Review of New York Times article of June 5, 2007

This is a review of the article Cars and Bikes Can Mix, When the Rules of the Road Are Clear, which appeared in the New York Times on June 5, 2007 and is available online.

That’s a good headline, except that the problem is usually with behavior, not the rules of the road. The author is an all-too-typical bicyclist who has not learned or been taught good information, and the article has a number of significant errors. It isn’t up to the Times’s standards.

The article mentions the League of American Bicyclists “Share the Road” campaign but without identifying it. The author would do well to attend a League Bike-Ed class.

The article leads with what bleeds, descriptions of fatal crashes. Fear factor is clearly at work here.

Pictures of crash types show them but not how to avoid them — useless information.

And now, I’ll comment on some specific statements in the article.

  • “Thanks to the proliferation of designated bike paths and the growing use of helmets, deaths among bicyclists have declined to around 600 a year from about 800. Still, 600 is 600 too many, as are the approximately 46,000 annual injuries that cyclists suffer in crashes with motor vehicles.” Bike paths don’t have a significant effect on the fatality rate; most riding is on streets. The 600 to 800 figure is about right for the USA, but the article confusingly makes several references to New York City. Cyclist fatalities per year have declined substantially since the 1970s, but largely due to a decline in cycling by children. There has been a small uptick in cyclist fatalities, along with other traffic fatalities, in the past few years.
  • “Prompted by organizations like Transportation Alternatives, the city has created hundreds of bike paths on or near city streets.” The facilities on streets are bike lanes, not bike paths. Hundreds of miles, I think, not hundreds of facilities. Paths adjacent to city streets, with few exceptions, should not be described as a safety improvement, as they have a poor safety record due to crossing and turning conflicts at intersections.
  • “Bicycles are legally entitled to use most roads, though they must ride on the shoulder when the speed limit exceeds 50 miles per hour.” Bicyclists are required to allow other traffic to overtake when safe in all states, but are required specifically to use the shoulder only in Maryland, Alaska, New York and Colorado. Each of these states has exceptions to the rule, for example to turn left or if the shoulder is not usable. See Paul Schimek’s guide to traffic laws.
  • The author advises motorists: “[w]hen turning right, signal well ahead of time, turn from the middle of the intersection rather than across the bike path, and make sure no bike is on your right before you turn. Do not pass a cyclist if you will be turning right immediately after.” Again, the author confuses bike lanes with bike paths. Her advice for motorists to turn right from the left lane is contrary to law, which requires that motorists merge into the bike lane. “[A]nd make sure no bike is on your right before you turn.” This is a problem when turning right from the left lane — the look to the rear can distract motorists from the traffic situation ahead in the intersection; and the bike lane can give bicyclists a false sense of security in moving forward into motorists’ right rear blindspot. Bicyclists best avoid this by merging left, or not advancing to the head of the bike lane when a vehicle is waiting there.
  •  “More than half of collisions occur when cyclists and drivers are on perpendicular paths,” Poorly stated, inaccurate and misleading. The expression “Perpendicular-path” collision apparently is an invention by the author. Most car-bike crashes occur due to crossing and turning movements — not necessarily perpendicular, for example if a motorist overtakes a bicyclist and turns right. What the author doesn’t say, apparently because she doesn’t understand it, it that only about 7% of car-bike crashes are the widely-feared rear-enders.
  •  “Signal all turns and stops and make full stops at stop signs.” The author gives rote advice which fails to convey the purpose of signaling. Bicyclists need to signal to indicate the desire to merge when preparing a turn, to overtake stopped vehicles and in many other situations. The law in most states exempts bicyclists from signaling when the hands must be on the handlebar for control. There is in any case no need to signal once in the position to turn — the bicyclist’s position makes the intention clear. Bicyclists can’t signal when using handbrakes. But there is generally no need to signal when slowing or stopping, as a following driver can see past the bicyclist, who is usually going slower anyway. The purpose of a bicyclist’s slow signal is generally to indicate to a following driver that it is unsafe to pass.
  •  “Never ride on the sidewalk – sidewalk crashes are 25 times as frequent than crashes that occur on major streets. Safest are streets with bike lanes.” The 25 times figure is from Moritz’s survey of adult bicyclists. Some other studies show sidewalks to be, whew, only 4 or 5 times as dangerous. The Moritz study shows streets with bike lanes to be slightly safer than others, but no study makes a valid comparison with all other things (available width, traffic volume etc.) being equal. In addition, there are certain particular hazards in bike lanes of which bicyclists should be aware — right-turn conflicts, car doors etc.
  • “Ride in a straight path. If you must pull out into the lane used by drivers, turn around first to be sure the coast is clear.” No, not “turn around” — look back, signal if necessary to get a driver’s cooperation, then look back again to be sure you have it.
  • “If you are stopped at a light or stop sign to the right of a car or truck, the driver might not see you.” Don’t go there. Stop behind the first vehicle. Stopping next to the front of a vehicle can be deadly, as the rear wheels can sweep across your path if it turns right. This is especially so with long trucks and buses.
  • “Try to make eye contact with drivers before you change lanes or turn left.” It helps to see whether the driver is looking toward you, if possible, but the real test is to make sure the driver has yielded to you.
  • “Wear brightly colored clothing in daylight (though I was wearing an electric blue running suit when I was hit and the driver still failed to see me);” She probably had positioned herself out of the driver’s view, or in a direction the driver wouldn’t normally look, or else the driver was lying.
  • “If you cycle at night, you are supposed to have a white headlight and red taillight (preferably a blinking one) so drivers can see you.” Not “supposed to” but the law, which in most states requires a rear reflector and/or steady taillight (though blinking ones work too) and in many states, requires additional reflectors. Additional reflectors are a good idea in any case.
  • “Scan the road 100 feet ahead for possible hazards.” Why 100 feet ahead? Scanning distance depends on speed, road and traffic conditions.


One response to “Review of New York Times article of June 5, 2007

  1. Thanks John! as always I enjoy your keen observations, “Pied Piper”?

    Here is a permalink to NY Times article to save folks the hassle of logging into the times.

    Here’s pic for the gallery, pool the hard way.


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