Bad drivers

stop sign

The result of a cyclist hit by a driver who said he didn’t see a stop sign/Petar Milošević at Wikimedia Commons

Instead of just arguing over who the worst scofflaws – motorists or cyclists – the Danes have taken a novel approach and actually studied road traffic.

The results?

The bad behavior of cyclists pales next to that of motorists.

The study done for the “Danish Road Directorate shows that less than 5 percent of cyclists break traffic laws while riding yet 66 percent of motorists do so when driving,” writes Carlton Reid at Forbes.

Cue the never-ending debate in Alaska, as in the U.S., where there is no data on this subject, but where many motorists are convinced that many if not most cyclists are outlaws intent on violating every possible traffic rule.

Alaska, of course, is not Denmark; so no straight line comparison can be made between here and there. Denmark has a different attitude toward cyclists. It  duels with the Netherlands for the title of the bike-friendliest country in bike-friendly Europe.

The sheer volume of bikes in use in those countries changes everything if for no other reason than that motorists become accustomed to watching for them.

But the fact that almost everyone cycles also alters the way people think about bikes.

Everybody does it,” observes Visit Copenhagen, the tourist portal for the country’s largest city. “Bike that is. In Copenhagen we bike whether there is sun, rain or snow. We bike to work, to school, to bring the kids to kindergarten, to shop for groceries and to social gatherings.

“Copenhageners love their bikes. Cycling is fast, convenient, healthy, climate-friendly, enjoyable – and cheap, although Copenhageners honestly love their bikes no matter their financial income. Even top politicians ride their bike every day to parliament.”

Not quite perfect

None of which leaves Copenhagen free of the complaints common in Alaska.

“If you have ever had to get from A to B through the streets of Copenhagen, or any other city in Denmark for that matter, you’ll easily point out problematic behavior amongst cyclists,” concedes the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, a non-government organization devoted to cycle safety and infrastructure. 

Denmark is big on infrastructure as part of the solution to motor vehicle-bike conflicts. The country started building cycle “superhighways” from the suburbs to the city a decade ago after a plan to place a “congestion charge” on motor vehicles to solve traffic problems in the city blew up.

“Protests kicked up from the municipalities around Copenhagen….The project was dumped,” writes Annemarie Zinck at City Lab.

“With no congestion toll in sight, Copenhagen decided to tackle the problem from a completely different angle. Instead of deterring driving, why not encourage biking?
“Planners were starting from an enviable position: In Copenhagen, nearly 60 percent of all trips of less than 5 km are already made by bike. However, for trips of more than 5 km, that falls off to 20 percent. Nudging that number up to 30 percent would equate to more than 50,000 more trips per day by bike. That would go a long way toward relieving congestion….”
Ever since that idea dawned, the Danes have been busy trying to get more commuters on bikes. The Danes note cycle superhighways are cheaper to build and to maintain than motorways, and they come with a big payback. European studies have put the health care cost savings of getting people active at anywhere from $1,000 to more than $1,600 per person year.
Even when accidents are factored in, healthcare costs savings are huge, a metanalysis published at Transport Reviews concluded.
It noted one study that found dramatic savings even when controlled for “costs associated with fatal bike crashes and other factors from shifting a 10 kilometer commute from car to bike. Average costs from fatal crashes added up to €50 ($56) per person and year, compared with savings of €1300 ($1685) from physical activity-related benefits.”

“In many aspects, health benefits of cycling are more tangible than other reasons to promote cycling and provide a quantifiable case for investments in this mode of transport,” the study’s authors concluded.

Low costs, big benefits

Denmark estimates a savings of $242 million per year in the Copenhagen capital region alone due to cycling. The region is home to about 1.8 million people. The U.S. is home to 372 million. The Dansih savings would translate into U.S. cost savings of at least $50 billion if the country could get people on bikes the way Danes get people on bikes.

But the actual cost savings would likely be far greater given that health care costs in the U.S. are about 60 percent higher than in Denmark.

Changing a U.S. culture built around automobiles driven by people who hate cyclists would not, however, be easy. Tara Goodard devoted her doctoral thesis at Portland State University to the subject of why motorists hate cyclists.

