Top 3 reasons why you should cycle WITH traffic, in the direction of traffic flow

Because bicyclists take so much flak from motorists who would prefer not to have the two-wheelers on the road to begin with, I’m particularly sensitive these days when I see another cyclist breaking traffic and safety rules.

A super common and super dangerous traffic error I see is this:  biking on the wrong side of the road, against traffic.

Perhaps there was a whole generation of people who were given mistaken instructions on how to ride, and the misinformation keeps propagating. Or maybe they get mixed up, since pedestrians are supposed to face oncoming traffic when walking along a road. Or perhaps cyclists feel safer if they can see traffic coming at them (they are actually in MORE danger, as I will explain below).

Bugman and I encountered a particularly egregious example of this over the weekend. We had just crested the Mitchell Hill on Highway 92 eastbound when Bugman said, “What the . . .? There’s a bike coming the wrong way!”

The cyclist was westbound in the center of the eastbound lane. We played a little pas-de-deux of confusion about who would pass on which side, and our bike camera recorded him as he passed on our left and proceeded uphill on the wrong side of the road.

cycling against trafficTHIS IS SO DANGEROUS! I’m absolutely flabbergasted that someone would think it was OK to ride on the wrong side of the road heading up a blind hill on a 60 MPH highway. (I will admit, I yelled at him. “You’re riding in the wrong lane!” But he probably didn’t hear me. HE WAS WEARING HEADPHONES!)

Here are the

TOP 3 REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD CYCLE WITH TRAFFIC, IN THE DIRECTION OF TRAFFIC FLOW:

  1. Anyone turning onto the roadway will not be looking for you there, if you ride against traffic. When you are driving a car and you merge onto a highway on-ramp, are you looking forward to see if anyone is traveling down the Interstate in the wrong direction? No! Because that is not normal! Similarly, a driver making a right-hand turn out of a driveway or crossroad on the stretch of highway in the photo above will most likely look left, to see if there is any traffic coming. They will not look right to see if there is a bicycle traveling the wrong way towards them. They will accelerate onto the highway, and the bicyclist will have no time to react or will be forced into traffic in the other lane. NOT GOOD!
  2. You are INCREASING the relative speed at which cars will pass you, if you ride against traffic. Let’s do the math with the above example. Say the cyclist has some good legs and is making 10 MPH up that hill. An eastbound car in that lane at the speed limit would be traveling 60 MPH. The additive effect of those two vehicles traveling towards each other in the same lane means they are approaching each other at 70 MPH, thus reducing the amount of time each person has to react to the situation. If the cyclist were traveling uphill properly, in the westbound lane, and they were passed by a westbound car doing the speed limit, that car would approach the cyclist at only 50 MPH – the cyclist is moving away from the car at 10 MPH, thus giving the driver more time to react. (Another example for in-town riders: you’re riding at 15 MPH, the driver at 25 MPH. With wrong-way travel, you’ve got a closing speed of 40 MPH. When you ride WITH traffic, that drops to a closing speed of 10 MPH.)
  3. It’s the law to behave as an automobile would. Would you drive a car on the wrong side of the road? No! Then why would you ride a bicycle that way? On the back page of the NDOR Nebraska Bicycle Guide, it states (emphasis mine):

Follow the law. Bicyclists have the same rights and duties as drivers. Obey the rules of the road as if you were driving a car—stop at stop signs, red lights, and signal before turning or changing lanes. Ride with traffic.

I will acknowledge that it feels creepy and awful to hear vehicles coming up behind you and not be able to see them. That is why I always use a mirror – so I can see what’s happening back there.

It may “feel” safer to ride facing traffic, but it is MORE DANGEROUS, for the reasons mentioned above, and here is proof: a couple of cycling experts analyzed bicycle accident data from the 1980s in Palo Alto, California, where they are from, and found that wrong-way cyclists are between 3-7 times more likely to get into an accident than those traveling in the direction of traffic.

Here’s a snippet from the results section of the study:

Table 4 shows that all categories of bicy­clists traveling against the direction of traffic flow are at greatly increased risk for accidents—on average 3.6 times the risk of those traveling with traffic, and as high as 6.6 times for those 17 and under. This result is readily explained: because motorists normally scan for traffic trav­eling in the lawful direction, wrong-way traffic is easily overlooked. To give only a single example, a motorist turning right at an intersec­tion scans to the left for approaching traffic on the new road, and cannot see or anticipate a fast-moving wrong-way bicyclist approaching from the right. (This is the one of the most common types of bicycle-motor vehicle collisions in Palo Alto.)

This finding provides compelling justifica­tion for current traffic law, which requires bicy­clists on the roadway everywhere in the United States to travel in the same direction as other traffic. It also implies that vigorous enforcement of this law, for both adults and children, can substantially reduce the number of bicycle-motor vehicle collisions, and should receive high priority in any bicycle program.

Two points about Table 4 deserve comment. First, the conclusion is extremely robust: wrong-way bicycling is risky at an overwhelmingly high level of significance—p<<10-5 for the category as a whole, p<10-5 in four out of seven subgroups, and p<10-4 and 10-3 for two others. In the remaining subgroup, on the roadway, only 5 percent of bicyclists (108 of 2005) traveled against traffic, and only 5 accidents occurred there (compared to 2.5 expected); these small numbers limit any statistical significance.

Second, wrong-way bicycling is dangerous for all subgroups of bicyclists—including those traveling on the sidewalk, who may at first seem to be protected against collisions with motor vehicles. In fact, sidewalk bicyclists enter into conflict with motorists at every intersection (including driveways), and these are exactly the points where most bicycle-motor vehicle colli­sions occur. Wrong-way sidewalk bicyclists are at particular risk because they enter the point of conflict from an unexpected direction, just as they would on the roadway.

So, folks, please – when cycling, and when instructing youngsters on cycling, make sure everyone is RIDING RIGHT, in the direction of traffic. You’ll reduce the risk of accidents that way.

Copyright 2015 by Katie Bradshaw

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