Ask not what motorists can do for you

So far this year, nine people riding bicycles have died as a result of a crash with a motor vehicle.  According to the Journal Sentinel’s review of the police crash reports, motorists were at fault in five of the crashes and bicyclists were at fault in four.  Those numbers are so small that we can’t draw too many conclusions from them by themselves, but they align reasonably well with the historic trends in bicycle crashes in Wisconsin.  In a review of all bicycle crashes with motor vehicles from 1999-2004 done by the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles, motorists were at fault 57% of the time and bicyclists 43%.

Tom Held reported last week Friday in his “Off the Couch” blog that five of the people who were killed while riding bicycles were hit from behind by an overtaking motor vehicle. Those types of crashes are very rare, often result in the death of the person riding the bicycle and are almost impossible to avoid.  Tom noted that in the remaining four fatal crashes, the people on the bicycles were at fault for riding into the path of the motor vehicles.


Click on the image to open a larger file for easier viewing

My point in bringing this up is not to point fingers, but to point out that we as a community have the power to dramatically improve our own safety.  We don’t have to wait for people driving motor vehicles to respect us, stop speeding, give us three feet when passing, or anything else.  We don’t have to wait at all.  All we have to do to reduce the number of people killed while riding bicycles by almost 50% is to obey the laws and learn how to avoid the most likely crashes.

I touched on this idea in a recent post titled “We can be the change we want to see.” In that post I suggested that since most people who ride bicycles also drive cars, before we blame “motorists,” we can start with our own behavior behind the wheel and always drive the speed limit, stop for pedestrians and rather than talking on mobile phones, eating oatmeal or combing our hair, we should give our full attention to the task of driving. Since 49% of Wisconsin residents 16 and older ride bicycles, our community could have a huge positive impact on traffic safety if we all drive our cars like we expect others to do when we are riding bicycles or walking.

After discussing this year’s fatal bicycle crashes with Tom, it became clear that the cycling community can do even more to make Wisconsin the safest place to ride a bicycle in the country.  Certainly people are human and they make mistakes behind the wheel. Unintentional violations of the law can be considered accidents, but most crashes are not accidents. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration put it this way:

  • “Changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave. Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control. In fact, they are predictable results of specific actions.”

While we cannot eliminate human error, we can dramatically reduce the number of people killed while riding bicycles if we all do a better job of obeying the laws and learn where crashes are likely to happen.  Let’s start with the 5 basics of bicycle safety:

  1. Ride your bicycle in the same direction as traffic
  2. Stop at red lights and stop signs
  3. Ride in a predictable manner
  4. Stay 3 feet from parked cars to avoid the door zone
  5. Look both ways before riding out into traffic

As far as learning to recognize where crashes are likely to happen, you don’t have to read the entire 84 page detailed crash typing study done by WisDOT, but the Major Findings section summarizes results that are significant and worth noting.

“…there were far more urban crashes than rural crashes (94% compared 6%), the majority of crashes occurred at intersections (66% compared to 34%), there was a high frequency of sidewalk/crosswalk-type crashes (28% of all crashes), and there were lower crash rates on wider roadways for both local roads and state highways. While urban streets had a much higher crash rate, rural highways had a much higher rate of fatalities (fatal crashes as a percent of all bike – vehicle crashes). Four of the top five crash types (and 7 of the top 10) indicated that the motorist made the critical error that contributed to the crash.”

Our takeaway from that is crashes are most likely to happen at intersections. People on bikes should beware of the “left cross” and the “right hook.”  When approaching an intersection, bicyclists should move closer to the center of their lane to indicate their intention to continue straight to the drivers in both oncoming vehicles and overtaking vehicles. By moving away from the curb and “taking the lane” the driver behind the bicycle knows not to try to hurry past and turn right. Approaching motorists who want to turn left will also know they have to wait before turning.

The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin will continue to work for tougher enforcement of laws that protect people on bicycles.  In fact, we are drafting legislation now, that if passed, will improve the protections of the most vulnerable users of the road. So while we cannot ignore the fact that five of the nine people who died in bicycle crashes were killed through no fault of their own, neither can we ignore that four people might have avoided a crash if they had been following the rules of the road.  And so my fellow bicyclists, as a beginning, let us ask not what motorists can do to improve our safety - ask instead what we can do for ourselves.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 11 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave lives with his wife Liz and daughter Frankie in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's west side.

15 thoughts on “Ask not what motorists can do for you

  1. Some other safety tips while bicycling:
    1) Leave the earbuds/headphones at home or in your bag. Your ears are your eyes in the back of your head.
    2) Use a rear view mirror. I was raised as a hard-core roadie with almost 30 years experience and 1000s of miles on the roads and never used one until this year. Now that I have one, I find it amazing how many cars coming from behind I never hear even without headphones.
    3) Make eye contact with drivers approaching from behind - seems many drivers provide more room and play nicer with cyclists if they know they are being “watched”.
    4) Always be aware of your “out”. That is, where will you steer your bike if trouble materializes suddenly on the road.

