Bicycling Education in the United States Needs an Update

Are cycling training courses giving people good advice? Graphic: Kay Teschke
Are cycling training courses giving people good advice? Graphic: Kay Teschke

Ride in the right tire track of the right hand lane. “Be predictable.” Always wear a helmet. Thousands of people in North America are exposed to these rules of thumb in cycling training courses each year. But how good is the advice?

Kay Teschke, a public health professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in bike safety issues, says she wouldn’t follow some of it.

Teschke and her colleagues reviewed Canadian bike and driver education materials in a comprehensive report released in 2012 [PDF]. They found that while some of the training provided to bicyclists in Canada comports with what scientific research finds to be safe practice, some does not. And in many cases there isn’t enough data to justify or disprove the guidance.

Common-sense suggestions like “behave predictably” are fine, says Teschke, but other tips don’t align with what researchers have observed in real-world situations.

For example, research has consistently found that the farther bicyclists ride from the curb, the closer drivers pass them. This flies in the face of some cycling training that originates from John Forester’s 1975 book Effective Cycling.

There clearly are situations where bicyclists should position themselves away from the curb, like on streets with parking lanes, where it’s very important to stay out of the door zone. But in other situations, hugging the curb is safer.

In a 2007 study, Ian Walker of the University of Bath rode hundreds of kilometers wearing special equipment that measured the buffer passing motorists gave him. He found that riding farther from the curb led to being passed at closer distances. (He also found, famously, that drivers passed closer when he was wearing a helmet.)

Other research backs up Walker’s finding, said Teschke, but it isn’t reflected in cycling training. In Canada cyclists are told to ride away from the curb.

“When I give the talk, I say the standard Effective Cycling rules probably will work fine on neighborhood streets,” Teschke said. “On a busy street, it’s not really clear that those rules are good for you.”

The League of American Bicyclists, which runs the “League Certified Instructor” cycling education program, the largest in the U.S., does advise cyclists to “take the lane” in situations where there isn’t enough space for safe overtaking. Andy Clarke, the former president of LAB, said that’s still sound advice. But cycling education materials are definitely in need of some updating.

Clarke thinks LAB’s “League Certified Instructor” training is valuable for some people, but it’s not “very populist.” In other words, it’s designed for very aggressive riders, who are more likely to be men at the peak of their physical fitness, very much in the Forester model of riding.

LAB has been working on modernizing the curriculum in recent years, but there is still work to be done. “The link to data and actual safety stuff is pretty tenuous,” Clarke said.

Forester emphasized that cyclists are most vulnerable at intersections, not from passing drivers. While it’s true that intersections are especially dangerous, the risk of getting struck from behind is still substantial. A 2014 review of every cycling fatality in the U.S. by the Bike League found that 40 percent were rear-end collisions.

For some situations, says Teschke, there simply isn’t enough research to draw conclusions about the safest behavior. Is it safer to signal a turn by pointing or with the traditional hand signals? That’s still an area where guidance is more a matter of faith than empirical data.

Teschke wants to see more emphasis on helping people make safer route choices. Drivers tend to pass closer in heavy traffic conditions, for instance, and on roads with two-way traffic. Data suggests streets with parked cars and heavy traffic are particularly dangerous for cyclists. People who are learning to bike on streets stand to gain a lot, she says, by identifying the least risky way to get from point A to point B.

81 thoughts on Bicycling Education in the United States Needs an Update

  1. “I am not sure that demanding our own space is evidence of refusing to learn the rules of the road”

    If you refuse, or fail, to learn the rules of the road for practical outcomes others have achieved, are you more or less likely to “demand your own space”?

  2. Tricia, if you and I had an opportunity to sit down and talk, I’m sure we would find a lot of common ground, as well as some things we would have to agree to disagree on. It’s very difficult to talk specifics without context. I appreciate your great concern for these issues that are also of great concern to me.

  3. So the research for this article, besides the studies involved, is to interview one former Executive Director of the LAB? How about attending a bike ed class to see what actually goes on there or talking to your local organization offering bike ed classes.

  4. Well, OK, maybe it is the future. Though I doubt it, because wasn’t the federal budget for bike-ped funding cut by 1/3 in the last funding cycle? But let’s say it IS well funded . . . bike ped infrastructure to everyone’s front door is a long way off. What if you want to ride a bike today and know the best practices for actually riding safely (as opposed to “feeling” safe? Take a bike ed class from a certified cycling instructor. If you want to just ride on bike infrastructure, that’s yours or anyone else’s choice of course. But there IS a way to ride on streets without bike infrastructure and get home safe nearly every time (I say nearly, because nothing is 100% safe, not even bike infrastructure).

  5. I’m also skeptical of the research about the passing behaviors of motorists. In my experience, every time I move closer to the parked cars some motorist passes me at high speed and with dangerously close distances. When I take the lane (in appropriate “narrow lane” circumstances), motorists “get it” and I get way more respect in terms of passing distances, to the point where dangerously close passing is almost nil.

