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Bicycle Lanes Make Cars Pass 40 cm Closer to Cyclists

By Jiri Kaloc

Scientists from Melbourne studied whether cars give cyclists enough space when passing. They equipped 60 cyclists with a special device called MetreBox that measures the distance of each car passing, and what they found was quite surprising.

The study by researchers at Monash University, which was published in April 2019 in the Accident Analysis and Prevention journal, has been the largest of its kind in the world. They gathered more than 18000 vehicle-passing events from 422 trips.

“We know that vehicles driving closely to cyclists increases how unsafe people feel when riding bikes and acts as a strong barrier to increasing cycling participation,” said Dr Ben Beck, lead author and Monash University’s Deputy Head of Prehospital, Emergency and Trauma Research. Most Australian states and territories have a minimum distance of 1 metre when the speed limit is 60 km/h or less, and 1.5 metres when the speed limit is greater than 60 km/h.

Cars often pass way too close

The researchers found that 1 in every 17 cars came within 1 metre of the travelling cyclist and, alarmingly, 124 cars came within less than 60 cm. In higher speed zones, with speed greater than 60 km/h, roughly one in 3 passing events was a ‘close’ pass of less than 150 cm. There were approximately 1.7 passing events of less than 100 cm for every 10 km travelled on a bike!

Why do cars give less space than they should?

Research findings suggest that marked on-road bicycle lanes, particularly alongside parked cars, are not the optimal solution for protecting cyclists. Passing events that occurred on a road with a bicycle lane and a parked car had an average passing distance that was 40 cm smaller than a road without a bicycle lane or a parked car.

“Our results demonstrate that a single stripe of white paint is not sufficient to protect people who ride bikes. In situations where the cyclist is in the same lane as the motorist, the driver is required to perform an overtaking manoeuvre. Whereas in situations where the cyclist is in a marked bicycle lane, the motorist has a clear lane ahead and not required to overtake. As a result, we believe that there is less of a conscious requirement for drivers to provide additional passing distance.”

A physical barrier is needed to separate cars and cyclists

Previous studies by Dr Beck showed that the number of cyclists admitted to hospital with serious traumas from road crashes has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and that 22% of all on-road bicycle crashes occur while the cyclist is riding in a marked on-road bicycle lane. Dr Beck suggests that in order to improve safety and increase cycling participation, far greater investment is clearly needed in providing infrastructure that separates cyclists from motor vehicles by a physical barrier.