Study: Cyclists Don’t Break Traffic Laws Any More Than Drivers Do

Photo:  VeloTraffic/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: VeloTraffic/Wikimedia Commons

A study [PDF] commissioned by the Florida Department of Transportation provides new insight into how cyclists and drivers interact, and found that motorists and dangerous street design — not cyclist behavior — are the primary factors that put cyclists at risk.

Researchers from the University of South Florida gathered data from 100 bike riders in and around Tampa. Participants’ bikes were mounted with sensors, cameras, and GPS to record their movements for a total of 2,000 hours.

The results do not support the assumption that cyclists are reckless rule-breakers.

According to the study, bicyclists were in compliance with traffic laws 88 percent of the time during the day and 87 percent of the time at night. The observed compliance rate for drivers who interacted with participants was slightly lower, at 85 percent during the day. (There weren’t enough nighttime driver observations to report a compliance rate.)

During the study period there were three incidents involving right-turning motorists that were characterized by researchers as “close calls.” Two were caused by drivers who failed to yield. In one case the cyclist crossed during the “Do Not Walk pedestrian signal.” This implies he was riding on the sidewalk, though the study does not specify street conditions.

There were 21 “no close call” right turn instances involving motorists and cyclists. Cyclists were compliant with the rules in every instance, and in four cases drivers failed to yield.

There was one recorded collision. In that case, a motorist hit the bicyclist from behind as she waited to turn left. The crash occurred on a road with no bike lane or sidewalk, forcing the bicyclist to use the general travel lane. The study authors determined the cause of the crash was lack of bike infrastructure and driver error.

“The driver was impatient and tried to pass at a relatively high speed since the oncoming traffic was about to stop for the bicyclist to turn,” the report says.

The study found bicyclists favored bike lanes or the sidewalk to riding in the general travel lane. “Sharing the road with vehicle flow was usually associated with higher crash risk than the other two locations and, therefore, was the least favorite choice,” wrote the researchers.

When there was a bike lane, bicyclists chose to ride in it 87 percent of the time, while 8.7 percent rode on sidewalk and 4.3 percent rode in the motor vehicle lane.

The study recorded 19 “close calls” involving drivers who passed cyclists with less than three feet of clearance. The data seemed to show that the presence of bike lanes was a key factor: Five incidents happened when a bike lane was present and 14 occurred when there was no bike lane.

“The lack of dedicated bike lanes, wider bike lanes, and/or sidewalks is a primary reason for close calls with passing vehicles, where bicyclists have to share the limited road space with vehicle flow,” says the report.

The study is not without its shortcomings. It’s unknown how much the presence of monitoring equipment influenced cyclist behavior. Researchers classified cyclists by level of “risk” and “distraction” based on a questionnaire. But the study authors did not, for example, account for situations where complying with traffic laws actually makes cyclists less safe.

The study recommended a few strategies for Florida, which has a bike fatality rate that is three times the national average. Though they found that nearly nine out of 10 cyclists obeyed traffic laws, researchers’ suggestions were heavy on cyclist “education,” which does nothing to protect people on bikes from dangerous drivers on roads that force them to ride with motor vehicle traffic. The more pertinent recommendations were for more and better bike infrastructure.

Hat tip to Don Kostelec

144 thoughts on Study: Cyclists Don’t Break Traffic Laws Any More Than Drivers Do

  1. That’s a public roadway. That’s for EVERYONE to use. Sorry you have to share public spaces with people who don’t do what you think they should (drive more cars, I guess?).

  2. Apparently the concept of providing roadway in proportion to a transportation mode’s need is beyond your ability to comprehend. The numbers tell the story, and tbe ridiculous part is that the bike lane likely could have been fitted in without eliminating a traffic lane by simply slightly narrowing the traffic lanes. The design was absurd Vision Zero overkill.

  3. Apparently you can’t see how entitled you actually are. Cars are horrible for the environment; create noise pollution; and kill tens of thousands of people every year (probably hundreds of thousands if you count the effects of pollution). Reducing the number of cars on the road makes our cities far more livable. Sorry it adds a few minute to your commute.

