Drivers Are More Dangerous Near Women Cyclists

Photo:  Adam Coppola
Photo: Adam Coppola

Experts long have bemoaned the gender gap in cycling: Three in four bike trips in the United States are made by men. It also has been known for some time, too, that women’s heightened concerns for safety help explain the disparity.

New evidence, however, suggests that women might justly fear for their safety when hopping on a bike. A new study measuring passing distances in Hennepin County, Minn., finds that drivers are much more likely to pass female cyclists at an unsafe distance.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota used radar to measure the passing distance on different kinds of streets — those with protected bike lanes, those with no bike infrastructure, and those with painted bike lanes.

In the 2,949 passing events recorded, only about 33 drivers — slightly more than 1 percent — “encroached” on cyclists — meaning that they passed at a distance of fewer than three feet, in violation of Minnesota law. But of those events, 73 percent of the dangerous passing maneuvers involved female cyclists. Statistically, women were about three times more likely to face encroachment by motorists, a result that surprised the research team.

The study “confirms female cyclists’ concerns about safety on the road, and underscores the need for greater investment in safer facilities like protected bike lanes,” wrote University of Minnesota’s Greg Lindsey in a summary report.

He added that, assuming that the gender-based patterns of encroachment extend into the general population, “women riders face additional risk. Indeed, based on these findings, women cyclists likely experience tens of thousands more instances of encroachment each year.”

The report also confirmed that high-quality bike infrastructure improves safety for cyclists. On streets with a bike lane that was separated from traffic by plastic bollards, the average passing distance was 90 inches — more than on streets with no bike lanes or painted lanes. On roads that had painted bike lanes or no bike lanes, the average passing distance was 62 to 63 inches. Of the 33 “encroachments,” none happened to a cyclist in a protected bike lane.

These findings also may help explain why the cycling “gender gap” drops in places that have strong, protected bike infrastructure.

“Separation of cyclists from vehicular traffic reduces encroachments and can address the well-founded concerns women have about safety,” the authors said.

23 thoughts on Drivers Are More Dangerous Near Women Cyclists

  1. I would like to know if they evaluated the gender distribution of edge riding versus riding near the center of the travel lane, and if that played a role.

  2. I wonder what the gender distribution of the driver encroachers are. Are more males likely to encroach on women than on men?

  3. I know that I immediately get honked at and drivers will speed up at me as soon as I try to take the lane, while my (tall, male) partner is allowed more space to do what he wants, whether it’s take the lane or ride to the side. I thought it was just that he’s a lot bigger than me, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that there’s endemic gender bias rooted in here too.

  4. I ride the center when needed, people still pass closely. The cars that are likely to do so give off a tube ahead of time. My prediction skills on who will pass aggressively is spot on out 70% of the time. It is often a female driver where I live.

  5. Seems like an untenable result. How does one tell a women cyclist from a man cyclist from a moving car?

    Not too mention how absurd it is to push something that is one percentage point. The scare tactics are getting old, the excuses for not implementing proper, comprehensive design more & more obvious.

    “Take the lane for safety if needed!”

    Do not let technocrats run bicyclists off the roads.

  6. It may be that women ride closer to the kerb, so it’s easier to overtake them in a dangerous distance.

  7. I notice that all these comments so far are in one way or another disputing the findings and/or conclusions of the article. It reminds me of the denial by men of women’s experiences of harassment and discrimination: it didn’t happen, it was the woman’s fault, etc.etc.

  8. This is consistent with everything else we know about how men and women use public space. Manspreading: not just for benches anymore. Women are expected to get out of men’s way.

  9. Interesting… but this study used only three bicyclists for the entire dataset: two men and one woman. It seems hasty to conclude that gender must be the reason why this woman was close-passed more often than her two male colleagues were. For instance, what if the true underlying relationship is that smaller riders are passed more closely and that she just happened to be the smallest of the three people? A larger and more representative sample of the population should be studied before attributing such a discrepancy to a single feature.

    There is another older study conducted by male researchers suggesting that female wigs tend to increase, not decrease passing distances: https://www.helmets.org/walkerstudy.htm

    So I’d say the jury is still out.

  10. I have biked on city and suburban roads more than anyone who will post here, and I can’t recall a single time when a car passed too close. Out in the country, where traffic tends to be faster, you often feel the wind coming off of cars that pass at 50+mph, which makes them seem closer than they are. People see you. They aren’t going to hit you. No need for a foam noodle or a self-congratulatory tweet.

  11. Lucky you @ Jacob. I am closely passed in around 33% of rides. I don’t ride where there is fast traffic, I ride in roads with speed limits under 30mph. I generally do not ride near the curb. I ride at the edge of door zone bike lanes or in the middle of the street in roads with sharrows. Drivers do it intentionally to intimidate or because they are in a rush.