  2. I know that we disagree on this, but I also think that we should attempt to minimize the risk of severe injury or death if we are in an accident by wearing a helmet. For as careful as you can be as a rider, there is always that remaining 50% of the time where you have no control over a situation. Reducing the risk and severity of a head injury is the number one way that you can protect yourself if you are in a crash.

    • Hey Travis, I think we agree that helmets dramatically reduce a person’s risk of head injury if they are involved in a crash. I would never teach a bicycle safety class without helmets. I also would advise anyone who is the least bit uncomfortable with traffic to ride with a helmet, but I don’t preach about it like I used to. We all have different comfort levels with risk. Some people put anti-slip shower mats and grab bars in the bathroom. Others sky dive or ride motorcycles 70mph on the freeway with no helmet. Riding a bicycle is pretty darn safe no matter what you compare it to. And it is a really healthy thing to do that reduces other risks of death a person faces in our sedentary, super sized culture. Given the relative safety of cycling and the health risks faced by most americans, my primary objective is to sell cycling, not helmets. That said, I do recognize that I walk a fine line here, and I certainly don’t disagree with anyone who decides to wear a helmet under any circumstance. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  3. Thanks for the post, Dave. Riding confidently in traffic requires a set of skills that you pick up over time. You can’t expect to instantly know these skills as a new bicyclist, much as you can’t expect to know how to handle a car if you’ve never driven before. The diagram I think does a great job of conveying the basics. Over time, with some experience, the cyclist builds on these basics until navigating the streets on a bike becomes like second nature.

    There’s a great book called “The Art of Urban Cycling” by Robert Hurst that has done a lot to make me a better, more confident urban rider. He offers all kinds of useful tips to deal with cars, tips that I use to great effect every day.

    Another useful book is “Traffic: Why we Drive the way we Do.” This is a pop psychology book that surveys the latest research into driver behavior. It has helped me considerably in getting to understand why drivers do the things they do, including me, when I drive. It has helped me anticipate better the behavior of drivers.

  4. My one additional teaching point:
    Bicyclists traveling straight through an intersection should never be in a right turn lane. Too many bike lanes dump cyclists into confusing right turn lanes that lead them to block traffic, frustrate drivers, and greatly increase risks when they try to rejoin the flow of traffic one a light is green. I’ve seen lots of riders fly through a right turn lane and make a very dangerous move left back into a traffic lane on roads where there is no bike lane.

  5. Nice post, Dave. I have found myself looking inward when confronting dangerous situations on the road because after 40 years it has finally dawned on me that my angry face and profanity-laced thoughts don’t seem to change the way people drive. Your advice was smart, succinct, and (from my own experience) effective. In my own experience, taking proactive steps to increase my visibility and predictability has reduced the number of dicey instances in which I find myself.

    • Thanks for the comment Pat. I think you touch on more than I mentioned when you reflect on our inability to change the way people drive. I like the idea of doing what we can do first and trying to keep our heads above the rest of the rage that seems so pervasive on the road these days.

  6. I’m a little late to this but I thought I’d add my two cents. My son is 6 and I’m teaching him how to ride in the street. The number one rule I have is that HE (the cyclist) is the only one responsible for his safety. Helmet or no, getting hit by a car doing 30 mph is very likely to kill the cyclist.

    I’ve printed out the picture you posted. It’s great. I do have a variation on the drive predictable theme. I much prefer to swerve or weave as I drive on city streets. The object is to be seen. Too often I have blended into the street when driving in a straight predictable manner. A little weaving while staying in my lane does wonders for being seen by motorists.

  7. I was surprised to read notes on your picture with your 9/7/2011 posting.
    ‘Don’t ride on the sidewalk. It is illegal for anyone 10 or older and for adults it is more dangerous than riding in the street’
    Until I was hit by an auto recently while riding on a sidewalk, I was thinking it was legal, safe, maybe even safer than riding in the street.
    After the accident I doubting whether it is safer than the street.
    As for being illegal I am confused. I thought the State Statutes, and the Madison guide, were pretty clear. What leads you to state that it is illegal?

    • Hi Tom,

      State statutes allow local municipalities to make their own laws about riding on the sidewalk. You are correct that Madison allows it in some instances, typically on side streets. It is illegal in Milwaukee and many other cities. Most places have it as illegal for adults because it is generally much more dangerous. Crashes happen at conflict points, typically intersections. Sidewalks have many more conflict points and motorists are even less likely to watch for bicycles on the sidewalk than they are on the street.

      Perhaps I should edit that language to say it is “often illegal.” Thanks for the comment and I hope your crash was not too bad and you are back riding again.

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