  4. The key word here is “unnecssarily.” My point is that the safety goals could, and should, be achieved with minimal negative effect. Vision Zero punishes all drivers for the sins of a few. Carried to extremes, It’s just poor road design. Want fewer cars in cities? Build trains or monorails for commuters. When it comes to the layout of modern American cities, the ship has sailed–they sprawl. As far as pollution goes, that problem is continually being solved through better and better technology. Bottom line: You seem to want to turn the clock backward, not forward. Talk about entitled: Inconveniencing unnecessarily 95% of road users for fewer than 5% when the same thing could be accomplished more gently is certainly thinking you’re entitled. Your rigid, uncompromising, and frankly angry and ultimately anti-social attitude is not very becoming. I respect the concept of Vision Zero and bike and prdestrian safety. I merely want the changes to occur democratically and with compassion for all tbe road’s users.

  5. LOL… you clearly do not respect the actual intent of Vision Zero at all. You do obviously care about prioritizing public roadways for drivers. And discounting the other, terrible effects of cars as “that ship has sailed” is the ultimate example of anti-social and backward thinking. I’m talking about making the future a better place than the present; you’re talking about keeping things the way they are because you don’t want to be “inconvenienced.” Tell that to the families of the 1,300 people who die from air pollution in LA every year or of the 260 traffic fatalities (almost half of whom are pedestrians).

  6. Peter, I do respect your goals, and have much respect for the basic concept of Vision Zero. But, you are taking an extreme position in a democracy. I care about “prioritizing roadways for drivers” because there are far more drivers than bike riders. You don’t realize that without cars the world we know would cease to exist. Even if you live in a city and bike everywhere, trucks bring you everything you eat and everything you use. And, all the problems you attribute to driving can and will be cured in ways other than an extreme form of Vision Zero. Your goal seems to be to force social change via radical social engineering. Look up The Volstead Act that sought to prohibit alcohol consumption as a social problem by simply banning the sale. You’ll see that it created crime, and that many completely ignored it, ultimately resulting in its repeal and replacement by more selective means of controlling alcohol problems. With lawsuits and attempted recalls of politicians forcing an absurd form of Vision Zero on the populace in auto-centric LA, it’s obvious Vision Zero will follow the same course. It’s a matter of doing things the hard way versus the easy, gentle way. If you want to see these changes come, then work with others to develop concepts that are more widely acceptable instead of superimposing your ideas on them and forcing them to do your bidding.

  7. I guess we see the world differently. I see 40,000 deaths/year and tens of thousands more maimed, many thousands crippled of killed due to pollution (in the US alone), catastrophic climate change, etc. communities cut to ribbons by dangerous roadways, etc. as extreme problems for each of us individually and for humanity in general TODAY. More people have died on our roads than in all the wars in our history.

    We can’t engineer our way out of the problems created by single-occupancy vehicles; they are unbelievably inefficient for transporting people in highly populated areas. Cycling offers a way to produce immediate and significant relief from this problem, and making safe routes to ride is the fastest way to get people out of their cars and onto bikes. Dedicated bus lanes also have this immediate effect. Even a small uptick provides immediate, significant benefits. Better mass transit, smart-cars (as a shared resource), and other longer term solutions will also help mitigate, but just take a look at the last big mass-transit project in LA; it took 6 years to build and open an 8 mile light-rail line (and that’s after the fight to get it approved and funded).

    And by the way, if you want to talk about radical social engineering, you should go read up on what created all of these problems with single-occupancy-vehicles in the first place, courtesy of the auto and oil industries. (The wholesale dismantlement of the country’s remarkable passenger rail system; creation of huge, low-density suburban housing extending for miles from city centers that make car ownership a requirement; replacing electric buses and streetcars with diesel; converting almost the entire freight system from trains to semis; the fact that nearly 50% of US oil production TODAY would not be profitable without the $20B the government provides in annual subsidies; the list goes on and on).