  6. I’m all for more bike infrastructure. But I’ve always been troubled by the tone of the advocacy for it, suggesting that cycling without it is “dangerous”. It’s a double-edged sword in that it exaggerates the dangers of riding in mixed traffic, and likely scares people off. This is not “scientific”, but the number of people who come to our classes or who I’ve talked to who think that “streets” or “bicycling” is dangerous is revealing. If you want to discourage cycling, then talk long and loud about how dangerous it is.

  7. Table 28.3 is “Type and proportions of car-bike collisions”.
    That’s ALL collisions, NOT just fatal collisions. And the incidence of urban is far lower (7% in that table). It’s well known the severity of strike-from-behind is relatively higher; the point is it’s relatively rare.
    If i recall correctly the data was derived from cross and fisher; which has it at 4%/24.6% for overtaking-type (they were called “Class D”) for injury/fatal. See, it was about 25% in 1977. And it’s about 25% in 2012.

  8. There will be errors in every large data set.
    I can tell you what my DOT told me about FARS.
    I discovered an obvious error in the 2015-year FARS bicyclist crash in Arizona. That dataset was released to the public in August 2016, the so-called ARF, annual report file, not final. In FARS the bicyclist direction was listed as “against traffic” but the police report and state database (i guess it’s like your “SWITRS”) had it the other way.
    I reported it to our DOT in very early January 2017 and was told that they made a typo in the FARS data and that the cut-off for updates to 2015 (the so-called “final” file) was 12/31/2016. It will not be corrected, and it will never be.
    So if your police didn’t submit a fatality to the feds by whatever the cutoff for 2013 data was (probably something like 12/31/2015), it can never be updated.
    The real question is why did your police not report it?

  9. “…And in many cases there isn’t enough data to justify or disprove the guidance…”

    Best sentence in the piece. The mixture of science and religious belief in bicycle advocacy and teaching is marvelous to behold. That includes some but not all peer reviewed work but I have also seen stuff put on the Internet that was never subject to rigorous academic review but is treated like it had been.

    IIRC, the passing distance variations in Ian Walker’s study were quite small. If Professor Teschke has more sources, these should be referenced. She knows the rules of academia.

    Last paragraph is ground truth, but that doesn’t take a dissertation to figure out. If traffic is heavy and complex such that a bicyclist is in high speed traffic or on roads where he or she is easily missed in a sea of cars, having an alternative route or a dedicated facility is a good idea.

  10. Motorcyclists v bicyclists are apples v oranges. Motorcyclists as you say have much higher per exposure hour fatality rates.

    For example, a motorcyclist is not being routinely overtaken so less opportunity for hit from behind, which is a bicycling issue. But since a motorcyclist is travelling at higher speed without much trauma protection, crashes can be catastrophic. Recall that S-curved speed v crash fatality rate graphic for pedestrians hit by cars; same thing. A journal article (Brown et al., American Surgeon, vol. 76, p. 279-286, March 2010) by a Univ. of Rochester trauma group looked at this and found that the demographics of dead motorcyclists and the kinds of crashes have been changing to older riders and simple loss of control crashes. This was hypothesized due to loss of fine motor skills and visual acuity with age coupled with bigger, faster motorcycles.

  11. I don’t think the Walker paper, no disrespect to walker mind you, has any relevance to how i would/should ride on the typical roads i ride on; i mean the roads where my lane position is an issue. The typical road i am considering is 5 or more lanes, 2 or more in each direction, about 60 (SIXTY), or more feet wide; with lanes about 11 feet. These sixty, and more, foot roads bear lttile resemblance to the 17′ foot wide roads as walker describes here:
    One thing I should add (as it has come up in a discussion elsewhere) is that our roads here in the UK are quite narrow. A typical urban road is about 5.2m [17′] across, so each lane is about 2.6m [8.5′]. This means that the 1.25m [4.25′] position was about the centre of the lane.

  12. This article doesn’t tell us anything. “They found that while some of the training provided to bicyclists in Canada comports with what scientific research finds to be safe practice, some does not. And in many cases there isn’t enough data to justify or disprove the guidance.” What? so why write the article then?
    “Ian Walker of the University of Bath rode hundreds of kilometers wearing special equipment that measured the buffer passing motorists gave him.” an obvious condition to point out is that these were people driving in the UK (people who don’t drive on the ‘right’ side of the road). Extrapolating the culture of people driving in the UK and suggesting it’s the same in the US or elsewhere is a bit silly.
    When I ride, I have found the exact opposite. When I ride up some of the hills here in Upstate NY or in the flats– when I control the lane people driving have to wait until there is a safe space in opposing traffic–which is something many will NOT do if I am riding in the gutter. When I have ridden too far to the right I would get a lot of ‘lazy passes’ when the driver doesn’t change lanes–some of which were while there was oncoming traffic. I still get passed closely sometimes but I feel it is far less often.
    Streetsblog, you can do better.

  13. and the “research” was done in the UK. The UK driver data, a place where they don’t even use the right side of the road, probably doesn’t match up to how US motorists behave.

