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

  • Hoboken Urbanist

    I’m shocked, shocked I say

  • saimin

    Bicyclists mostly break the rules to avoid dangerous situations. Motorists mostly break the rules to increase their speed.

  • TakeFive

    So everybody’s a scofflaw? Good to know.

  • Shawn Wilson

    This is BS. If someone strapped on cameras and GPS gear to my bike I would be driving like an angel too. I see bicyclists every day doing stupid stuff, not obeying traffic laws.

  • Cynara2

    I would say 100% ride on the sidewalk. Probably all of them “only” use the sidewalk for this one stretch, to get around this one stop sign…just this one street, etc.

  • reynard

    Dude, virtually every driver breaks a whole host of laws every time they get behind the wheel. Fail to signal a lane change or turn? Law broken. Most drivers NEVER use a signal, and they turn a lot. That’s a lot of laws broken. Over the speed limit? Against the law. Everyone knows that there is a certain amount they can go over before a cop bothers to stop them, so nearly everyone goes a bit over almost always – lots of laws broken there. Fiddling with your mobile device? Law breaking. Turn right on red when there’s a sign saying not to do it? Law broken. Stop your car at a light in a crosswalk? You guessed it, you broke the law. If you claim that you don’t see nearly every driver you encounter do these things, then you simply aren’t paying attention and probably have no business having a driver’s licence. Open your eyes.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Primarily, it’s outrageously wasteful auto design width that make cycling dangerous. Pedaled or motored cycles and scooters sharing lanes with right-sized thin electric vehicles would be far safer for biker bodies and lungs.

  • SurlyCyclist

    Did you read the article? They did the same thing to motorists and monitored them for 2,000 hours. Do you really think the participants were on their best behavior for 2,000 hours?

    I run a dashcam in my car and a gopro when I ride. You essentially forget about them pretty quickly and your normal habits will come out.

    I see motorists and cyclists break traffic laws. I see motorists breaking laws and endangering peoples lives at a ridiculously higher rate than I do cyclists though.

  • Folicle

    Not true. I see cyclists ride on crosswalks and blow through stop signs and lights a lot. They are all attempts to maintain a higher average speed.

    More generally I think that pedestrians perceive cyclists as breaking the law more because cyclist transgressions tend to affect pedestrians more, e.g. not stopping at crosswalks and stop signs.

  • Folicle

    People see what they want to see. But Shawn makes a good point above – riders and drivers who know they are being watched will behave differently.

  • Frank Krygowski

    “… 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.” ???

    Absolute nonsense! Any decent cycling education program will teach cyclists how to anticipate motorist mistakes and defend against them. They teach riding techniques that allow safe and almost always pleasant riding in the presence of motor vehicles.

    More importantly, cycling education (like the Cycling Savvy program) allows cyclists to ride in safety NOW, using the infrastructure and road rights that cyclists already have.

    And the best education programs go even further. They also teach cyclists to spot the extra hazards generated by weird facilities – for example, the bike paths that hide cyclists from drivers until they run into each other at intersections or driveways. Or like the designs that send bicyclists flying into intersections from unexpected directions.

    Streetsblog’s editorial slant is to scare people away from riding bikes until some fairy tale future when segregated infrastructure has been built everywhere. But good riding education lets you ride well in the real world.

    If I’d waited for Streetsblog’s fantasy world, my family and I would have missed a lifetime of wonderful cycling.

  • reynard

    Oh, I forgot another big one that motorists fail at: completely stopping at stop signs. Big no-no, but most look the other way when a motorist does it. On top of that motor crashes, per year, kill more Americans than the whole Vietnam war. Bike crashes that kill people? Less than a right wing gun fanatic in a Las Vegas hotel room. You are seriously claiming that car negligence is less of a problem than bike negligence? – reposted to correct a spelling error.

  • reynard

    No, he only mentions cyclist’s infractions. Not a single indictment of motorist behaviour. Completely biased comment.

  • reynard

    Cyclist transgressions tend to affect pedestrians more? Are you living in reality? Look at the statistics showing accidends and deaths between motor traffic and bike traffic in regard to pedestrian injury and deaths. Take a guess which one wins. Are you serious?