  8. Your statement that we can’t engineer our way out of the present situation with individual passenger vehicles shows a complete absence of any knowledge whatever of current auto engineering practice and m any quite radical developments. Also, you completely fail to consider how the automobile and big trucks completely transformed both residential and commercial real estate, a genie that now simply cannot be put back into the bottle. Do you honestly believe we all can now condense ourselves into big cities and will want to? Further, the same arguments can be made against the use of electric power and hundreds of other civilized conveniences, like central heat using petroleum, which saves thousands of lives by keeping people warm in winter. The bottom line is that we live in a democracy and most people at present don’t want what you want. Even if they live close enough to ride a bike to work, who wants to on cold winter or the more extreme summer days or in heavy spring rain? I suggest you consider the historical difference between the Russian Revolution and England’s gradual transition to democracy over centuries, starting with Runneymede. It left Europe with the one democracy that saved Europe from fascism till we, her stepchild, finally got into the fray. I.e. violent collisions of ideas like you seem to want rather than orderly progress makes for infinitely worse results. I believe in bike infrastructure too, but not one sided politics. Best of luck to you, regardless!

  9. Thanks for the condescending opening paragraph, much appreciated. 🙂 I’m an engineer, FWIW, and I keep up with transportation technology. The only really impactful (sorry, bad pun) things that have happened in the past 30 years are mileage efficiencies for ICE and the holistic safety systems that have been added (engineered crumple zones + airbags + ABS + newer radar and auto-braking). Electric cars are barely making an impact, and won’t really hit for another decade or so because there just aren’t enough of them (the Ford F-series truck is still the best selling auto in the world).

    The truth is, traveling in a personal vehicle that requires a large amount of space when driving around, and then requires that same amount of space while it sits around for the 95% of the time it’s not in use, is not practical. Oh yeah, and these machines kill vulnerable road users by the thousands every year (and one another’s occupants by the tens of thousands).

    You can’t build your way out of congestion by making more roads once you get past a certain density. LA traffic proves that (the average driver in LA spent 104 hours stuck in traffic in 2017 – that’s FOUR DAYS). So does Seattle traffic; Bay Area; New York; Chicago; the list is endless. Even small cities suffer once the car density reaches the tipping point (e.g. Portland, which is the 12th most congested city in the US). Trillions spent on infrastructure for cars; billions of dollars of wasted productivity; billions of tons of pollution which make the air quality so bad that vulnerable people die; this is a crisis, whether you accept it or not.

    Yes, most people are instinctively selfish (like you it would seem) and are unwilling to give up even a small amount of convenience for the greater good. Yes, it’s going to take some changes that feel radical. But we’ve done stuff like this before; creating the EPA and enacting “radical” laws to clamp down on unchecked pollution is a good (though not perfect) example.

    And for the record, we don’t have centuries to fix the problems we’ve created, unless you are willing to leave a ~dystopian future for coming generations. The state of world ecology, in case you haven’t noticed, is significantly degraded from even 30 years ago.

    So good luck to you also. Please consider making changes in your life that get you out of your car as much as you possibly can, and then try to do a little more.

    PS – in the US, about 1/2 of all car trips are 3 miles or less. We don’t have to all move downtown to significantly reduce the miles we drive every year.

