“Share the Road” Signs Are Too Vague, Study Finds

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Vague traffic signs can be dangerous. A new study finds that when signs regarding bicyclists are not clear enough, drivers are less likely to respect the cyclists’ equal right to the road.  

The study, from North Carolina State University researchers, found that when 1800 online survey subjects were shown signs that read “Bicycle May Use Full Lane” and introduced to various cyclist-motorist road scenarios, they were more likely to recognize that a cyclist is legally entitled to take up the full traffic lane. More than 90 percent of those survey participants said it was legal for a cyclist to ride in the center of the lane (as it is in all states), and 70 percent said that it was safe for the cyclist to do so. 

People who read a “Share the Road” sign—similar to those used in many cities—were no more likely to agree that riding in the center of the lane was legal than the people who saw no sign at all. 

Image Credit: Hess & Peterson, PLOS ONE (2015)

First of all, this suggests that people don’t really know that most traffic regulations treat bikes the same as cars, allowing them full use of the lane. It also suggests that “Share the Road” isn’t a very clear directive—I, for one, thought it just meant “please try not to kill the cyclist riding on the shoulder.”

It also indicates that, not surprisingly, people would feel safer riding a bike down a street with a clearer sign. Perceived safety is different than actual safety, but when it comes to urban bicycling, thinking you’re safe is almost as important as being safe. When people get the strong feeling that they might die as they cycle around town, many folks reasonably decide not to bike, even if they would really like to save money on gas or exercise more. So if cities want to encourage biking (as they increasingly do for economic and health reasons), it needs to feel safe. People don't want to get killed just trying to get to work.