Study: In Baltimore, One in Six Drivers Pass Cyclists Illegally

This is one of the worst parts of biking on a typical American street: You’re riding your bike and you hear a car coming up from behind you. It’s loud; you can tell it’s going fast. Does the driver see you?

WHOOSH … the car passes you at arm’s distance. Nothing like a little trip through the blood pressure spectrum first thing in the morning.

Discourteous, dangerous and illegal passing by cars is uncomfortably common, according to a new study out of Baltimore [PDF], even as three-foot passing laws are beginning to become the norm. But it looks like plain old painted bike lanes make a difference. Seth at Baltimore Velo files this report:

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health published a study this week that takes a look at how well the law is being followed by vehicles. Unfortunately, the answer is not very well.

Here are some key findings of the groundbreaking study:

  • Overall, bike lanes in Baltimore improve cyclist safety
  • Without bike lanes, drivers had trouble sharing the road with cyclists
  • One in six Baltimore drivers, or about 17 percent, violated the 3-foot law
  • Researchers found a 20 percent increase in motorist adherence to the 3-foot law for bike lane streets compared to standard streets

Having this quantifiable data makes a very compelling case for the city to continue (and increase) its funding for dedicated bike lanes around the city.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Walkable Dallas Fort Worth offers new revelations about the benefits of small blocks for pedestrians. Systemic Failure examines the creepy subtext of a Toyota commercial involving children’s experience as car passengers. And Bike Delaware wonders if we will we ever be safe from distracted driving in an increasingly connected world.

  • Thanks for the link!

  • In Philly we have a 4-foot law, and 20′ streets with parking on both sides. I’d be surprised if 1-in-6 drivers passed *legally*

  • Andy

    The video here shows why that is though. This person is riding in the door zone, barely on the edge of the usable road. Driver’s see the lane lines and assume that as long as the cyclist is out of their way, they don’t need to give more room and continue on. That causes major issues when a door opens, the cyclist has to move out of the way to avoid it, and the car driver next to them can’t react in time. It’s the fault of the person opening the door, the fault of the cyclist for riding so closely to that spot, and the fault of the driver for not giving the cyclist room. 

    If instead, the cyclist rode in the lane, that entire dangerous situation disappears. Since there are multiple lanes there, they wouldn’t be impeding traffic. They also aren’t encouraging car drivers to pass closely if they take up the lane. In most states, this is legal and the safest way to ride on roads like this. The laws that say to ride “as far right as practicable” in most states have a long list of exceptions (like “fixed objects” i.e. parked cars to close by) that allow for legally riding in the street as any other vehicle would.

    I used to ride on the side of the road because I thought that giving drivers more room would be safest. Over the past few years I have inched my way out into the lane, and on roads like this I never have issues with cars traveling the same direction anymore. It’s made cycling much more pleasant too, and has also reduced the number of drivers on crossroads turning into my path because they see me earlier than if I were riding next to parked cars on the side.

  • Anonymous

    While you are right that it greatly improves the situation. I have still had some of my closest passes while riding in the middle of the lane in broad daylight.

  • Liam

    That is absolutely not the only “why”. But it is a contributing factor. 

  • Anonymous

    This is one of the worst parts of walking on a typical American sidewalk: You’re walking along and a bicyclist comes up from behind you and passes you with a fraction of an inch to spare.  Or worse, is coming right at you and shows no inclination to turn aside. 

  • Anonymous

     Philly’s streets are narrow as hell. I grew up in Bucks county so they used to feel normal to me, but I’ve been away for 15 years now, and every time I am back in town I can’t believe how narrow they are.

  • i was in baltimore for a vacation and planned on renting bikes with my boyfriend to make it around the city. i changed my mind when i saw so many vehicles traveling at 45 to 50 mph on some of those multi-lane one way streets. i am used to biking in traffic, but wowee zowie. i took the bus instead.