  14. “I’m not sure it’s just errors”. I agree, but it’s more that that.
    Two thing i can think of:
    First, it’s DEFINITELY not just errors (or omissions), it’s by design — the traffic safety reporting system is defined as involving at least one motor vehicle. so a fall/crash that involves: bike-only, bike-bike, bike-ped are all, by definition, excluded.
    “To be included in the file set, a crash had to involve a motor vehicle traveling on a traffic way customarily open to the public” — FARS Analytic Reference Guide. I imagine the GESS dataset is the same.

    Second, of course many low-injury MV crashes of all kinds are under-reported; I mean never reported to police, thus never making it into traffic safety statistics. These of course can show up hospital-records type studies if people seek treatment for injury.
    Here’s yet another one of these:
    Injuries to Pedestrians and Bicyclists: An Analysis Based on Hospital Emergency Department Data, Stutts, 1999

  15. Under reported crashes is a big chunk. In California, the reporting threshold is now $1,000 for combined damages. A low speed right hook will not meet the thresh hold. Then there is the illegal under reported. A motorist may choose to pay $1,500 out of pocket simply to “not get the insurance companies involved”.

  16. Let me put it this way: It’s an opinion piece of a poor collection of bad studies masquerading as a report.

    It’s a trifecta of dog doo-doo.

  17. Setting aside the dollar amounts; In terms of meeting the letter-of-the-law, that’s not necessarily an issue because, at least here, ANY injury means it’s required to be reported. As a practical matter, i’m sure many (even most) low-severity minor injury crashes go unreported.

    28-666. Notice of accident
    The driver of a vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to or death of a person shall give notice of the accident immediately by the quickest means of communication, whether oral or written, to either:
    1. The local police department if the accident occurs within a municipality.
    2. The office of the county sheriff.
    3. The nearest office of the highway patrol.

  18. I summarized above what it would take to do proper research. It takes lots of money. Over the last 40 years, there have been cyclists and engineers that want to do these study. The problem is they couldn’t get funding. I would love to have the objective data out in the universe. It may help to repeal some bad laws when it comes to cyclists on the public roadways.

  19. There is the letter of the law and then what is practiced. Technically if the cyclist scrapes his elbow, he is injured. In practice, injured is if he gets taken away in an ambulance.

  20. Not being able to get funds and funds spent in the wrong places…boy, don’t get me started on that one…

  21. Most of us on bikes have had to learn the rues of the road because we do NOT have separated lanes. But we can still dream and advocate.

  22. I’m not rejecting science. I’m rejecting the application of a study that did not test what it’s purported to have tested. Anyone with a bike and mirror can verify in short order what Walker found. If you compare passing distance while riding at the curb to passing distance a few feet from the curb (he never went more than 4 feet from the curb) you’ll tend to get closer passes when further from the curb. My objection is to the assumption that riding even further gets even closer passes. Every single person I know who has tested this reports the exact opposite. Once you get past a certain distance from the curb the passing distances start getting larger again. Walker did not test this. Apparently it did not occur to him to ride that far out in the lane. But that’s where you need to ride to clearly convey to approaching motorists, sooner rather than too late, that they need to prepare to move their vehicles to pass you, and thus to get the good passing distances and full lane changes. That’s what you missed.

  23. But in other situations, hugging the curb is safer.

    This is preposterous. While there may be some situations where it’s not necessary to control the full lane, I can think of none where it is ever advisable to “hug the curb”. Doing so often means having to trundle through gravel and debris, which leads to unpredictable riding as one tries to avoid the hazards. Additionally, many curbs present a pedal strike hazard which carries serious consequences if it occurs. And it also invites close passes, especially since in too many instances, roads do not always have uniform lane widths. A comfortable passing distance can suddenly turn into millimeters of clearance on a block-by-block basis.

  24. There is not bike-specific infrastructure to every doorway in the Netherlands either, but that’s because it’s not necessary. The problem is our horrific street design standards in America that mix fundamentally incompatible road users and uses in too many situations. Changing that would go far toward fixing the problem even with the existing limited funding. Also, the dedicated funding doesn’t have to be the entire funding available as long as strong standards are adopted that include bike/ped infrastructure as default in all road projects.

  25. The “40% fatals hit from behind” figure is misleading because people might think that is the biggest risk they face. But it simply reflects the fact that in rural areas, there is a greater chance of getting hit from behind, and at rural speeds that is more likely to be fatal. High speed is the same reason why you will find something like 40-50% of all bicycle fatals occur in rural areas. But probably less than 5% of all biking is done in rural areas. For most people, who do most of their riding in urban areas, what’s in FRONT of you is by far the bigger risk (crossing/turning traffic and those pesky parked cars). So the advice to stay clear of the “door zone” is still very valid for most people and the risk of getting hit from behind not high in the areas where you have on-street parking.

  26. I was on reddit in one of the cycling subreddits where a new cyclist asked for advice about how to ride safely on the road. So I told what I was taught in school in the Netherlands, keep right as much as possible and give room when possible, to cars to pass. I was not prepared for the backlash and downvotes that common sense advise (and backed up by many decades of dutch safety road experience) would bring on. So Ian Walker’s findings aren’t a surprise at all, in the Netherlands we have known this for decades and it’s part of the school curriculum

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