  • thepinkservbot

    Hahaha! Yeah! What a shame that would be! Hey, you know who is really familiar with missing out on bike riding now? All those cyclists who were killed by distracted motorists! Boy, egg on their face, right???

    You want to talk about weird fucking editorial slants, how about this weird shit where you try to paint bike lanes as some sort of contributor to the problem that you have ACTUAL RESEARCH DATA contradicting you on?

  • Folicle

    No, the topic was not accident or injury statistics. It was peoples’ perceptions of who is breaking traffic laws. And as a pedestrian I notice cyclists doing that more. For instance, cars do not generally travel on sidewalks – cyclists do. Cars will generally stop for me at a crosswalk – cyclists will often not stop or even slow down, but rather “weave past me.

  • Folicle

    Shawn’s comment applies to anyone – if you know you are being watched then you behave differently, and better.

    Also there is no account here of how serious the infractions were. Some matter more than others – run a red light when there is nobody else about and who cares?

  • reynard

    No, this study was not about perceptions, it was about actual laws broken. Perception is meaningless because motorists seem to think that they break laws less than cyclists. So, if you actually read the article, which it appears that you clearly didn’t it says that cyclists are compliant with the law 88% of the time, while drivers 85% of the time. I never said that the study or topic was injury statistics. I added that as a matter of fact that even though cyclists and drivers are nearly equally compliant, one is far deadlier.

  • MathieuLBouchard

    How were cyclists and car drivers sampled here ? Be suspicious of supposedly random samples, but be even more suspicious of an unspecified way to pick the sample.

  • Polli Heh Schildge

    Conditions are gradually changing with greater numbers of bike riders, We have a problem with poor bike and walk infrastructure, and roads that are designed to accommodate too many and too fast cars. Bike education programs like Cycling Savvy empower cyclists to ride as safely as possible among motorists in far less-than-perfect conditions. Very exciting that NJ is in the process of including Bicycle Education for drivers in the motor vehicle driving manual. Cities all over the world and in the US are improving infrastructure for the most vulnerable road users–bike riders and walkers. We can focus on ways to make streets and roads safe for all users rather than demonizing bike riders. The fact is that cars and speed kill. Nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day! An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled. Many bike riders also drive cars, but not as many drivers also ride bikes–there’s a great opportunity for education. Meanwhile, there is this:
    https://www.bicycling.com/culture/advocacy/cyclists-break-the-law-to-stay-safe-study-finds

  • Frank Krygowski

    Hmm: An anonymous poster who slings slang and profanity, shouts using CAPS and loves multiple question marks. Pardon me for not being impressed.

    The issue is whether education protects against motorist mistakes. I strongly suspect that “thepinkservbot” has had zero bicycling education, and consequently has no idea what is taught in a decent cycling course.

    Regarding “all those cyclists who were killed…”: A typical year in the U.S. sees about 800 bicyclists killed, vs. about 4500 pedestrians. U.S. data published by John Pucher shows bicyclists have a per-mile fatality rate less than one third that of pedestrians. IOW, walking is three times as dangerous as bicycling. How can you pretend bicycling is so dangerous without also anguishing over walking?

    Furthermore, every study done on the subject has found that the health benefits of bicycling _greatly_ outweigh its tiny risks. (Citations on request.) That means bicycling is safer than not bicycling.

    Quit the fear mongering. Quit pretending one can only ride in a weirdly designed, expensive, confusing cattle chute. Learn how to properly ride a bike instead.

  • SilvioRodriquez

    Your casual observations are unavoidably selective and structured by your routine. Even if you see precisely what you report, you have no way to know if it is generalizable. That is why we should rely on scientific studies like the one this article reports on. More so, their findings have been corroborated by other, independent studies such as this one https://www.jtlu.org/index.php/jtlu/article/view/871

  • Mark Christol

    the monitoring equipment would certainly change the outcome
    but Tampa has a large tourist population. It would be interesting to try this in, say, Dayton, Ohio

  • 1980Gardener

    I’m not sure if this is good or bad news!