  10. Peter, your statement implying that the next 30 years will be like the past 30 show very clearly that you are woefully ignorant of the present status of automotive engineering. Things we never dreamed of 30 years ago are happening today in automotive engineering. Its future, especially its rate of progress, will be NOTHING like its past. This applies in a very profound way to your pessimism about polluting the environment. The fact that our ignoramus law enforcement and DOT community clings to an overly simplified view of traffic safety, assuming speeding is always the problem and doing little or nothing to educate, re-educate, and inform the driving community as to how to improve safety leaves me believing that the crashes we experience are not at all inevitable. We can have cars and move around in them and still be safe! And, you are clearly ignoring today’s revolution in safety technology–stability control, automatic braking, and the like, and its potential for improving safety. You probably have a point about the density of roadways around cities, but you are also ignoring completely the fields of ITS (Intelligent traffic systems) and self-driving cars which may very well relieve congestion in a substantial way. Further, you unfortunately did not live in the 1950s and early ’60s when we paid attention to infrastructure and BUILT THINGS. True, it is much harder than before to add roads, but work can be done, especially in terms of improving roads at certain junctures. And, if we raised the fuel taxes as many propose now and devoted ourselves to the problem, infrastructure could be improved–drastically. A fact you ignore. You apparently do not read the transportation-related publications I read. Your theory about individuals improving the situation by driving less–just how do you propose to handle that one? Until recently, I lived in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, almost an hour from Philadelphia by car when not at rush hour. When traveling to the city during the day, the best way for me to get there was to drive my car about 10 miles to a railroad station and take the train from there. If you think in terms of vast improvements in public transportation infrastructure, I am probably with you, though dealing with the runaway costs of such things is a major issue. But, no 70+ year old man like me is going to ride his bike the 30+ miles from Downingtown, PA to Philadelphia. It would probably take more than a full day. Just how am I to radically improve my ability to get around efficiently without something resembling good automotive technology? Move to the city? Yes, that would be possible for me, but clearly not for everyone. I cannot imagine people abandoning square mile after square mile of suburbs to live closer to cities rather than finding better, more efficient ways of moving themselves around. At this point, the latter is happening, but not the former, not AT ALL. You seem to be full of dreams, not practicalities, I am sorry to say. If that sounds insulting, so be it, that is how you sound to me. Certainly, your ideas are not entirely off base–I will certainly admit that. We do have all the issues you write of. But, there is a kind of terrible anger and pessimism and even desperation in the way you look at these issues. I honestly don’t agree that we need to make the radical changes you propose, and believe very strongly that we can find much less obtrusive ways of accomplishing all the same things. This is, I guess, my most basic objection to the Vision Zero way of dealing with traffic issues. I firmly believe we need evolution much more than revolution. It’s doing things the hard way versus the easy way. I believe in the easy way, and honestly believe it can work. Best,

  11. I have been licenced to drive semis for 38 years, have done a couple of engine swaps in one of my cars, used to subscribe to Hot Rod magazine, but also used to be a bicycle racer, and at that time I did not know one fellow bike racer who did not own a car as well, so yeah, most cyclists pay more than their fair share.

  12. More than half of the cost of local roads are paid from general funds in most if not all states. In WA that means primarily sales tax and property tax since we don’t have a state income tax. So whether you own a car or not, ride a bicycle or not, take the bus or not, you are paying for the roads.

  13. “1,000 left the street” is not accurate (unless you have some data that backs this up). Instead “there were 1000 fewer trips by car”. That is likely due to various reasons:
    1. Some switched to bicycle
    2. Some took transit
    3. Some shifted their trip to another time of day when it was less congested
    4. For some people, they decided not to make some of the trips or to consolidate multiple trips into one

    #4 is bigger than most people think it would be. This is a common misconception people have when discussing traffic. The intuitive way to look at it is that it is like a liquid in a pipe and if you make the pipe smaller, the water backs up and takes longer to get through. But unlike water, each car is a person who makes decisions. When traffic gets bad people are more likely to decide to use a different mode, switch the time of their trip or just not make the trip at all.

    Similarly when you widen a road the same happens. You don’t simply get the same amount of water going through the pipe twice as fast. You get more water because people choose to shift trips from transit/walk/bike to car or shift trips they would otherwise make at non-peak times to peak times or they make more trips than they normally would (I’ll drive to that specialty grocery store rather than going to the one around the corner), choose to live farther away because they figure the drive commute’s not so bad. This is called induced demand. Lots of studies and literature on it.

  14. Sorry, but I think tour reply is pure nonsense. The report even state’s that these cars switched to other roadways and actually theorizes that they did this because of slowed travel. You’re writing about a long term process, but this was a short term shift that was extremy unbalanced in terms of the way the roadway served those using it. Long term change like you theorize about is something I support, if it happens through intelligent and compassionate planning that serves all concerned. What happened here was poor, biased hard-nosed social engineering that benefited a minority while punishing a majority that deserved better treatment.

  15. The point is that the sharing was out of balance and that a more balanced design would have similarly served bike riders while continuing to serve drivers well.