  • Btfelder

    When I ride a bike I try to stay just the right of the center in the right lane, that way motorists have no choice but to change lanes when they pass. That frustrates some drivers but when you ride to the far right drivers are often unable to tell how much is 3-feet. Last month I covered a severe bike accident and it has raised concerns for biking safety (a link to the article can be found here: http://goo.gl/p4Hqk). The problem in Oklahoma is that there is no teeth to the 3-foot law, so it is hard to enforce. At least one councilman here in Piedmont, Okla., is proposing specific fines for those that violate the 3-foot law.

  • Greg

    I wonder why people don’t feel safe riding on the street.

  • wanderer

    Pedestrians are the bottom of the food chain here. Drivers abuse cyclists so cyclists abuse pedestrians. “Sustainable.”

  • Many motorists who have never ridden a bicycle in traffic have no conception that is not okay to pass a bicyclist by mere inches. After all, here in San Francisco, on our tight streets we often pass cars by only inches, why not a bicyclist? The fact that the bicyclist is not encased in metal, has no protective airbags, finds a car’s close proximity unnerving and unpleasant, and passing closely endangers the bicyclist’s life if anything–absolutely anything, such as unexpected pothole–goes wrong, never occurs to these drivers. After all, they are not similarly vulnerable so it would take a great deal of empathy and imagination to conceive what the bicyclist might be risking and experiencing.

    This is one of the reasons we want more people to bike in general. Not just because greater numbers make drivers more aware of bicyclists and more likely to look for them (though that is important) but because once you’ve bicycled in traffic you gain some understanding and empathy. In the Netherlands, 70% of the population bicycles once a week. That means nearly every car driver is a bicyclist his or herself, or has a close loved one who is. Nearly every car driver has a reason to be knowledgeable about and careful around bicyclists.

    I agree with others below that laws implemented without educational campaigns and enforcement are pretty much worthless. (A great example is the law in California banning use of handheld cell phones while driving.) Another thing ignorant car drivers do: honk at bicyclists. Sometimes they are not trying to be obnoxious, sometimes it’s “just to let you know I’m here.” But as a bicyclist, let me assure you I’m far more likely to swerve into you if you honk at me (because your freaking loud horn startles me) than if you don’t.

    I drive a car half of all my trips, and I really don’t like to hold motorists up when I bike.  But in some cases where there is no bike lane and there are lots of lanes of traffic, I, too, will take the center of of the right-most lane and force cars to change lanes to get around me, rather than have SUVs assume they can squeeze in the lane with me and pass me by inches. In general, though, I avoid such streets as much as I can.

  • Anonymous

    An easy solution to this problem is to invest in more cycling infrastructure so people feel safe on the roads and get off the sidewalks.

  • Ajsbuilder

     Motorcyclists are also using the same strategy, riding just right iof the line.  I was taught that back in the 70’s when I got my first motorbike.  The advantage bikers have over cyclists is motorbikes go as fast (if not incredibly faster) as car traffic.

  • They would run you over, they are so impatient!

  • Awesome coverage, thank you for posting. It sums up the most frustrating and scary part of my daily commute!! I don’t know how many times cars have come within 1 ft of me, with their rearview mirrors coming even closer >=(

  • Absolutely right Andy.  If the cyclist invites people to pass within the lane then not surprisingly drivers will pass within the lane if there is any adjacent traffic.  

  • Anonymous

    One thing that seems to always be missing from stories like this…
    Where’s the state/city promotion of bike laws? If people aren’t told
    that there’s a 3ft law, nobody will abide by it. Where are the street
    signs, billboards, tv ads/PSAs?

    I’ve encountered many people in Baltimore that have never heard of all
    the bike laws (marylandbicyclelaws.com) MD has in place, and yes there
    are those that really don’t care because their entitled drivers. But if
    there’s no education, there won’t be change. And we can’t rely on the
    city to provide us with usable bike lanes, as anyone that’s ridden St.
    Paul St. knows.

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