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 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.
“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.
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.”
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.
The sentence was sadly typical.