  16. PS. The bottom line on this road is that it was built for commuters–people driving into Long Beach from a long distance away, making cycling impractical. Thus, in this particular instance, your arguments hold very little, if any, weight. I have tried to learn to be accepting and even supportive of those promoting bicycling and pedestrian safety. While I certainly see much logic and even, potentially, good engineering in the best forms of Vision Zero, I see a consistent pattern of what amounts to irrational, unscientific, and above all, undemocratic thinking in its proponents. From the moment I heard an official from a New York organization misrepresent the facts when it comes to the relationship between speed and car-pedestrian crashes, I knew this was a movement that needed to tone itself down, learn to play (and work) well with others, and develop a sense of calm and a focus on the many studies that have been done of motorist behavior and traffic safety. I would support a form of Vision Zero that recognized the value of automobiles in modern life and the actual safe behavior of the average motorist, and sought to work in a conciliatory and cordial manner to make roads better for all. In place of that, we have a frankly fanatical and even anti-social rush to judgement and drastic changes that may serve an important minority, but often end up punishing the majority in a cause that is noble, but, like all causes, can be approached without sufficient respect for others involved.

  17. Driverszzzzzzzzzzz. Avoiding the issue as usual with the same answer every time. Driverzzzzzzzz.

  18. Driverzzzzzzzz. Same old answer. No. Wrong. Drivers are not destroying infrastructure for walkers and they honor it. Cyclists do not.

  19. Driverzzzzzzzzzzzz. Cyclists refuse to address the issue. Your answer is that you do not care.

  20. I was very polite to the old man who threatened me (while I was stopped on a bridge waiting for him to go past) with his walking stick.

  21. More generally, people who internalize the reality of endemic motorist lawbreaking will engage such biases in their subjective regard of the situation. More pedestrians are motorists than bicyclists, so they can also be relied on to engage observer bias as well.

    This latter application of bias is why, for example, speeding isn’t usually brought up in these discussions, despite being the #1 most dangerous behavior that motorists do. In fact there are routinely studies like this one (with the same conclusions) that ignore speeding entirely because it is not comparable!

  22. This is an article about what sensors detect, not people seeing what they want to see. And you have been arguing on behalf of certain people only seeing what they (you) want to see, instead of for the data detected by sensors.

  23. > Who cares how much damage a bike does to roads when you pay nothing to use those roads?

    False premise. Bicyclists not only pay for roads but subsidize heavier vehicles on them. As someone else has alluded to, costs directly from motorists only cover about half of maintaining highways, and where I live, 0% of the surface streets. The rest comes from general revenues. Since bicyclists do several magnitudes less damage to the roads, we handily pay our own way several magnitudes greater than motorists do.

    That’s why you should care how much less damage a bike does than your car, and you should be grateful.

  24. That was done by a TV fiction writer named Scott James, a guy who’d already written a series of anti-bicyclist “non-fiction” articles for Bay Citizen. He cherrypicked a corner on San Francisco’s most heavily-traveled bike route, at a dogleg intersection where people roll past the stop line to see whether anything’s coming, and he set up a video camera.

    Sure enough, he caught footage of bicyclists not coming to a full stop. He put the footage on YouTube and wrote up one of his patented screeds about scofflaw bicyclists. It passed the fact-checkers at Bay Citizen. At the time, they had a partnership with the Bay Area edition of the New York Times, so it went through another round of supposedly the nation’s best fact-checkers and was reprinted there.

    Minor problem, though: the footage as seen on YouTube showed more cars than bicyclists failing to stop at this location. The whole premise of the article was false, and two sets of fact-checkers missed this entirely. This is an example of observer bias, which routinely misinforms discussions like these.

  25. Um, it is the Effective Vehicular Savvy Bicycle Driving crowd who thinks that Joe Schmoe is an idiot. Maximum Leader John Forester routinely disparages that great majority of bicyclists as disobedient and incompetent should they disagree with even a fraction of a percent of his convoluted dogma.

  26. Jensen has specifically said that the Effective Vehicular Savvy Bicycle Driving crowd is misusing his results to prop up their obsolete dogma. In particular, his research zeroes in on particular intersection designs that are problematic. Reducing this to “increased danger from bike lanes and/or cycle tracks” is disingenuous, it ignores Jensen’s actual work on the issue, and nobody is being fooled by it.

