riding vehicularly is where real significant advancements can be made in terms of improving cycling safety.
I urge all realistic and thoughtful cycling advocates to stop wasting time on anything other than cyclist education. When we have a nation full of vehicular cyclists, then we can afford to start looking at other initiatives with comparatively small marginal potential benefits in improving cycling safety. Until then, let us focus our efforts on initiatives that can make huge differences: Read books on vehicular cycling like Effective Cycling, Cyclecraft, etc., give these books as gifts, take a Road 1 course, become a certified instructor, teach vehicular cycling courses, encourage your family, friends, co-workers and fellow-forum-participants to read these books and take these courses... do what you can to improve cycling education for cyclists whenever and wherever you can!