Study Finds Cyclists Need Safer Streets

(Editor’s Note: A lot of what’s in this post, available at Streetsblog,  but its findings certainly apply to Los Angeles as well.-DN)

A Hunter College study on cyclist behavior is making the rounds today, getting a long post on City Room.
The data measure the extent to which cyclists take safety precautions
and follow traffic laws. Helpful stuff to know, except that the
findings are presented in a way that feeds into the worst stereotypes
about cyclists and a blame-the-victim mentality toward traffic injuries
and deaths.

In the post, headlined "Study Finds
Cyclists Disobey Traffic Laws," the report authors call for greater
helmet use and adherence to traffic laws. Again, all well and good, but
leaving it at that reinforces the perception that cyclists would be
much safer if only they obeyed the letter of the law. It’s easy to hear
echoes of NYPD’s insistence, in the waning days of the Giuliani
administration, that "cyclist error" was to blame in three quarters of
deadly crashes. A follow-up study conducted by the advocacy group Right
of Way [PDF] found otherwise:

Through
careful reconstruction of crash circumstances, we were able to assign
responsibility in 53 of the 71 fatal bicycle crashes during 1995-1998
for which we obtained police crash reports. We determined that drivers
were highly culpable in 30 cases, partly culpable in 11 cases, and not
culpable in 12 cases. Driver misconduct was thus the principal cause in
57% (30 out of 53) of the cases and a contributory factor in 78% (30
plus 11, or 41, out of 53).

Another
way to view the Hunter College findings is that rates of traffic
violations among cyclists are symptomatic of a system designed mainly
to accommodate cars. In other words, cyclists follow the rules more
when they feel safe. (City Room cites TA’s Wiley Norvell to this
effect, toward the bottom of the post.) This has been borne out on
Ninth Avenue, where according to DOT’s data, the incidence of sidewalk
riding declined from five percent to below one percent after the
protected path was installed.

As Norvell told Streetsblog, "A
lot of the traffic violations we see out there happen on streets that
have absolutely no provision for the safety of the cyclist."

  • Gotta love how they lead with “more obedience of traffic laws and helmet use”. Jeez – you’d think the people who do these studies have no experience with these things = what’s your plan to increase adherence to traffic laws AND increase cycling? Because increased cycling leads to huge gains in safety, and we need to move that direction anyway.

    You know, Americans aren’t the Dutch – we’re not going to stand at a red light in the middle of a blizzard with no one around an wait. I’ll blow that light 11 times out of 10, and so will most Americans – motorists and cyclists. We need to get real about what we really want and expect from cyclists. Do we want safety, or do we want utter deference to the law? The answer is clear – safety – that’s the purpose of the law.

    End rant – I oughtta flesh that out into a post.

  • Alex, that’s a good point. There was a New Yorker article a little while back talking about John Stuart Mill’s attitude about rights: We don’t have rights because they’re god-given or inalienable or anything like that; we have rights because they’re useful to have. By the same token, why do we have laws? Not because we have to, but because they’re useful for us. And if the laws, as currently written, aren’t useful, what are our obligations as cyclists?

  • Timur – agreed – so much of what we often moralize about – “it’s bad to run red lights” – amounts to attaching a moral tenor to obeying conventions. I don’t think it’s totally illegitimate to argue that it is moral to adhere to certain conventions, but it’s definitely important to remember they are conventions, and the morality of adhering to them arises from a reduction in danger, not from any inherent rightness. Which means, ignoring them selectively might not be all bad.

  • Not the original AT

    Very good point Alex.
    The only problem that I see is that your question “Do we want safety, or do we want utter deference to the law?” will devolve in practice (and has done so) to “Do we want safety, or do we want convenience?”

    All too often, convenience trumps safety.

  • “All too often, convenience trumps safety.” – NTOAT

    What can be done about that? I don’t know. The best known example –> over-reliance on the private car.

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