  • Bob Campbell

    Cyclists were selected based on their riding mileage per week and use of roads over trails (p. 6). They were also selected across a variety of age ranges (p. viii). This might surprise you, but car drivers weren’t selected for the study, only cyclists. The drivers discussed were the people who happened to be driving near the cyclists while the cyclists were riding their bikes. There is a link to the study in the first sentence of the article.

  • thepinkservbot

    An “anonymous poster” with his full face picture next to his name?
    Sure. Disqus assigns a username depending on what context you set your account up in. Sorry that neither that, nor your misinterpretation of clear sarcastic use of capital letters and punctuation to make fun of your blitheness, worked out to be unimpressive burns.

    The “issue” is not whether motorist education regarding bicycling laws works, that’s an angle that you started discussing because the experimental data their research found ran counter to some strange anti-bike lane agenda that you quite transparently have. The “issue” was a study of how cyclists and motorists behave w/r/t the law, arrested from context, not any particular solution.

    Your usage of stats is really fucking weird. Of course there are going to, overall, be more pedestrian fatalities than cyclists (who gets categorized as a “pedestrian” is a bit of a debate in individual cases btw, and why the fuck only FATALITIES?), there are that many more pedestrians. That stat is no evidence. Even fucking weirder… I’m sorry, a “per-mile fatality rate”? What? Yes, I have no problem believing cyclists are going to have a smaller “per-mile” fatality rate just by virtue of the fact that ***cyclists cover more miles.*** What are you even saying here? Do you even understand the context of your numbers? Do you just dig them up and go “well that one’s bigger than this one so expecto patronum I win the argument”?

    I’m not even going to address your completely inane and fundamentally irrelevant point on health benefits. The benefits of cardiovascular exercise have nothing to do with the safety of the infrastructure the exercise takes place in, Professor Krygowski.

    One needn’t “only” do anything, but there is no reason to keep people in danger just because you get weirdly uneasy when people start talking about “weirdly designed, expensive” infrastructure. You’re some sort of Libertarian weirdo, right?

    Stop licking motorist boots, you shadow of a cyclist.

  • Bob Campbell

    They didn’t monitor drivers, only cyclists. Otherwise I agree with you. The drivers would have simply been the drivers who were near the cyclists that were being monitored.

  • Bob Campbell

    There’s a link to the study in the first sentence. Cyclists were selected across age ranges and were selected based on how many miles/week they ride and that their riding occurs on roads (vs. trails). The area was selected for study due to the number of local cyclists and accidents involving cyclists. Drivers weren’t selected for the study. Drivers studied were those who happened to be driving near the selected cyclists.

  • Cynara2

    I’m blind. Car drivers are extremely courteous toward me. Cyclists are viciously cruel.

  • Cynara2

    I’m blind. Cyclists do not care. They force me out of “their” way on the sidewalk on a daily basis.

  • Cynara2

    Cyclists are never on the sidewalk for safety. Never. It is always for convenience and they do not care if they kill a pedestrian. Go look on youtube as to how they treat pedestrians. They backhand them, scream at them, kick them, hit them on purpose with the handlebars. No. You guys really are the biggest problem any disabled person has.

  • Cynara2

    Nope. You are just a typical cyclist who dismisses pedestrian’s experience of you, which could not possibly be any worse.

  • Cynara2

    The minute the cyclists see a cop car they fall into perfect formation. Then revert back the second it is gone. They know what they are doing is wrong. They do not care.

  • Cynara2

    Pedestrians are not at war with motorists. Cyclists are at war with pedestrians.

  • Jonathan Krall

    FWIW, studies of driving, using heavily-instrumented cars with cameras and such to monitor the driver, shows that the effect of monitoring equipment is temporary. Subjects fell right back into rather stupid behaviors within a few days, such as looking at their phones while driving. This is documented in the book Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt.

  • Jonathan Krall

    You seem to be ignoring the research that correlates bike lanes miles with reduced injury rates in cities. I’m glad streetsblog advocates for bike lanes because, like the people in the study, I prefer to ride in bike lanes and not have some stressed out driver tailgating me and looking for a chance to pass.

  • Jonathan Krall

    I agree. That drivers will behave when constantly monitored is documented, but it is also well-documented that they can’t sustain that good behavior and fall back to less safe behavior pretty quickly. This was described in Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt.

