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Study Finds Cyclists Need Safer Streets

5:05 PM EST on November 19, 2008

A Hunter College study on cyclist behavior is making the rounds today, getting a long post on City Room. The data measure the extent to which cyclists take safety precautions and follow traffic laws. Helpful stuff to know, except that the findings are presented in a way that feeds into the worst stereotypes about cyclists and a blame-the-victim mentality toward traffic injuries and deaths.

In the post, headlined "Study Finds Cyclists Disobey Traffic Laws," the report authors call for greater helmet use and adherence to traffic laws. Again, all well and good, but leaving it at that reinforces the perception that cyclists would be much safer if only they obeyed the letter of the law. It's easy to hear echoes of NYPD's insistence, in the waning days of the Giuliani administration, that "cyclist error" was to blame in three quarters of deadly crashes. A follow-up study conducted by the advocacy group Right of Way [PDF] found otherwise:

Throughcareful reconstruction of crash circumstances, we were able to assignresponsibility in 53 of the 71 fatal bicycle crashes during 1995-1998for which we obtained police crash reports. We determined that driverswere highly culpable in 30 cases, partly culpable in 11 cases, and notculpable in 12 cases. Driver misconduct was thus the principal cause in57% (30 out of 53) of the cases and a contributory factor in 78% (30plus 11, or 41, out of 53).

Another way to view the Hunter College findings is that rates of traffic violations among cyclists are symptomatic of a system designed mainly to accommodate cars. In other words, cyclists follow the rules more when they feel safe. (City Room cites TA's Wiley Norvell to this effect, toward the bottom of the post.) This has been borne out on Ninth Avenue, where according to DOT's data the incidence of sidewalk riding declined from five percent to below one percent after the protected path was installed.

As Norvell told Streetsblog, "A
lot of the traffic violations we see out there happen on streets that
have absolutely no provision for the safety of the cyclist."

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