A Simple Change to Road Signs Could Help Cyclists and Drivers Finally Get Along

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Cyclists and drivers don’t always — how to put this delicately — get each other, a problem that sometimes is undoubtedly the fault of jerk cyclists and other times is the fault of jerk motorists. But some interesting new research suggests that there may be a pretty painless way to improve cyclist-motorist relations, simply by changing roadside safety signs.

You might be most familiar with the signs that say “Share the Road,” but a team of researchers from North Carolina State University argue that this language is part of the problem. It’s too vague, for one, and it may insinuate that it’s mostly up to the cyclist to move out of the way of vehicles. (At least one state – Delaware – recently got rid of these signs for precisely that reason.) Instead, the researchers suggest, the more spelled-out “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” seems to get the message across that, yes, bicycles may in fact use the full lane when necessary (even in New York) — for instance, when the road is too narrow for the cyclist to ride to the right of traffic. The study was published online late last month in PLOS ONE.

The results come from an online survey, which attracted more than 2,000 respondents, mostly recruited via Twitter. The survey-takers were shown a diagram of cars and a lone cyclist on either a two- or four-lane road, accompanied by the “Share the Road” sign, the “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” sign, or no sign at all. For example, some of the respondents saw an image that depicted a narrow, two-lane road, with a cyclist who was riding in the center of the lane; a car follows at a safe distance. When the study volunteers saw this image with the “full lane” sign, they were more likely to answer that what the cyclist was doing was safe and legal, as compared to those who saw the same image with no sign. There was no significant difference, on the other hand, between responses from people who were shown the “share” sign and people who saw no sign at all.

One thing: Many crashes happen because of tiny, split-second decisions, so the results of this study — where people had several minutes to sit and contemplate their answers — may not be perfectly applicable to real, actual life. It would be interesting to see a version of this study done using a simulated driving situation. For that matter, it would be nice to see this experiment replicated with a broader pool of respondents, because the majority of the survey-takers here were cyclists who biked at least ten miles per week. (Many of them found their way to the survey through a popular bike blog, Urban Velo, which posted a link to it.) The researchers contend that in a less-biased sample their survey might yield even stronger results, because the most striking differences in answers based on one sign or the other were seen in the study’s few non-cyclists.

Still, it’s a promising small step toward helping drivers and bicyclists co-exist, at least until self-driving cars take over everything.