Bicyclists aren't ready to rumble when they ride

An attempt to make travel safer for everyone by installing rumble strips seems to be making some roadways more hazardous for bicycle riders.

Big surprise, right? Nobody thought of those darn bicyclists.

Well, the Adventure Cycling Association, the League of American Bicyclists and the Alliance for Biking and Walking are calling attention to this growing problem before it gets worse for those of us riding the highways and back roads.

At issue are the recessed rumble strips that are being ground into roads and highways across the country. The rumble strips grab the attention of motorists who might be otherwise distracted and are drifting off the travel lane and into a ditch. If improperly placed, however, they become another danger to bicycle riders.

Stimulus funds

The Federal Highway Administration says nearly one-third of highway deaths are “run-off-road” type of accidents. Now federal stimulus money is being made available to add these rumble strips to roads in order to make them safer.

The problem is that, in many places, the rumble strips take over the shoulder where bicyclists ride, or make it dangerous for cyclists to cross over the rumble strips to make a left turn or avoid an obstacle blocking the shoulder. That makes the roads more hazardous for bike riders, instead of safer.

Georgia highway

The best example just cropped up on Tuesday. Adventure Cycling posted a photo and story from SavannahNow about a Virginia bicyclist who was struck from behind on a George road as he veered into traffic.

Although the story doesn't mention the rumble strips, one look at the picture reveals that the bike rider must have been swerving in and out of the traffic lane to avoid the rumble strips that blocked the shoulder. In fact, an eyewitness reported:

“I actually saw the accident occur. The bicyclist was at fault. The cyclist was trying to avoid the divots/ripples on the shoulder/bike lane of the road (as seen in the picture) and in doing so continuously went ONTO THE ROADWAY. This cause the driver of the truck to hit the cyclist. The driver of the truck was not at fault. The cyclist had a very sore back and was unable to move.”

Meeting in Washington

I first heard about this rumble strip problem back in February when Adventure Cycling (Rumble strip mayhem) called attention to it. Since then, the other advocacy groups have been working on the problem.

Executive director Jim Sayer of Adventure Cycling said on Tuesday in “Rumble Strip Report” they all met with Federal Highway Administration officials in Washington DC last week. The feds told them that they could probably provide information to the local jurisdictions about the proper locations and method of installing the rumbles.

Technical advisory

Rumble strips aren't anything new. They've been around for years. In fact, the Federal Highway Administration wrote a technical advisory on the issue back in February 2001. It acknowledges the problem that rumble strips pose to bicyclists and suggests ways to reduce the “adverse impacts” to bicycles. Anyone in the state highway office can find it in less than a minute by making a Google search on “rumble strips bicycles.”

While the federal advisory may try to mitigate problems for bicyclists, it still doesn't leave them much room between the shoulder and oblivion. It appears that at first bicyclists should be given plenty of room to ride, but by No. (3) they're forced off the shoulder and onto the travel lane.

(1) Standard milled rumble strips, installed as close to the edge line as practical, should be used when a 2.4 m (8-foot) clear shoulder width remains available after installation of the rumble strip. This is the recommended treatment for roadways with 3.0 m (10 foot) shoulders.

(2) A modified design should be used along shoulders 1.8 or 2.4 m (6 or 8 feet) wide when the remaining available clear shoulder width is less than 1.8 m (6-feet) and the road can be used by bicyclists. …. Since rumble strips are not intended to be ridden on by bicyclists and should be crossed with care, gaps in the strip pattern may be more effective in allowing safe crossings and are much easier to achieve than modest reductions in the depth of each milled strip. A 3.6 m (12 ft) long gap between 14.6 (48 ft) long sections of rumble strip is recommended. Consideration should be given to increasing the gap spacing, narrowing the width of the rumble strips, widening the shoulders for bicycle use, or all of the above on long downhill grades where bicycle speeds are likely to increase significantly.

(3) Rumble strips should not normally be used when their installation would leave a clear shoulder pathway less than 1.2 m (4-feet) wide (or less than 1.5 m {5-feet} wide if there is an obstruction such as a curb or guardrail) to the right of the rumble strip for bicycle use. At locations where such space does not exist to the right of the rumble strip, a rumble strip may be installed if it is at least 0.3 m (1 foot) to the right of the edge line. In this case, a bicyclist would be expected to ride to the left of the rumble strip, essentially along the outside edge of the traffic lane.

Fortunately, Sayer reports that the federal officials are working on updates to the rumble strip policies with input from the bicycle advocates. The results should be complete this summer.

Washington rumbles

Let's hope that soon enough. Several states, including Washington, already have had to go back to correct problems. According to a report of rumble strip polices in all 50 states, Washington state had to correct rumble strip problems on Route 3 and Highway 101 on the Olympic Peninsula because policies of the WSDOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee were not adhered to.

According to the Washington Department of Transportation, rumble strips are targeted for “only those routes with a high run-off-the-road accident experience, where rumble strips can be accommodated while providing for the needs of the bicyclists. The WSDOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee has a pivotal role in the evaluation process.”

Riding the rumbles

While out for a ride on Tuesday, I stumbled across some rumble strips along Newport Way between Bellevue and Issaquah. They're located to give bicyclists a wide shoulder (more than 10 feet) for cycling, which I appreciated. However, there's no gap between sections of rumbles so bicyclists have to ride over them to make a left turn.

In spite of the work that's being done on the federal level, Adventure Cycling's Sayer suggests that bicyclists should contact the highway departments regarding their misgivings about improperly installed rumble strips.

Read more about the issue at League of American Bicyclists — “Distracted driving policy and rumble strips.” 

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