Bicycle-Safety Education
Paper by Kenneth D. Cross
for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 1978

Reviewed by John Forester, 2004

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Societal Considerations

Ken Cross’s introduction and first-chapter discussion of bicycles and cyclists illustrate the nation’s 1970s motivation to do something about the bicycle problem. For decades, American bicycles had been imitation-motorcycle toys used by children, except for the few imported functionally designed bicycles used by the few adult cyclists, which included some college-associated young adults. The typical view of American cycling was short-distance play by children, an activity that was rarely seen as a traffic problem, just so long as the children kept out of the way of cars, as they were instructed to do by the "bike-safety" programs of the time. This playing about with bicycles produced many injuries, though mostly minor ones; by the government's evaluation that counted each injury to a child as twice of that to an adult, bicycles were the most dangerous consumer product. The bicycle sales volume trend line ran a bit above the population growth line as "owing to the increased affluence of most families, an increasing proportion of the juvenile population has been provided a bicycle at an early age."

That changed drastically in 1970; in two years, sales were twice what they had been. Moreover, the new sales were of ten-speed bicycles, capable of providing real transportation and longer-distance recreational travel, which were being used by a somewhat older population as young people continued to cycle beyond the former age range. Cross lists some causes, but today we can recognize additional demographic causes, such as recent suburbanization, educational changes, and social unrest. The American motoring public was suddenly, from one summer to the next, confronted with bicycle traffic on roads on which they could remember none. The American motoring public determined to solve this bicycle traffic and safety problem.

This determination acted along two paths: make bicycles safe and make bicycling safe. Both paths proceeded according to the existing views of the American public. The Consumer Product Safety Commission of the United States issued a bicycle design regulation based on the concept that bicycles be redesigned to become really and truly safe toys for use by children, at least as far as a two-wheeled single-track vehicle can be safe. The state governments, with California taking the lead, produced designs for bikeways that implemented the "bike-safety for children" instruction to stay out of the way of cars.

Naturally, any safety campaign ought to be based on accident data, and studies were started to gather the data relevant to these activities. However, so sure were the American public of what they knew about bicycles and bicycling, that they implemented these safety programs before receiving the results of the studies.

The safe-bicycle activity was brought to a screeching halt when adult cyclists discovered that they would be prohibited from buying the good and excellent foreign bicycles they wanted, and the American bicycle manufacturers discovered that they wanted to serve that market, too. So the bicycle regulation, despite being authorized as applying only to "toys or other articles intended for use by children", became modified to allow the sale of real bicycles as well as toy bicycles. Its sole remaining significant characteristic is its statement that it is safe to ride a bicycle at night without a headlight. This dangerous statement has been, and still is, vigorously defended by the bicycle manufacturers, thus serving as a reminder that regulations intended to control businesses for the safety of the public often become protectors of industry to the danger of the public. Furthermore, when the accident studies were completed, only about 3% of the injuries to cyclists could be attributed to defective bicycle design, and therefore even might be reducible by regulating the design.

The safe-cycling bikeway activity did not come to as happy an end as the bicycle design regulation (except, of course, for the required nighttime danger equipment), but persists to this day as the government’s major activity concerning the bicycle traffic problem. The California bikeway committees so strongly believed that car-bike collision statistics would support their program that they commissioned the first such study from Ken Cross and held a meeting for him to present his results. When Cross’s results completely disproved the bikeway superstition, they suppressed his study. My copy is reproduced on my website,, as Cross’s study number one.

Shortly after the California committees started work, the federal government entered the safe-cycling bikeway campaign. Like California and like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal transportation agencies (Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) produced their bikeway designs before receiving the results of the nationwide study of car-bike collisions they had commissioned from Ken Cross, as his second study. In the end, both the federal government and the states adopted California’s bikeway designs. They did so because the opposition of the California Association of Bicycling Organizations had forced California to delete those design features most dangerous to cyclists, thereby protecting government against the most credible threats of liability in personal injury suits.

The disparity between the accident statistics and the programs intended to reduce accidents strongly suggested that some other measures ought to be implemented. My Effective Cycling program is one of them. Even the Automobile Association could see the logic of this approach. Therefore, "The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has asked Dr. Cross to present his data and, more importantly, his views on what educational countermeasures can be most effective in meeting the needs in bicycle safety today and in the years to come."

