3 Feet Over or 6 Feet Under? Cyclists are Dying to be Seen.

I have lost count of the many close calls I’ve had with vehicles while riding my road bike. On a 30+ mile excursion just this morning, my fellow riders and I were subjected to shouted curses, near-misses as cars passed illegally, and aggressive tailgating. Some would say that’s reason enough to stop riding, but the stubborn part of me (the one that knows I have just as much legal right to the roadway as my four-wheeled travelers) just won’t.

In Louisiana, a person riding a bicycle has all of the rights and duties of the driver of a vehicle as provided in Title 32 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes, except as to those provisions which by their nature can have no application. (Source: La. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§32:1(92); 32 §194). It is also illegal to taunt, harass or maliciously throw objects at cyclists. But, that doesn’t seem to deter motorists here from often going out of their way to show us we don’t belong on the road. If I had a nickel for every time someone shouted, “You’re supposed to be on the sidewalk!” Well, let’s just say I would have a newer model bike.

Fatalities resulting from crashes linked to aggressive driving increased from 80 instances in 2006 to 467 in 2015 — that’s almost a 500 percent increase in just ten years (NHTSA). According to 2016 statistics from the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety, nearly 80% of polled drivers expressed serious aggression, anger or road rage while driving at least once in a year. Even scarier – over two-thirds of road rage incidents involve at least one firearm (I once had someone discharge a shotgun over my head as I was riding by).

My home state of Louisiana ranks 2nd in the country for the number of cyclists killed each year in traffic accidents  – an average of 17. Florida takes the top spot with an average 110 deaths each year. The national bicyclist death rate for 2012 was approximately 2.3 deaths per 1 million. (Governing Magazine).

So, what’s causing this epidemic? Jake Nelson, American Automobile Association’s Director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research attributes much of the increase to the busy pace of today’s lifestyle. Drivers are feeling “the pressures of balancing work and family, not enough hours in the day to do all the things that you have to do,” Nelson said. “It’s completely normal for drivers to experience anger behind the wheel, but we must not let our emotions lead to destructive choices,” Nelson said.

Decreasing acts of road violence against cyclists depends on two crucial factors – educating and testing new and older drivers on traffic laws, and ensuring our youngest drivers develop the emotional skills necessary to safely maneuver a vehicle with a cool head. Because most drivers don’t understand the rights of cyclists, they become angry and frustrated when they find themselves behind a pack of Spandex-clad obstacles.

Image result for share the road

This need for traffic safety education was highlighted in 2015 when Delaware removed its “Share the Road” highway signs (the same kind seen on state highways and license plates across the country). The signs were meant to affirm cyclists’ rights to the road. But, they were widely misinterpreted — by both motorists and cyclists — as an exhortation to cyclists to stop “hogging” the road, or as a recommendation that drivers and cyclists share a lane (leading to tight squeezes and close passes). Cycling advocacy group Bike Delaware supported the move to remove the signs due to their ambiguity, and has supported the state in moving to “Bicycle May Use Full Lane” signs instead. Nonprofit Bike Maryland invests in advertising to reinforce the three feet when passing law.

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No matter the ad text or slogan, improving rider/driver interactions on our highways will require effort on numerous fronts, including government-led education and enforcement. In 2015, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asked mayors across the country to take on the Mayors’ Challenge for Safer People and Safer Streets, with seven specific components:

  1. Complete Streets
  2. Fix Barriers
  3. Gather Data
  4. Design Right
  5. Create Networks
  6. Improve Laws
  7. Educate & Enforce

The U.S. Department of Transportation published several “success stories” from communities across the country, which gives hope that coordinated efforts can make a difference. But, the work can’t stop with one page of results. It must be ongoing, collaborative, and measurable.

I encourage every cyclist to take the time to become your own best advocate. Learn the laws in your state, obey them while you’re on the road, and use every opportunity to educate other cyclists and drivers. Street signs, flashing lights and neon jerseys alone won’t get us the level of visibility needed to save lives.

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