Perspectives on Chicago Bicyclist Fatalities:The Role of Education and Law

Perspectives on Chicago Bicyclist Fatalities:The Role of Education and Law
Diana, a CyclingSavvy graduate, waits in line with vehicle traffic at a red light

This is the third installment in a three-part series by guest author, John Brooking, a CyclingSavvy instructor.  (Part One and Part Two)

In the last installment, we looked at problems with bike lanes in the door zone of parked cars and at intersections. National cycling education such as CyclingSavvy and Smart Cycling consistently teach active avoidance of these and other danger situations.

CyclingSavvy instructor Eli Damon has been heard to quote Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid movies on avoiding opening car doors: “Best block, no be there”. Similar for staying too far to the right at an intersection where other traffic could turn right. That is why cycling education teaches moving away from the right edge of the road in these situations. The law in most states, including Illinois, gives cyclists the right to move into and even control the full travel lane in these situations, as well as to turn left, avoid other hazards, and so on (625 ILCS 5/11-1505). In other words, act like other drivers and protect your space.

Unfortunately, the City of Chicago has a much more discriminatory law, although I’m told it is not typically enforced. Check this out: “Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near as practicable to the right-hand side of the roadway, exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction and at all times giving the right-of-way to other moving vehicles” (9-52-040(c), emphasis mine). No standard exceptions, and no right to normal right-of-way behavior around other moving vehicles. That’s the most draconian version of “ride to the right” that I know of. It actually does not allow bicyclists to use another part of the roadway even when necessary to protect their space.

So in Chicago, cyclists have a double whammy: a local ordinance which says cyclists have to give up their right of way to all other moving vehicles, and infrastructure which places them in danger zones which they have no legal right to avoid. The facilities also exacerbate motorist intolerance for cyclists trying to avoid these dangers, and the facilities and the law both promote operation counter to best traffic cycling practices taught by the major national cyclist education programs.  Finally, the facilities are counter to what human factors studies teach about the limits of driver capabilities.

For all these reasons, Chicago’s cycling environment appears to some of us to be severely restrictive, and actually going in the direction of diminishing cyclists’ right and ability to operate safely as equal users of Chicago streets, by promoting segregation into bicycle facilities as the primary way to accommodate bicyclists.  No amount of infrastructure can compensate for a lack of initiative in education and self-protection, but unfortunately, Chicago law and infrastructure are not conducive to these.

If we are looking for root causes of cyclist fatalities, we need to expand our search beyond careless motorist mistakes, and for that matter beyond careless bicyclist mistakes. We all make mistakes. Normal driving behavior, such as leaving adequate buffer space and positioning yourself by destination at intersections, is intended to mitigate the mistakes which we know will occasionally happen, by both parties. Restricting cyclist options and behavior, through restrictive laws and facilities that leave less margin for error, takes away the ability of cyclists to protect their space, and psychologically restricts cyclists from taking initiative for their own safety. Cyclists become second-class road users.

One of Brent’s prior posts asked about improving cyclist behavior. As a commuter, I have found that I do best by viewing myself as equal road user, and acting like it. When I do this, following the same rules and actively communicating my intentions to my fellow road users (including not just turns but signaling “stay back” when unsafe to pass), close calls have become extremely rare. I’m more predictable to the drivers around me. But when laws and dangerous infrastructure de-emphasize the need for cyclists to act as other drivers act, or actively discourage it, is it any wonder they don’t?  There’s no incentive to conform to the system when you’re not treated as an equal participant of it.  Perhaps if Chicago ordinance and infrastructure actually reinforced rather than prohibited cyclist equality with motorists, and if education were stronger to help cyclists experience the advantage to them of acting like other drivers, behavior would improve.

Certainly there are congestion situations in a big city like Chicago when passing a line of stopped traffic is an advantage too good to pass up. I understand that. My own personal philosophy on “filtering” is that there’s only an advantage if car traffic is totally stopped or significantly slower than me for an extended period of time, and there is room. Regardless, I always merge back into the travel lane when approaching a red light. It is important to move very slowly and be aware of the hazards: door zones, intersection right hook zones, motorists suddenly deciding to turn right into a driveway, and gaps that may open up for oncoming motorists turning left, who cannot see you through the line of cars. These situations are made no less dangerous by addition of a bike lane, and in fact may become more dangerous by giving everyone a false sense of security.

It’s clear that education is still necessary, even when using bicycle infrastructure. This is being recognized in cities nationwide. And if education is necessary anyway, why stop with just how to use the bicycle facilities? That breeds dependence and fails to empower cyclists for any situation they could encounter, especially on streets without special bicycle infrastructure. Simply put, special infrastructure still requires education, but education does not require special infrastructure. There’s no disputing that infrastructure is easier than education for reaching large segments of the public at once, but on the other hand, cycling education is much, much more empowering for the cyclists who take it. And contrary to popular myth, it does not require super-human courage and abilities. Just ask some of the graduates of the CyclingSavvy program. like Diana, pictured above waiting in a line of traffic at a red light.

In summary, it is crucial to look at cyclist safety comprehensively, including the effect of restrictive local law, considering the limitation of human ability to never make mistakes, and with clear eyes as to how some of the infrastructure may actually be limiting cyclist safety instead of improving it.  Increasing the penalties for motorist mistakes may be part of the solution (in some places in Europe, crash fault is presumed to lie with the motorist until shown otherwise), but it will never be the entire solution, nor will facilities alone.  It is also necessary to ensure cycling education is an integral part of the effort, as it is in the European countries that facilities advocates admire so much.


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