One Way 

Should I ride with or against traffic on my bicycle?

click to enlarge SLUG SIGNORINO
  • Slug Signorino

If walking or bicycling on a street that doesn't have sidewalks, I've always been taught to do so in the direction of the street traffic, which seems to be dogma. I would think going against traffic would theoretically be safer—allowing a view of oncoming cars and possibly crucial eye contact with drivers. Certainly easier to spot an impaired driver that's weaving on the road facing forward rather than backward. Your thoughts?

—George Kuritza, Park Ridge, Ill.

George, did you ever see those bumper stickers that say "My karma ran over your dogma"? Suffice it to say your dogma's in a vulnerable position here. In places where no sidewalks exist, walkers and runners are advised to travel in the opposite direction of motor-vehicle traffic—that's to say, on the left side of the road, if we're assuming an American layout. The logic behind this is pretty much as you present it: they'll be in a better position to spot, say, a drunk or distracted driver careering at them on the highway ahead.

The same doesn't hold true for biking. That's as it should be: according to the League of American Bicyclists, bikers traveling against traffic are three times more likely to be involved in an accident. It's a dangerous practice for a number of reasons. Say you meet another cyclist traveling in the opposite (i.e., correct) direction—somebody's gotta swerve out into the road to make way. (Courtesy suggests it be you, seeing as you're the one on the wrong side of the road.) Drivers don't expect to see cyclists traveling toward them, and often aren't on the lookout—like when they're turning left into an intersection. And then there's simple physics: a head-on car-bike collision will be a magnitude more violent than a bump from behind.

Oh, and it's illegal. Laws in most states currently call for bicyclists to travel as far to the right as practicable—AFRAP, in the parlance—with obvious exceptions for turning left or passing. Federal bodies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also have plenty to say about biking and walking, none of it different from what I've laid out here. In recent years, though, they've started saying it a lot louder, as fatality stats have gotten markedly worse. Injury and death to cyclists and pedestrians has been on the rise since 2009; between 2011 and 2012 alone, reports the Department of Transportation, pedestrian deaths were up 6 percent and cyclist deaths up 7 percent. In September 2014 transportation secretary Anthony Foxx announced an 18-month campaign to address the problem, which will include both "design improvements" and public education.

From the pedestrian perspective, it's fairly plain where the action is: namely, not out where there are no sidewalks. In 2012, nearly three-quarters of pedestrian fatalities occurred in an urban setting. Almost 70 percent occurred away from intersections, 89 percent during normal weather conditions, and 70 percent after 6 p.m.; 48 percent involved alcohol. (What's more dangerous in rural areas? Driving. In 2013 rural areas accounted for 54 percent of fatal motor-vehicle crashes in the United States, and only 19 percent of its population.)

But people have been drinking and jaywalking forever. Why all the alarming statistics lately? Setting aside issues of drivers' conduct, since that's not what you asked about: what's changed pedestrian behavior in this century?

Phones, for one. A 2013 study out of Ohio State University tracked emergency-room cases between 2004 and 2010 reporting injury related to cell phone use while walking and found the annual number had doubled, to 1,500, in that period. Mind you, these didn't all involve automobiles; no doubt some were pedestrian-lamppost collisions. In one reported case, a "14-year-old boy walking down a road while talking on a cell phone fell 6 to 8 feet off a bridge into a rock-strewn ditch, suffering chest and shoulder injuries." Injuries were highest, unsurprisingly, among the 16-to-25-year-old set.

The situation is different with bikes. A study out this month found a 28-percent increase in adult bike injuries between 1998 and 2013—from 96 to 123 per 100,000 people. The rise was especially prevalent in riders over 45, who are apparently taking to the bike lanes in droves. That said, it's not clear this indicates any problem greater than there just being more bikes on the road than ever before. In that same time period, according to a Rutgers researcher, the number of total bike trips taken rose by at least 23 percent and perhaps as much as 40 percent.

The clearest lesson is that roads, which were largely drawn up with car traffic in mind, are now more crowded by everybody. A May 2014 report from Smart Growth America places the blame for rising pedestrian deaths squarely on lagging urban-planning paradigms, noting that most fatalities occur in the Sunbelt—places that "grew in the post-war period, mostly through rapid spread of low-density neighborhoods that rely on wider streets with higher speeds to connect homes, shops and schools"—and particularly along arterial streets, i.e., urban thoroughfares designed to move lots of cars along as quickly as possible. So your best bet wherever you are is to watch your back, and your front, and wait for transportation planners to catch up.

Send questions to Cecil via StraightDope.com or write him c/o Chicago Reader, 350 N. Orleans, Chicago 60654.

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