Rules of the Road

Think cyclists disobey the law more than drivers? That’s not necessarily true

Pavement markings called “sharrows” alert drivers that they are sharing a narrow road with bikes on Indian Street north of the Western Washington University campus.
Pavement markings called “sharrows” alert drivers that they are sharing a narrow road with bikes on Indian Street north of the Western Washington University campus.

Question: You state that “Target Zero is Washington’s plan to eliminate fatality and serious injury crashes by 2030,” which is laudable. When it speaks of “fatality and serious injury crashes,” does that statement include those crashes where bikes are involved? I ask this because here in Bellingham there appears to be absolutely no laws affecting cyclists and their driving behavior.

Answer: The author of this question continues with a series of situations and statements involving cyclists. I’m going to work my way through the letter affirming laws, dispelling myths and trying to put cycling in perspective with the overall problem of fatalities on our roads. I can’t respond to all of them, but here are the highlights.

▪ No helmets are required: True (mostly). Washington does not have a helmet law for cyclists. Some cities and counties have helmet laws, but Bellingham and Whatcom County are not on that list.

▪ No lighting on bikes is required: False. RCW 46.61.780 requires lighting on all bicycles in use during hours of darkness.

▪ No regard for stop signs, traffic lights or signaling turns: Partly true, mostly false. Just like drivers, some cyclists violate traffic laws. A study by Wesley Marshall, a civil engineering expert, found a traffic violation rate of seven to eight percent for cyclists and eight to nine percent for drivers. Let’s retire the myth that cyclists are worse than drivers at following the rules.

▪ Cyclists pile a number of bikes on the back of their cars obscuring the license plate, in violation of RCW 46.16A.200: True, but if we’re making this argument to support the view that cyclists are the reason for so many traffic fatalities, this point is irrelevant. I’m not aware of any injuries or fatalities attributed to obscured license plates. I’m willing to go on the record with this: some laws are more important than others. I don’t know of anyone that has crashed their car because they didn’t pay for their license tabs either. Violations of these kinds of laws may be an indicator of someone who disregards the rules, but they don’t, of themselves, cause traffic crashes.

▪ Drivers must adhere to driving laws but cyclists do not: False. Traffic laws are enforced for cyclists. In conversations with local law enforcement I’ve had officers tell me about infractions they’ve issued to cyclists.

▪ Mixing motor vehicles and bikes on streets designed for cars is very dangerous: False, with a hint of truth. While road design is heavily weighted for cars, state law makes it clear that roads are intended for both motorized vehicles and bicycles. Road design is also shifting toward a greater inclusion of cyclists as road users. Regarding danger, if we only look at fatalities per mile traveled, cyclists have a higher fatality rate. However, if you consider life expectancy, cyclists outlive car drivers. In the overall risk/benefit analysis, cyclists come out ahead. Granted, that doesn’t mean a whole lot to the cyclist that gets killed or seriously injured in a crash.

▪ If there is a car-bike crash the driver will be found at fault: False. In reviewing multiple studies, I found that fault in car-bike crashes splits nearly in half, with car drivers being at fault slightly more often.

▪ It is crazy to expect a driver of 4,000 pounds of metal and plastic to be able to get around bad driving behavior by a cyclist piloting 250 pounds of flesh and metal: False (mostly). Let’s separate the cyclist from this for a moment. Do we expect a driver traveling through a neighborhood to leave room to stop if a child chases a ball into the street? At a four-way stop, do you make sure other drivers obey their stop signs before pulling into the intersection? Having the right-of-way doesn’t exempt drivers from doing whatever we can to avoid crashes. With a few unavoidable exceptions, we should generally expect alert and conscientious drivers to pilot their vehicles in such a way as to allow room to respond to error, whether that error is their own, another motorist, a cyclist or a pedestrian.

▪ Should cyclists need to go for operational training and pass tests and have licenses like drivers must do? Cyclists should take advantage of opportunities for training, but in reviewing input from transportation experts, a cyclist license is not going to happen. The government requires a driver license, because driving is inherently dangerous to others. We even require stricter licenses as the risk increases, like with commercial vehicles. Being a pedestrian or cyclist does not present the same risk to the community. In 2015 there were 515 fatal crashes in Washington, of which 14 involved cyclists. Considering that in about half of car-bike crashes the driver is at fault, cyclists were likely responsible for seven of the 515 fatal crashes. I don’t have the data in front of me, but I’d be willing to bet that in those seven crashes, the cyclist was the one who suffered the fatality. As a side note, there were 86 fatal crashes involving pedestrians in Washington; should we have discussions about pedestrian licenses?

Driving and cycling both involve risk, most of which we can mitigate by obeying traffic laws and paying attention. As irritating as it is to see others violate the law, whether drivers or cyclists, as road users we can’t change their behavior, but we can do our part to take responsibility for traffic safety.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.