  12. My experience is similar to Jamie’s. Taking the lane exposes you to the “punitive buzz pass” from angry drivers. When my commute included about a mile of taking the lane on a busy 4 lane street, I’d get buzzed at least once a month. It was intentional and intended to intimidate.

  13. I tried to read the study as published, but it is beyond a paywall. Why is a study funded by a public university not posted for anyone to read? But unless I see solid evidence to the contrary, I do not believe the study: people tend to be more courteous and accommodating around females. As Scoot77 said, using the same female rider for all of the data collection fatally undermines the study right there. Further, I would like to know what clues the male and female riders gave out to indicate their sex and how riding styles were kept to a consistent standard.

  14. I think this study is a great starting point for future, more in depth studies. There’s not enough here to claim it as fact, but there’s also enough to suggest it warrants further study.

  15. It’s obvious – guys are more likely to ride to the center or left of the lane, and so drivers have to be closer to them to pass safely.

    Women cyclists ride more defensively and conservatively, especially with a child on board. But guys, well, you know . .

  16. I am not surprised by these findings (and would not necessarily dispute or disagreee with them but the small sample size (2 men, one woman) and the lack of specificity regarding their lane positions, dress, etc., is disappointing.

  17. To be fair, the researchers are very careful to use phrases like “IF our results generalize to the larger population of women riders”. But journalists and bloggers of the world don’t find such caveats sexy, so here we are.

  18. All children are taught safety codes from an early age, and along with other road safety Initiatives they are provided with the knowledge to cross the road safely. So why are our children killed or injured as a result of road traffic accidents?

    The answer is simple…
    Just because we tell our children, not to do something doesn’t mean they will apply this in practice. “Increasing knowledge does not improve beahviour”. In other words, we have to take a mixed approach one where we combine what we teach our children(tell them how to cross the road safely) with methods of actual practice(improving road safety behaviour) thus putting theory into practice in a safe environment.

    In an easy to use electronic multi-media device, this new child pedestrian road resource takes the child on a road safety journey. This journey brings the road safety message to life addressing both the theory and practice of child pedestrian road safety.

    During my extensive research into why children were being killed or injured as a result of road traffic accidents, I observed some of the following problems that children face daily whilst attempting to cross our roads.

    Road Traffic:

    The volume of traffic on our roads.
    Lack of safe crossings particularly near schools.

    Unsafe driving:

    Drivers being distracted for example by road signs and traffic information signs, bus lanes, and speed bumps combined with speed limits and their own behaviour are key factors.

    Simple road safety messages:

    Current road safety messages need to be presented in a much more interesting and fun way.

    Behavioural traits that I witnessed whilst observing children crossing the roads were as follows:

    Children if easily distracted will run onto a road without looking. These same children are not remembering the road safety code when it is needed.

    Children or not always on or near roads as part of a group or being led by peers.

    Children are not always able to remember good road safety habits as taught to them and are not practicing good road safety behaviour.

    Children do not always have the reinforcement of their family in relation to learning and adopting good road safety habits.

    Children like adults can sometimes adopt poor habits.

    ROADMATE is one element in this complex phenomenon of child fatalities in road accidents. The companies sole aim is to decrease child fatalities by educating children and teaching safe practices. How can ROADMATE do this? By improving awareness of the rules for the children in effect by offering the child the opportunity to teach him/herself the road safety code and to test themselves on their newly acquired knowledge.

    Unlike one of the many apps found on cell phones, tablets, etc ROADMATE is a stand-alone road safety educational resource which has been designed to be used in a safe and comfortable environment such as homes and schools. Therefore making this piece of childhood experience more impactful for the child. As an educational resource, it allows the child to learn about road safety both in group settings and individually. ROADMATE brings information to life making it relevant fun and meaningful. This road safety resource instills good judgment skills in the child leaving the parent(s) confident that their child understands what is necessary to become an Independent, competent and confident pedestrian and road user.

    We learn 10% of what we read, 15% of what we hear and 80% of what we do ourselves. As a multimedia child pedestrian road safety resource, ROADMATE incorporates all of the above. This allows the child to Interact with this new child pedestrian road safety resource and by following the instructions can become that confident, competent and independent road user and pedestrian.

    As an educational resource, the child is offered passive, interactive and collaborative learning through using ROADMATE. It also makes available to the child more occasions when a consistent road safety message can be learned, understood and applied in a safe and comfortable environment.

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  19. “Current road safety messages need to be presented in a much more interesting and fun way.” Good luck with your app, Bill. I would caution that navigating in or around traffic is the most complex and hazardous activity that humans engage in outside of war zones (actually roads qualify as war zones in numbers of casualties). Children (and many adults) may not have the ability to process the many split second decisions that must be made, which are taken all too casually by many drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. I designed the graphic Share the Road, 3′ separation bike route sign in 1981 because the headless horseman official bike route sign, imparts no useful information to drivers or cyclists. My 2006 Look Twice for One Less Car, was an attempt to do alert drivers to avoid the most common collisions with cyclists and pedestrians.

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