Debunking Wrong-Way Riding

Posted by Jamie Wine on February 12, 2014 in Advocacy, Bicycle Safety

A pedicabber breaks down why it’s safer to ride with traffic - not against

At Bike Easy, a question that we often get is whether or not wrong-way cycling (also called salmoning) is safer than riding with traffic. As a pedicab driver, I’ve personally noticed that salmoning seems to be fairly popular here in New Orleans, especially in the French Quarter, with its myriad one-way streets. I regularly see riders going down the wrong way down Royal and other east-west roads, jostling for space with horse-drawn carriages, other bicycles, tourists and taxi drivers. Both sides of this argument have their reasons; let’s begin by taking a look at what proponents of wrong-way riding have to say.

As children, many bike riders were taught by their parents that riding against traffic was the safe way to go. You could see drivers coming, and they could see you, instead of having to worry about cars coming up from behind. Intuitively, it does seem like it would be better to be able to see what is coming, rather than constantly wondering if someone is going to blast by you with inches to spare.

Another common point brought up in favor of salmoning is convenience: why should I cycle some circuitous route following the flow of traffic, when one shortcut down a couple blocks in the wrong direction could get me to my destination much faster? As a pedicabber in the French Quarter I know full well the frustrations of dealing with one-way streets – they can turn three-block jaunts into eight-block marathons.

However, is this type of riding actually safer than following traffic flow? In a word, no. There are a number of risks associated with salmoning:

  • First, cars pulling out of driveways or turning from an intersection are not looking for traffic coming the wrong way. They could pull out in front if you and have no idea you were coming.
  • Also, you approach traffic at a much higher speed while salmoning. For example: if you are riding at 15mph and a car comes up from behind at 35mph, the approaching speed is 20mph. If you and the car were coming head-on though, the closing speed is 50mph.
  • Finally, riding the wrong way is against the law, so if you are in an accident it will be your fault.

None of this is to say that wrong-way riders are stupid. In a thoughtful article for Bicycling.com, Elly Blue argues that the prevalence of salmoning is a sign that something is wrong with the system; both in terms of cycling education and infrastructure. Blue writes that “Lots of us were taught as kids to ride facing traffic…this sense of safety is tragically false, but that doesn’t stop it from being widely believed – especially if your last lesson in bike safety was when you were seven.”

This brings up a good point: most people are taught how to ride as a kid, and then receive no further cycling education for the rest of their life. However, organizations like Bike Easy and its partners are now working to get the word out about the dangers of wrong-way riding.

Blue also writes, “Another problem that salmoning can diagnose is bad infrastructure, missing links in the bike network. When you see someone riding the wrong way on a bike, the chances are good that they have chosen this as a crummy alternative to an even crummier series of major roads and horrifying intersections.” As mentioned earlier, at times it can be easier to take an illegal shortcut than follow the road network, but riders need to be aware of the attendant danger if they go against the flow of traffic.

Equipped with the knowledge that wrong-way riding is inherently more dangerous than riding with traffic, hopefully we can teach our own children how to cycle properly and help create safer roads in the future.

-Michael Tatarski

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