    It isn’t much of a stretch to assume the cyclists will also behave when constantly monitored and, like drivers, will not be able to sustain that good behavior.

  • Jonathan Krall

    I’m amazed that this is still a controversial point. Virtually all humans speed up, cut corners and bend rules to the degree that they feel safe and comfortable doing so. The idea that there is something fundamentally different about people who ride bicycles just seems crazy to me. Based on the comments, however, there is still a need for studies like this.

  • KP

    Can’t read huh?

  • reynard

    They didn’t monitor drivers? Then why this text from above: The observed compliance rate for drivers who interacted with participants was slightly lower, at 85 percent

    Among other things mentioned about the observations of drivers.

  • reynard

    OK, you’re clearly not very bright and have some sort of axe to grind. You claim “Pedestrians are not at war with motorists. Cyclists are at war with pedestrians”, which is patently absurd. In the USA in 2015 5,376 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles and nearly and additional 129,000 were treated in emergency departments for non-fatal crash-related injuries. Source, the CDC. I couldn’t find any stats on pedestrian/bicycle collisions, but I’m 100% confident that they are nowhere near those of motor incidents. Not to mention, considering that I live in a major metropolitan area, I see several news reports per week of cars hitting pedestrians and never see reports of cyclists hitting pedestrians. Your ridiculous assertions make it impossible to take anything you say seriously.

  • Frank Krygowski

    If you’re hIding behind a pseudonym, you are purposely remaining anonymous. A photo of someone doesn’t change that. I repeat, anonymity and foul language don’t impress.

    Neither does your obvious inability to understand concepts like “per mile traveled.” But profanity does correlate with low intelligence, so it’s not surprising.

    Despite what you say, this issue was raised by the author of the article: “… “education,” which does nothing to protect people on bikes from
    dangerous drivers on roads that force them to ride with motor vehicle
    traffic.” IOW, education doesn’t help; roads are dangerous; bikes shouldn’t ride with motor vehicles.

    Am I a shadow of a bicyclist? I bike commuted for decades, and still do tons of utility cycling. I’ve bike toured (with my family) thousands and thousands of miles, ridden in 47 states and about 12 foreign countries. I took cycling courses and read appropriate books and I learned to handle myself on ordinary roads. I also learned the hazards of many bike facilities: Paths with fixed collision hazards, “cycletracks” that dump wrong-way cyclists at speed into intersections, paths that hide cyclists until just before collisions, lanes that never get plowed or swept, lanes that put ignorant cyclists in the right hook “coffin corner,” bike lanes in door zones and more.

    I’m not against all bike facilities. I’m actually responsible for the construction of some in my town. But I’m against those that violate the basic rules of traffic movement, and I’m _strongly_ against the lie that one cannot ride safely on ordinary roads. That message – and the “You should wait until we have paths everywhere” – is both ignorant and anti-cycling.

  • Corey Anderson

    Kind of like car drivers.

  • thepinkservbot

    Buddy, I signed up for disqus via a forum that expressly banned the usage of real names, then I joined it with my Facebook and for some reason it used the profile photo but not the name, and I haven’t been bothered enough to change it in either direction since. That’s it. Don’t read too much into my INTERNET PRESENCE.

    “Per mile traveled,” without any greater context than that, is useless towards the aim of either your argument or mine. Also, you’re talking out of your ass about profanity — hey look what I have, something you’ve never considered before, FUCKING RESEARCH AND EVIDENCE!!!!!: https://www.sciencealert.com/swearing-is-a-sign-of-more-intelligence-not-less-say-scientists

    You “true-ism”-swallowing idiot.

    So, you got bent out of shape over an absolutist, literal interpretation of a phrase, “does NOTHING!!!!!”, and exploded into a ball of white-hot Cyclist Education Enthusiasm. Here is your problem, your blinders — you have expert-itis. Very, very, very few people… they aren’t even going to be you, they aren’t even going to be a quarter of you. A tenth. The kind of education you’re talking about is not something every or even most JOE SCHMOE bicycle commuter is going to be able to grasp, want to go in for, feel comfortable doing, etc. etc. etc. FUCKING ET CETERA YOU DIPSHIT LANCE ARMSTRONG WANNABE.

