2016 - Research

Cycling Near Misses: Their Frequency, Impact, and Prevention

This paper reports findings from The Near Miss Project, the first-ever UK study of cycling near misses—incidents that don’t result in an injury but were nevertheless scary, annoying, and/or stressful—of 1,500 cyclists. 

Key takeaway:

  • This paper reports findings from The Near Miss Project, the first-ever UK study of cycling near misses—incidents that don’t result in an injury but were nevertheless scary, annoying, and/or stressful—of 1,500 cyclists. Highlights from the The Near Miss Project include: (1) Near misses are an everyday experience for cyclists in the UK; (2) Bicycling speed is the main factor affecting near miss rates; and (3) Women, who tend to bike more slowly, have higher near miss rates than men. While most cyclists believed that near misses could be prevented, they didn’t feel that it was within their control. To better promote bicycling, the author recommends segregated bicycle infrastructure coupled with behavioral and other interventions to combat a “might is right” road culture.

 

Results:

  • Most studies of safety for bicycling are limited to studies of crash counts and bicyclist injuries and fatalities. However, cycling near misses are important, too, because:
    • They may predict common types of behavior and/or road infrastructure that may lead to injury.
    • They may negatively affect people’s bicycling experiences and deter more people from bicycling, especially novice and less-confident bicyclists.
    • They are under-researched but provide vital insights on perceptions and experiences of risk while bicycling. Frequent near misses may have a greater impact on perceived danger than actual collisions and injuries.
    • Women disproportionately experience more near misses than men do, which can factor into and perpetuate the gender gap in bicycling.

 

Types of incidents and their impacts

  • The most frequent types of incidents, in descending order, were:
    • Being blocked (which often required swerving)
    • A problematic pass
    • A vehicle pulling in or out across a bicyclist’s path
    • A person driving (or sometimes bicycling) at a bicyclist head on
    • A right or left hook, when a road user makes a right or left turn across a bicyclist’s path
    • Other
    • Tailgating without passing
    • A person opening a car or truck door in a bicyclist’s way
    • The top three incidents (blocking, passing, and vehicles pulling in/out) represented over 80 percent of incidents.
    • Almost half of blocking incidents involved road or infrastructure related problems, such as swerving to avoid a pothole or an obstruction in a bike lane. Almost a quarter of blocking incidents involved a pedestrian, such as a pedestrian walking in front of a bicyclist. Participants typically described blocking incidents as “very annoying” but not “very scary,” and felt it was more annoying to be blocked by a motor vehicle than by a pedestrian or another bicyclist.
    • Passing incidents typically involved a motor vehicle overtaking a bicyclist too closely. Participants reported this as “very scary” and unfortunately a routine experience (i.e., every other day).
    • Vehicles pulling in or out across a bicyclist’s path often occurred at intersections, bus stops, or taxi stands.
    • People’s top four immediate reactions to different types of incidents (other than annoyed and frightened) were anger, frustration, irritation, and vulnerability.
    • When asked how these incidents would affect their future bicycling, the four most common responses were that it would make them more vigilant, more likely to be assertive on the road (i.e., by taking the lane), have negative associations with bicycling (i.e., paranoia, fear), and choose alternate routes.
    • One in seven bicyclists surveyed said that despite the fear, stress, and annoyance caused, these incidents would have no impact on their future cycling. Some people expressed a sense of powerlessness and resignation that bicycling was inherently dangerous.
    • One in sixty “very scary” incidents led bicyclists to bike less or stop bicycling altogether.

Bicyclists’ views on incident prevention

  • Bicyclists said that 83 percent of incidents could have been prevented by someone else and/or by an improved road environment.
  • In incidents involving motor vehicles, bicyclists said that they could have avoided the incident in 19 percent of the cases, while someone else (usually a person driving) could have avoided the incident in 87 percent of the cases.
  • Bicyclists reported the top five things others (i.e., drivers and pedestrians) could have done differently to prevent incidents:
    • Waiting longer
    • Looking around more thoroughly
    • Passing with more space or more slowly
    • Stopping
    • Giving more space
    • Participants said that over half (53 percent) of incidents could have been prevented by a change in the road environment. The top change suggested was an increase or improvement in dedicated road space for bicycling (i.e., bike lanes). The second most popular change suggested was repairing road or other infrastructure, including road maintenance and removal of barriers.