  27. > Sorry, but I think [your] reply is pure nonsense.

    Yeah, who needs decades of research on induced demand anyhow? So long as John M. Baxter “thinks” otherwise, why should contrary facts matter at all?

  28. You seem not to have been dealing with Forester’s (and others’) actual positions but with the common straw men arguments made by uniformed “bicycle advocates.” Actually, in my experience, Forester reserves his contempt not for the common bicyclist but instead for the person who advocates that bicyclists be encouraged or forced to ride in a manner or via a facility that has been demonstrated as less safe than riding on the road according to the rules of the road. Instead, he often notes that the usual bicyclist easily and quickly can learn to ride safely without being placed on dangerous “bicycling” infrastructure.
    Apparently, you are defending from my previous coment an anonymous poster who has had the posts deleted — and those comments, not from an effective cycling/savvy cycling/bicycle driving advocate, sure seemed to take the position that most cyclists were too stupid to learn to ride safely and needed some kind of infrastructure hand-holding. If you’d like, you can find plenty of examples of effective cycling/savvy cycling/bicycle driving advocates not only working on training bicycle commuters and others to ride safely but also advocating truly safe dedicated bicycling infrastructure.

  29. The problem with your argument is that the demand already existed. Unless you build Soviet-style apartment blocks and get suburbanites to leave the ‘burbs and move back into the city, it’s impractical, unnecessary, and unfair to deprive motorists of needed traffic lanes. The problem with Vision Zero is that it is essentially anti-social. Rather than searching for fair, conciliatory, and minimally obtrusive solutions, it takes an aggressive, anti-car approach. Time for a new form of Vision Zero that treats all three modes of transportation with equal respect. The narrow focus on speed reveals a complete failure to look at crash causes objectively and search for the most reasonable and non-punishing solutions. Welcome to a Soviet or French-style revolution, rather than one like the American Revolution which was evolutionary rather than DESTRUCTIVE, as Vision Zero is.

  30. This paragraph struck me as more informative:
    “The study found bicyclists favored bike lanes or the sidewalk to riding in the general travel lane. “Sharing the road with vehicle flow was usually associated with higher crash risk than the other two locations and, therefore, was the least favorite choice,” wrote the researchers.”
    I.e., associated with higher crash risk in the minds of those who apparently do not keep up with the literature of studies of actual relative risks. Want to further reduce your risk when riding on the sidewalk? Get off the sidewalk, ride in the street following normal traffic rules, and for almost every street/sidewalk you can find, you’ll have reduced your crash risk greatly.

  31. It does help the discussion when one knows what one is talking about. If one wants to improve cycling safety through infrastructure improvements or otherwise, it’s best to advocate for the kinds of things that have been demonstrated to actually help riders instead of advocating for those that have been shown actually to make things worse for riders. All too often, “bicycle advocate” time is spent fighting for things that make riding worse than leaving things alone would or that make better infrastructure difficult to achieve. Being uninformed is a big part of that. Being uninformed doesn’t make one an idiot, but being uniformed can lead to bad conclusions about what to fight for. Why fight for a bike lane in a door zone? Even if you get it, it an’t a win.

  32. “researchers’ suggestions were heavy on cyclist “education,” which does nothing to protect people on bikes from dangerous drivers on roads that force them to ride with motor vehicle traffic.”

    This is so DAMN IDIOTIC AND ANNOYING. Why even do the damn “study”?!?

    Same recommendatin/threat,
    over and over,


    This attitude is throughly pissing me off.

  33. As someone who has driven hundreds of thousands of miles over the past 34 years, and ridden a bike for even longer, my point of view is different. Everyone seems to break the rules, whether they’re on two wheels or four. The big difference is that some do it on an 18-pound bicycle and some do it in a 4,000-pound SUV that can cause exponentially greater harm. But people who don’t bike don’t see it that way—they just see people on bikes charging through those stop signs. And it’s nearly impossible to combat their perceptions or even engage in meaningful debate without hard evidence of a different reality. And to date, very little research has produced quantifiable data comparing how drivers and cyclists actually behave on the

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