She found a perception of cyclists among motorists that ran almost opposite what the data actually shows. She concluded motorists don’t like cyclists because of the view cyclists are outlaws who constantly violate traffic laws.

The reality is a little more nuanced.

As the Danish Cycling Embassy notes there is a problem in that “when there is no bicycle lane, cyclists become unpredictable road users who have to navigate in traffic at their own discretion. No matter what option they choose, the cyclists enter spaces of conflict with other road users and become the cause for uncertainty, distress, or potential danger.

“As most cyclists will tell you, the process of communicating on a bicycle is, at best, arbitrary. Motorists can with the use of lights, mirrors, and placement signal their intent to other road users – and they are required by law to do so. This is not possible for cyclists, who are left to communicate through hand signals and eye contact. Both of these ways of communicating are difficult to do in the dark, and hand signals have a number of problems, namely that they are only used while moving and that they require the cyclist to let go of the handlebars.”

There are obvious and inherent problems in mixing motor vehicles and bicycles on roadways which are all too often compounded by news reporting that overlooks or minimizes the very real threat motor vehicles post to vulnerable road users.

Researchers from Rutgers, Texas A&M, and the University of Arizona who examined news coverage of bicycle and pedestrian crashes concluded journalists often misrepresent what happened.

“…Local news coverage tends to shift blame toward vulerable road users and away from drivers,” their paper published in the Transportation Research Record in February concluded. “Coverage almost always treats crashes as isolated incidents, obscuring the public health nature of the problem. This pattern of coverage likely contributes to the limited public outcry about pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities.”

Dangerous roads

As a result, wrote Joe Lindsey at Outside Online earlier this month, things just keep getting worse and worse for cyclists.

“Hardly a week goes by without an article about a crash in which a driver hits and kills a rider,” he observed. “There is no national-level data on how many cyclists are injured in such crashes in the U.S., but in 2017 (the last full year for which we have data), 783 were killed on the roads—continuing the upward trend of the past decade. Amid an all-time high of vehicle miles traveled, pedestrian and motorcyclist deaths were also at all-time highs, even as fatalities among car occupants have dropped by more than 30 percent over the last 25 years.

“Almost as troubling as the rise in deaths is the media coverage of these crashes. It’s hard to say whether tensions between drivers and cyclists are worse than ever, or if it just seems that way because of social media. News stories often play a key role in shaping public understanding of traffic safety.”

He went on to quote Goodard on these crashes regularly described by journalists as “accidents.”

“Accident’ conveys inevitability,” she said. “(But) you can trace virtually every crash to something upstream, whether human error, poor street design, or something else. Almost every crash is preventable.”

Motor vehicles don’t have minds of their own, at least not yet. Motor vehicles have drivers, and drivers steer those motor vehicles into things with some regularity.

When a motor vehicle hits a vulnerable road user, Lindsey observed, the latter often goes to the hospital while the former stays at the scene to be interviewed by police, and almost never does a motorist involved in a crash confess his or her bad-driving was to blame.

Police write down the driver’s account and reporters then unquestioningly run with it. When researchers went back and looked at the reporting, Lindsey said, “none of the stories…included a comment from the victim.”

Victims of crashes were regularly portrayed as the party responsible for the crash, just as lawyers tried to portray Jeff Dusenbery of Anchorage as the guilty party after he was run down and killed by a drunk 19-year-old driver in 2014.

An expert witness was hired to testify the accident could have been caused by the 51-year-old man riding at 30 to 35 mph on a rough stretch of road where a Tour de France rider couldn’t obtain that sort of speed. He was then accused of slamming into the side of Alexandra Ellis’s truck.

Some in the media duly reported this as a factual possibility even though the expert himself admitted he was making it up. His speed calculations, he confessed, were based on book calculations, not what was actually possible on the roadway in question.

Ellis eventually spent 74 days in jail after pleading guilty to negligent homicide.

The sentence was sadly typical.



















12 replies »

  1. I commuted by bike for many years and the scenario in that lead photo is THE most dangerous situation. Car approaches an intersection, makes a quick glance to the left for oncoming traffic, and goes. It never occurs to drivers to look left AND right. Expect it, and be amazed at the startled looks you’ll get every time a driver looks up and sees you as they zip around the corner.