    Think of GRANDMA, not BIKER TRASH.

  • Frank Krygowski

    I’ve got quite a lot of research papers on file. I’m aware of research that shows increased danger from bike lanes and/or cycle tracks. (Jensen, 2007, showed 10% crash increases, mostly at intersections. Agerholm, 2008 showed a 14% crash increase.
    Parkin, 2009 found at least some bike lanes resulted in closer passing by motorists.) I’m also aware that some studies claiming greater safety for cycle tracks appeared to be deceptive. For example, Lusk’s comparison of tracks vs. streets in Montreal has been savaged for comparing a busy street with lots of driveways and no cycle track vs. a much quieter street with few driveways and a cycletrack, and pretending the only relevant difference was the cycletrack.

    I’m also aware that there are many studies that show typical cyclists _feel_ safer in a bike lane… or rather, in _any_ facility that seems to be done especially for bikes. This was true even (for example) in Jensen’s Copenhagen study. Cyclists uniformly praised the very facilities that caused significant increases in crashes. The mentality is that “Any bike facility is a good bike facility” or perhaps “Well, at least they’ve done _something_ for us.”

    Regarding the simple painted bike lanes: On one hand, they probably do rather little harm on straight road sections between intersections (including driveways as intersections), provided that they are clear of obstructions and debris and their surface is maintained. But IME they do collect debris that would normally be swept away by car traffic. (I’ve gotten the resulting flats.) And I’ve certainly been yelled at to “get in the bike lane” when I’ve left it because of debris, or even to turn left! And door zone bike lanes are the work of the devil, actively leading unknowing cyclists into collision hazards.

    Bike lanes also confuse some newbies, who apparently think they are never allowed to leave the lane. Yes, I’ve seen sudden left turns from a right-side bike lane. I’ve also seen bike lanes lead cyclists into the blind spot next to right-turning vehicles. I haven’t seen a crash from that, but you can read about many fatal ones.

    But what of the benefit? Despite the claims, most bike lanes do _not_ give “room to ride a bike.” Bike lanes normally add no room, no extra pavement. Despite that, there are cities where door-zone bike lanes have been squeezed in because uneducated people demanded those dangerous facilities.

    I’m not against all bike lanes. But in my experience, the benefits are seldom real, and it’s not unusual for the situation to be worse once the paint stripe is down. I prefer a wide lane without the paint stripe in almost all circumstances. And I definitely prefer full rights to the road.

  • Ryan S

    Stephen Paddock’s past voter registration was Democrat (he was not currently registered), but you’re correct about everything else.

  • Ryan S

    Absolutely correct! Where I live in “flyover country”, there is zero bike-specific infrastructure – only a few multi-use pedestrian paths that aren’t ideal for bicycles. If I waited for this unicorn of bicycle infrastructure that cycling advocates are constantly pushing, I’d be still waiting 50 years from now while long dead.
    Embracing the existing infrastructure of traffic lanes, while educating both cyclists and motorists, is the best course of action; and definitely the most effective use of resources and capital for safer cycling.

  • Ryan S

    How do you figure? In most traffic lanes in America, even a Toyota Prius cannot legally pass a cyclist (offering minimum berth) while sharing the same traffic lane…and this assumes the cyclist riding with at the very edge.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    From the viewpoint of the driver, a central vantage point of a thin car is better for the health of the cyclist than a skewed view of driver of a side-seated car. The side seat buffer makes driver vision and judgement calls more difficult. Since they can see cyclists better, drivers of narrow cars can more easily drive safely with cyclists. Not to appear flippant, but regarding safety and legality, it’s legal to smoke tobacco which is clearly not safe. If one agrees that bikes sharing current lanes with other bikes is safe, I think it’s logical to infer that narrow vehicles, whether pedaled or motorized, sharing road width in the same (currently drawn) lane is safer than non-segregated side-seated cars sharing road width, even without lane sharing.

  • SurlyCyclist

    I’ve never come across any peer reviewed study that draws a correlation between use of profanity and low intelligence.

    I’ve known some extremely intelligent people that were extremely proficient in profanity.

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