A little less than a year ago, I wrote about a study by two bike-commuting professors at North Carolina State University who found that a simple change in the wording of bicycle-related roadside signage can help clarify the rules of the road for motorists and cyclists, and potentially make cycling safer.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, was conducted to help test the efficacy of signage in terms of the safety of cyclists using the roadways for bike commuting. Even though it was focused on commuting and utilitarian riding (trips to the store, etc.), the ramifications of the study extend to all of us who regularly ride on roads shared by automobile traffic.
The study showed that changing the ubiquitous “Share the Road” signs to “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” better communicated to both motorists and cyclists their rights and responsibilities in terms of actually sharing the road.
Move to the New Signs Seems to be Underway
Just the other day, as my wife and I drove through Decatur, an Atlanta suburb, I saw a Bikes May Use Full Lane sign for the first time. Two days later, a reader sent me an article showing that this movement may be gaining steam.
At least one big U.S. city is also embracing that common-sense approach to bike-rights-to-the-road signage. As reported in a recent article in road.cc, Columbus, Ohio, is in the process of swapping out its old yellow diamond "Share the Road" signs for Bikes May Use Full Lane signs like the one pictured.
Scott Ulrich, who is Columbus's Bicycle Coordinator, told Columbus Underground that both the shape and color of the Bikes May Use Full Lane signs are meant to send a message to road users.
“A yellow diamond sign is for warning drivers of potentially hazardous road conditions," said Ulrich, "whereas the Bikes May Use Full Lane signs are white rectangles, which are regulatory signs that control lane use. We believe it is more appropriate to treat bicyclists less like potential hazards and more like the legal road users that they are, and to remind other road users of that fact.”
I have two things to say about this:
1. It's about time.
2. What are other cities and municipalities waiting for?
I'll get into why I think these things below. But first, a few details about the study underpinning this movement.
Study Compared Responses to 3 Traffic-Control Methods
The researchers conducted a Web-based survey of 1,800 people, comparing responses to three different traffic control methods to find out which best communicated “the message that bicyclists are permitted in the center of the travel lane without having to ‘get out of the way’ to allow motorists to pass without changing lanes.”
According to survey results: “In almost every case, on 2- and 4-lane roadways, respondents who saw ‘Bicycle May Use Full Lane’ signage were significantly more likely than those who saw no signage to agree that bicyclists are permitted in the center of the lane, do not have to move right to allow motorists to pass within the same lane, that motorists should wait for a break in traffic before passing in the adjacent lane, and that bicyclists are safe in the travel lane. The only exception was on 4-lane roadways in response to the statement that motorists should wait to pass, for which behavior was unaffected by the signage.”
Here’s the kicker: “There was no statistically significant difference in responses between those who saw “Share the Road” signage and those who saw no signage in any scenario we tested.”
Finally, the third traffic-control method in the survey was shared-lane markings (bicycle images and directional icons painted on the pavement), commonly called “sharrows.” The survey participants who saw sharrows “were significantly more likely than respondents who saw no signage to agree that bicyclists are permitted in the center of the travel lane, on both 2- and 4-lane roads. They were also more likely, on 4-lane roads, to disagree that the bicyclist had to move out of the way and to agree that the bicyclist was safe in the center of the lane.”
“‘Bicycles May Use Full Lane’ is a pretty clear winner,” said George Hess, natural resources professor and co-author of the study. Hess pointed out that Delaware stopped using “Share the Road” signs in 2013 because, according to a report on the study in stonehearthnewsletters, “the language appeared to put the onus on bicyclists rather than motorists.”
'Share the Road' is Ambiguous
“‘Share the Road’ signs are common, but what that means in terms of how drivers and bicycle riders should interact can be ambiguous,” said Hess in the stonehearthnews article. The report noted that some cyclists “complain that motorists consider them to be in the way, while some motorists accuse bicyclists of hogging the road.”
I completely agree that “Share the Road” is an ambiguous, almost meaningless, phrase. I’ve often wondered while cycling past these signs if drivers think the signs are directed at them, or at cyclists. My intuition is: the latter.
And I’ve noticed that in many instances where bikes are commonplace that a Share the Road sign is “ganged up” on the same pole with another sign saying “Bikes Stay Single File.” Which I would interpret as meaning “share the road” is firmly directed at cyclists.
By either interpretation, the implication is that one or the other group is a sort of “interloper” in the space meant for the opposite group. As if it were a parental admonishment: “Be nice, dear, and share the road with your brother….”
When the true meaning and intent of these signs should be: Cyclists have equal rights to the road.
So, “Bicyclists May Use Full Lane” is at least a clear, direct statement of rights – even if it might not go quite far enough to explain the “equal rights” that we share with motorists.
Disconnect Can Result in Decreased Safety
The disconnect in how motorists and cyclists can interpret “Share the Road” signs can result in decreased safety for cyclists. “Personal safety probably ranks as the most important factor deterring people from commuting by bicycle, so anything we can do to improve safety, and perceptions of safety, is incredibly important,” said co-author Nils Peterson, also an N.C. State faculty member.
The study noted that traffic laws across the U.S. treat bikes as vehicles with essentially the same rights to the traffic lane as motor vehicles. “Bicycles are classified or treated as vehicles in all 50 U.S. states, which means that bicyclists have most of the same legal operating rights and responsibilities as motorists, including the right to occupy a full travel lane. North Carolina’s Driver Manual states this unambiguously: ‘Bicyclists usually ride on the right side of the lane, but are entitled to use of a full lane’.
“In many states, so-called ‘far-to-right’ laws specifically require bicyclists to drive as far to the right as practicable. Yet, even in those states bicyclists ultimately have the right to use the full lane when, at their discretion, driving far-to-right is not practicable. Florida’s Driver Manual, for example, notes that ‘A bicyclist may use the full lane even while traveling substantially below the speed of traffic if the lane is too narrow for a car to safely pass a bicycle within the lane’.
Right Is Not Always Right for Roadies
We all know that the far right side of roads (in right-lane-driving countries) is where all the road debris ends up, and that potholes, ruts, lack of a shoulder, etc., all can force cyclists toward the center of the lane – even if our intent is to stay right. All experienced road riders also know that there are certain instances where “taking the lane” is paramount to our safety.
So common sense tells me – and this survey bears out – that “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” is a step in the right direction for roadside signage. To borrow an Aussie phrase, I say "good on ya" to Columbus, Ohio, and any other cities and municipalities in the English-speaking world that make the switch to these common-sense signs. (And I wouldn't mind them using the more cheeky version at left, which I'm not sure is a real sign – but I appreciate the sentiment!)
The study concludes with a statement about the possible benefits of combining the top two alternatives: “We speculate that a combination of ‘Bicycles May Use Full Lane’ signage and Shared Lane Markings [sharrows] might be particularly comprehensible.”
The researchers have said they would like to do additional research using simulations to reflect real-life conditions. I’d love to see those results. And if they verify the findings from the earlier research, it makes sense for advocacy organizations and traffic planners to pay heed – just as I would hope more motorists would do.
John Marsh is the editor and publisher of RBR Newsletter and RoadBikeRider.com. A rider of "less than podium" talent, he sees himself as RBR's Ringmaster, guiding the real talent (RBR's great coaches, contributors and authors) in bringing our readers consistently useful, informative, entertaining info that helps make them better road cyclists. That's what we're all about here—always have been, always will be. Click to read John's full bio.