  2. Craig,
    Very good story and important topic as summer approaches and more of us are out on the road spinning our wheels…
    I just watched a great documentary the other night called “Inspired to Ride”.
    Sadly, one of the women filmed in the movie died a few months later as a driver hit her and took off never to be found.
    I think the “Yellow Safety Vest” is a must for anyone cycling on the roadway.
    I wear safety yellow booties with reflection as well as an LED blinker for the rear and good bright light on front in dark conditions…
    Overall, I would say most drivers along the Park’s Highway up here are pretty considerate of cycling and many move over towards the center lane as they pass me.

  3. “The study done for the “Danish Road Directorate shows that less than 5 percent of cyclists break traffic laws while riding yet 66 percent of motorists do so when driving,” writes Carlton Reid at Forbes.”

    This statement has a problem repeated throughout the article’s cited. False equivalence.

    You can’t compare “violations,” you can only compare “violations possible for both vehicles.” Of course cars can break more traffic laws, bikes aren’t as the last anecdote shows, capable of violating many of them due to a lack of capability and/or equipment.

  4. Lights should not be a problem for bicycles, with the advent of LED’s a person can outfit a bicycle for a few bucks and a couple ounces of the all important weight factor. I would even guess you could get lights that point an arrow in which direction you are turning. If technology like this does not exist please forget I said anything for a few months while I patent this and make millions of dollars.

  5. Awesome article Craig ! America and Alaska need to step up and make a complete bike path system for health and safety. I will donate my share even if it has to be a tax of some form shared by motorists and cyclists. Totally worth it .

    • Well Opinion…
      You can start by talking with Vern our Mayor and seeing why the bike trail does not connect along the Park’s Hwy?
      Here at mile 74 there is no bike trail until about mile 71 on the south then it does not start to further up on the north towards Talkeetna.
      As a cyclist, I am always baffled by the disconnection of established bike routes…it really seems like a bunch of “roads to nowhere” in AK.
      Connecting established lanes from Talkeetna to Anchorage would greatly improve riders safety in the Valley.

      • Currently many bike paths have mostly to do with federal highway funds. To get federal funds for certain projects at one point there was bike paths required. I don’t know about area you speak of . Nor do I know about current laws regarding such . I agree . Any disconnect between paths is poor planning and possibly poor management. Alaska has few roads . It would be an awesome benefit to tourists and residents to have fully connected paths . I have been utilizing anchorages paths and they are impressive. Though could still use an up grade for road crossings.

      • Hi Steve.
        As a casual biker, but as a daily vehicle driver, I have a question – sort of on topic. One thing that irritates me as a driver is when I’m driving down the TKA spur rd and keep running into (poor choice of words) bikers on the road instead of the expensive bike path that my tax $$ went to building. Granted, most people actually use the bike path – I personally love it, however, there are those who continue to use the main road instead. What’s your take on this bizarro practice? I feel that if we have spent the money to build a non-motorized path, bikes should not be allowed to use the main commuter road that it parallels (except of course, during sanctioned biking/running events). What’s your (and other avid biker’s) take on my thoughts?

      • Jack,
        It is personal preference since bikes are still legally allowed on the shoulder of the road even when bike paths exist.
        The problem with cyclists who wish to travel longer distance (like Talkeetna to Anchorage) is that the bike routes do not connect.
        Here for example in the 70’s to 90’s on the Park’s hwy there is NO lane for bike travel and I was told the “mushers” rallied against the trail (even though the money to build it was in the budget years ago) because they did not want pavement where they “train” their dogs each fall?
        Safest thing to do is connect the bike paths and more cyclists could use them otherwise anyone looking to go further will still need to use the road.

      • Heads up that a planned ADOT “fix” of the horrible intersection of the glenn highway offramp at Eagle River artillery road does nothing to improve the route for bikes, forcing bikes to detour and cross several very busy streets to get through Eagle River instead of providing a tunnel or bridge for the bike route to cross the highway vehicle exit ramp unimpeded. It is brain dead short sighted planning like this that discourages biking and gets people killed.
        I cringe with embarrassment for our community whenever I see loaded tour cyclist visitors trying to make sense of this idiotic disconnected bike route.

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