Why Confusion About Bike Laws is Making Our Streets Less Safe

When going for a bike ride, there are often only two options: ride on the sidewalk while dodging startled pedestrians, or take a full car lane and test the patience of people in cars that are much bigger and more powerful than you are. Either way you can end up feeling like you and your bike aren’t welcome.

In most states the law is to act like a car and take a full lane, yet cyclists don’t always opt for the road. Instead they’re choosing to bike how they feel is safer, even if it’s technically illegal.

Research by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Colorado suggests cyclists are following their own rules, rather than the law, when taking to the road. The research team surveyed more than 18,000 people around the world to come to that conclusion.

“There are all these conflicting ideas of how a bike rider should behave—some legal, some illegal,” said Daniel P. Piatkowski, researcher and assistant professor in the community and regional planning program of Nebraska’s College of Architecture, to the university. “We found that, regardless of how people are riding, most are doing so to avoid being injured or killed by a driver.”

Based on the survey, bikers taking a full lane is perceived as rude and reckless. Sometimes bikers and drivers sharing the road can even get confrontational, regardless of what the laws actually are.

Wesley Marshall, researcher and civil engineer at the University of Colorado Denver, said to the University of Nebraska that he was surprised how many survey respondents said they’d be angry or want to confront a cyclist over bike maneuvers they found frustrating or wrong.

“When a perfectly legal bicycling maneuver like taking the middle of the lane elicits an aggressive response from a significant number of drivers, that is a big problem,” Marshall said. “This sort of disconnect helps explain a lot of the behaviors we’re seeing out there.”

Confusion abounds

Everyone having their own personal interpretation of biking laws can create a lot of confusion. This confusion leads to people driving more aggressively—causing more accidents and turning others away from biking, a mode of transportation that’s good exercise and good for the environment.

Bike Laws pbs rewire“We know it’s the Wild West out there,” Piatkowski said.

In the survey, people were presented with legal and illegal biking maneuvers and were asked to react to each one, including rolling through a four-way stop, taking a full lane and biking the wrong way on a one-way street.

Eighty-two percent said they would not mind a cyclist taking a full lane on a road even if it impedes traffic. Taking the middle of the lane when on your bike (rather than hugging the curb) can help you avoid being hit by a car trying to pass on the right too closely or being “doored” by someone getting out of a parked car.

Most people said they’d be okay with a biker rolling through four-way stops to stay ahead of cars—about 65 percent of respondents said that’s an acceptable maneuver. But respondents who are comfortable biking on the road said they would react negatively to another biker ignoring a stop sign.

People who both drive and bike tend to be more forgiving of cyclists, but can also judge other cyclists harshly if they have different interpretations of the rules of the road. In the end, cyclists and drivers both want to be safe, but mixed traffic situations can be confusing, making biking less safe than it should be.

“These results suggest that people are making judgments about appropriate bicycling based on their own experience,” Piatkowski said. “And that’s a problem. It means traffic laws or street design are not working.”

Making biking safer for everyone

Bicycling magazine named Chicago, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, as the top three biking-friendly cities of 2016 (follow the link to see how your city stacks up). All three make biking facilities and safety a priority. But not everyone is lucky enough to live in a place that builds roads with bikers’ safety in mind.Bike Laws pbs rewire

Infrastructure that incorporates different modes of transportation—like dedicated bike lanes on city streets and more public bike racks—eliminates ambiguity on the road and creates a better experience for everyone. (Some people think implementing an “Idaho Stop” law keeps bikers safer, too.)

Think you know your state’s biking laws? Make sure before you go on your next ride.

Deidre Gomm

Deidre Gomm is originally from America’s Dairyland and is currently settled in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. At Twin Cities PBS she coordinates office necessities and has a knack for changing the toner. On a typical day you can find her biking around St. Paul, playing with her foster cats and scoping out new board games.