General Bicycling Descriptions

Cross provides general descriptions of the bicycling population and their activity, including accidents, derived from several sources. One of the illuminating facts discovered is that nearly all of the cyclists involved in car-bike collisions who disobeyed a traffic law knew the law. The interesting issue is why they did not obey the law. This class of information is interesting, but not significant in evaluating Cross’s work.

Car-bike Collision Types and Educational Countermeasures

The meat of this book is contained in two section. The first of these, Section V, describes Cross’s types of car-bike collision together with his recommendations concerning educational countermeasures for each type. Cross’s classification of car-bike collisions ought to be familiar to all cycling experts by now, although the more detailed analysis that I provide in my book Bicycle Transportation categorizes the cyclist behavior according to the major cyclist errors, sidewalk cycling and wrong-side cycling, as well as normal roadway cycling.

Cross is a good observer and analyst, although his analysis is hindered because each of his types includes several really different situations, such as roadway cycling and sidewalk cycling within the same type. He provides observations for each type, and then groups the types (designated by number) into classes (designated by letters), and then provides educational recommendations for each class. Most of the recommendations are reasonable, with reasonable cautions considering the unknown factors. However, Cross does not synthesize these into a whole, just leaves them individual.

Discussion of Educational and Training Objectives

The second important part of this book is Section VI, "Discussion of Education and Training Objectives." Cross states his purpose: "The establishment of a set of concise educational objectives is among the most important and most difficult tasks to be accomplished in developing an educational program ... Bicyclist education has been stressed for two reasons. First, it is believed that the education of bicyclists has more accident reduction potential than the education of the other groups. Secondly, the education of bicyclists is inherently more difficult than the education of other groups because bicyclists must be educated at a younger age."

Cross made a significant contribution by providing the bicyclist ages at which various types of car-bike collision are most frequent. He suggested that training against the collision types that occurred earliest in age should be started earliest in the training cycle.

Cross had worked as an Army trainer of helicopter pilots, and he analyzes the bicyclist educational and training task as he did his Army helicopter pilot training task, dividing functions into pre-trip, during-trip, and threat-response.

For example, as part of the pre-trip basic knowledge, he recommends some knowledge of the characteristics of the human visual system. One specific objective he lists for pre-trip functions is: "Increase bicyclists’ ability and inclination to consider their own capabilities for completing the contemplated trip safely." Another is: "Increase bicyclists’ ability and inclination to consider alternate routes to destination and to select the safest route."

For during-trip functions, Cross starts with: "Increase bicyclists’ ability and inclination to select the optimal course through an area: [some details are] Select optimal course when entering the roadway. Stop at signed intersections. Select optimal courses when visual obstructions are encountered."

For threat-reaction functions, Cross lists: "Increase bicyclists’ ability and inclination to search effectively for motor vehicles that pose a threat. Increase bicyclists’ ability to evaluate situations and to recognize the need for evasive action. Increase bicyclists’ ability to select and execute optimal evasive action." In greater detail, Cross lists such as: "Increase ability to cope in situations where information-processing capacity is overloaded. Increase the validity of bicyclists’ assessment of the degree of risk associated with failures to search."

My criticism of this is that we don’t teach this level of detail to adult motorists; how can we expect child cyclists to learn it? The whole thing is excessively theoretical and has been constructed without considering the practical advantages of the traffic system that exists, the system that we have constructed to largely eliminate the need for such theoretical considerations.

Cross has failed to recognize that the traffic system is easy to operate according to principles that provide a good balance between safety and efficacy. It is necessary, but relatively easy, to teach people, even children, how to operate within the traffic system. Once they understand, through practice within it, how the system is supposed to operate, they can recognize the few occasions where and when it is not operating properly. Once they have detected that malfunction, then they are in a position to take the appropriate evasive action. That sequence is built into the Effective Cycling Program, starting with instruction into the five basic traffic actions by which the traffic system operates.

The version of the Effective Cycling Program incorporating these observations came along two years after Cross’s publication on education, but was not in any way derived from that publication.

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