Warning: Protected Bicycle Lanes May Not Be as Safe as You Think
In recent years, bicycling has become more popular in many cities across the United States, including West Palm Beach. Many people enjoy the health, environmental, and economic benefits of ditching the car and getting around by bike. With this growing popularity comes growing safety concerns.
While bicyclist deaths only account for roughly two percent of all traffic fatalities, they have increased by 25 percent since their lowest point in 2010. In 2017 alone, there were approximately 777 bicyclist deaths in the United States.
Bicycle lanes are beneficial for the safety of bicyclists. Protected bicycle lanes — which are constructed with physical barriers separating bicyclists from cars — are fairly new in the United States and are growing in popularity as many cities work to improve infrastructure. There is currently not enough research proving how effective they are at protecting bicyclists. In contrast, research involving conventional bicycle lanes — which only involve painted lines in the road — have not yet yielded consistent results.
What safety risks do bicyclists face?
In most cases, bicycle lanes are effective but according to a new study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), certain infrastructural factors can increase the risk of bicycle crashes, even in protected bike lanes. The study was done in collaboration with researchers from George Washington University, Oregon Health and Science University, and New York University.
Researchers in the study first interviewed more than 600 adult bicyclists who had visited emergency rooms after crashes in the District of Columbia, New York City, and Portland, Oregon. They then scrutinized the location where a crash occurred and compared it with other various locations along a bicycle route. Only about half of crashes or falls in the study involved cars.
According to the study, in contrast to major roads with no bicycle infrastructure:
- Bicyclists are less likely to crash or fall on two-way protected bike lanes on bridges or raised from the road.
- Bicyclists are more likely to crash or fall on two-way protected bike lanes at street level.
- One-way protected bike lanes weren't much different from major roads in terms of safety.
Are certain locations better than others for bike lanes?
"A cyclist on a protected lane at street level is likely to encounter vehicles at intersections, driveways, and alleys more often than on a protected lane enclosed within a bridge or greenway," said Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice president for research and lead author of the study.
In addition to the dangers bicyclists face from cars, pedestrians may enter protected bike lanes at street level and cause bicyclists to swerve or fall.
While most injuries in protected bike lanes aren't usually serious, most fatalities tend to occur around intersections or junctions with driveways and alleys. Crashes in these areas are often caused by slow-moving or turning vehicles.
"There is evidence that protected bike lanes help prevent the worst crashes," Cicchino said. "What our study shows is that certain locations are better than others for this type of infrastructure."
What can be done to protect bicyclists?
The authors of the study urge cities to do the following in two-way protected bike lanes:
- Consider installing raised bicycle crossings.
- Prevent pedestrians from walking in protected bike lanes.
Bicycle crashes can happen unexpectedly, even in areas where bicyclists should be safe. In most cases, these crashes are preventable.