Safety in numbers and near misses

  • There is no evidence of near miss safety in numbers by time of day. This isn’t surprising since the peak time for bicycling is also the peak time for driving, and since there aren’t many segregated bike lanes in the UK, people commuting by bicycle during peak hours share space with high volumes of cars. This suggests that safety in numbers for bicyclists due to greater visibility may be offset by high motor vehicle volume.
  • People who drive in areas with higher levels of bicycling may be more likely to bike themselves or know people who bike, which means they are more likely to have more sympathy and empathy of bicyclists’ needs and have less hostile attitudes towards them.

 

Implications:

  • Some kinds of near miss incidents may provide early indication of situations or behavior that could lead to injury. For instance, instances when a bicyclist almost gets hit or gets hit by a car door opening (dooring), or when a bicyclist gets cut off by a turning car (hooking) are more likely to lead to injury. Studying these types of near misses at particular locations could help injury prevention. Close passes are associated with injury collisions and should also be of high priority for injury prevention and perceptions of safety, given their frequency.
  • Bicyclists felt that most near misses could have been preventable by changes to road user behavior and the built environment. Road user behavior, road culture, and infrastructure are complexly intertwined, and interventions to prevent near misses and create a more supportive bicycling environment should include public education/safety campaigns, police enforcement, and more high quality bicycle infrastructure (i.e., protected bike lanes separated from traffic).
  • In some instances, traffic calming was cited as causing near miss incidents due to poor driver behavior: Rather than slowing down and being more vigilant at road narrowings, some bicyclists perceived drivers as “competing” to get ahead and trying to “win.” These experiences call into question the impact of speed reduction (i.e., 20 mph speed limits) and traffic calming measures on improving safety for people bicycling. While speeding certainly is a problem and lowering speed limits may help reduce injury risk, driver behavioral responses may be undermining. Again, this highlights the complex interplay among road user behavior, road culture, and the built environment in perceptions and experiences of safety. To improve safety for bicyclists, there must be a range of infrastructural and behavioral interventions.
  • The most popular infrastructural intervention to reduce near misses was high quality separated cycling infrastructure, especially at intersections. This underscores the importance of good infrastructure in creating a supportive environment for bicycling. 
  • It is important to remember that 72 percent of study participants were men and 92 percent of all participants commuted to work by bicycle. The sample size, therefore, predominantly captures people who are likely confident bicyclists while failing to reflect people who bike less frequently (i.e., people who bike to commute for purposes other than work, like running errands or seeing friends on weekends), people who are less confident bicyclists, etc.
  • This study is innovative because it focuses on the perspectives and experiences of people bicycling. Qualitative data should supplement quantitative analysis to inform road safety interventions.

 

Methods:

  • This study involved a sample of 1,500 bicyclists in the UK between 2014-2015 who kept online diaries of all bicycle trip stages without exact location details (i.e., home to work, work to meeting, etc.), timings of each trip stage, an estimate of trip distance, and whether and where any non-injury incidents occurred. Participants had to rate how scary or annoying incidents were on a scale of zero (not scary, or not annoying, at all) to three (very scary or very annoying). They also had to write descriptions of incidents, locations, whether the incident could have been prevented and how so, how the incident made them feel, and whether and how the incident would affect their future bicycling.
  • The study participants were disproportionately male (72.1 percent), which reflects the gender imbalance of bicycling in the UK. Two-thirds of the sample size was between the ages of 35 and 44. Just a third of participants lived in London, but living in London made no difference in overall incident rates. Most bicyclists (92%) were weekday travelers who commuted to/from work by bicycle.

 

Aldred, R. (2016). Cycling Near Misses: Their Frequency, Impact, and Prevention. Transportation Research Part A, 90.