Driver Education

14 Apr

One of the most important things needed to make Richmond (or any other city) truly bike-friendly is changing the attitudes and behavior of motorists.  Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of drivers in the Richmond area who drive carefully and respectfully around cyclists.  But it doesn’t take many aggressive or careless ones to make biking in the city less than enjoyable and keep the less adventurous among us off the road entirely.

As much as it irks me, I’m not surprised that a lot of people drive too fast and not very carefully, including around cyclists.  Our culture and infrastructure encourage it.  Our streets are not really designed as shared spaces; they’re designed mainly for cars and sometimes have “accommodations” for pedestrians and bikes.  And we’ve come to expect that we can get most everywhere we want to go quickly.  For various reasons (here again I’m drawing on Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, and no, I have no financial interest in the book!), most of us also tend to overestimate our skills as drivers and underestimate the dangers of driving.  On top of that, drivers are not that strongly encouraged to see bikes as legitimate road users (and unfortunately some of those cyclists also act as though they’re not legitimate users too).

I first started thinking about this post when I asked myself what drivers are taught in Virginia about interacting with bicycles on the road.  Here’s what the official Virginia Driver’s Manual says:

Bicycles are considered vehicles and have the same right-of-way as motor vehicles.  Bicyclists are also expected to obey the same traffic rules and regulations as vehicle drivers; however, many are children who may not know or obey the rules. Slow down when you approach bicyclists. Give them plenty of room when passing and be prepared to stop suddenly. Look for bicycles on all public roads. It is against the law to operate a bicycle or any electric power device such as assistive mobility devices, toy vehicles, and bicycles on any interstate highway.

So bikes get one paragraph in 35 pages of text.  Not much.  It’s hard to know, of course, what is actually taught in driving schools and classes, but my guess is that it doesn’t go much beyond this, if it’s even this much. At the same time, if all drivers actually followed these suggestions, life would be pretty good for cyclists.

So how do we change driving culture and habits so that these things become the norm?  It’s not easy.  We need more and better education for drivers on the subject of sharing the road, and more cycling education for everyone.  Hopefully we’ll see more PR campaigns in Richmond too.  In the meantime, here’s a couple of things you can do:

Ride your bike.  There is (greater) safety in numbers.  Cities with higher rates of cycling actually have lower rates of cycling injury and death.  The safety of biking (and walking) in New York City has actually increased as the number of riders has increased (see #3 here), and even in European cities where helmet use is less common but cycling more common, the rates of injury are lower (see the second post down here).

Be a good example when you drive.  Slow down, and give cyclists plenty of room when passing (VA law currently says 2 feet, but 3 or more is better).

Talk to friends and family (especially new drivers) about how to drive safely around cyclists.

Get involved in advocating for better driver education as well as better bicycle infrastructure.  Let your city council representative, the mayor, and your state representatives know that you support efforts to make bicycling and walking safer.  Richmond has some momentum with installing bike infrastructure, but it’s still important that they know you support it — and perhaps even more ambitious facilities such as greenways and buffered or separated bike lanes.  This will be especially crucial if and when there is any opposition to setting aside money and space for this infrastructure (see this recent Bicycling piece for some information on the battle over bike lanes in Brooklyn).  And at the state level, if and when a bill requiring 3 feet of space when passing a cyclist is introduced again, encourage your representatives to support it.  20 states have passed such laws, but advocates in Virginia have faced repeated opposition from lawmakers in key committee positions.

Any other ideas?

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