Bicycle trails and bridges are nice, but changing attitudes would be better

PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll finds tensions between cyclists, drivers



​​​SEATTLE – The greater Seattle region has a ways to go before becoming one of the country's great bicycling cities, according to the results of the 2007 PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll. And, the poll shows, some of the biggest challenges are not funding bike trails or signage, but changing attitudes and creating a spirit of sharing the road between cyclists and drivers.

The City of Seattle recently announced an aggressive $27 million plan to expand its system of trails, bridges, and other infrastructure intended to make Seattle a safer, more inviting place to ride both recreationally and for commuting. PEMCO Insurance spokesperson Jon Osterberg notes that PEMCO's statewide poll shows not everyone has a clear understanding of the laws governing the co-existence of bicycles and motor vehicles.

"There's still a lot of misunderstanding between riders and motorists," said Osterberg. "Many times that misunderstanding fuels some dangerous encounters, like the road rage incident in Fremont a few days ago." In that incident, a motorist frustrated with a cyclist's use of a lane allegedly followed and harassed the cyclist. The poll shows why such a scenario can occur: Only one out of every five Washingtonians (20 percent) believes that it's legal for bicyclists to ride two abreast, taking up an entire lane of traffic.

Two of the most important aspects of bicyclists' legal rights are the right to take an entire lane, and to ride two abreast in a lane.

"Drivers often get frustrated by that, but it's the law, and it's there to provide a margin of safety for the rider," Osterberg said.

In the PEMCO Poll, Washington residents were read three statements about the laws associated with sharing the road with bicyclists, and were then asked whether they felt the statements were true or false.  The following chart shows their answers:




Don't Know

Legally, vehicles must stay four feet away while passing bicyclists on the road




Bicyclists can be ticketed for not following safety rules and laws, just like drivers can be ticketed




It is legal for bicyclists to ride two abreast, taking up an entire lane of traffic




The law regarding safe distance is confusing to some, Osterberg said, possibly creating further problems between motorists and cyclists. The current law reads that motorists must pass cyclists "safely," while the Washington state driver's manual provides that motorists should allow at least three feet.

Most Washington residents are aware that bicyclists can be ticketed for not following the same safety rules and laws mandated for drivers.

Among other findings:

  • More people in Eastern Washington (64 percent) than in the central Puget Sound region (54 percent) were aware that vehicles must stay four feet away while passing bicyclists on the road
  • Females are much more likely than their male counterparts to report they do not know whether the law states that vehicles must stay four feet away (32 percent compared to 24 percent respectively)
  • More people in Western Washington know that it is legal for bicyclists to ride two abreast in a lane (24 percent, compared to 11 percent in Eastern Washington).

"We can invest all we like in bicycle lanes and so forth," said Osterberg. "But PEMCO's poll clearly shows that bicyclists and motorists, despite natural tensions, must learn and respect each other's rights as they share the road – including the right of survival."  In the past five years in Washington state, he said, at least 44 bicyclists have been killed and scores injured in collisions with automobiles.

About the PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll

PEMCO Insurance commissioned the statewide phone survey that asked Washington residents (88 percent of whom have drivers licenses) several questions about driving, crime, and other safety issues. The poll was conducted by FBK Research of Seattle. The sample size was 600 respondents.

About PEMCO Insurance

PEMCO Insurance, established in 1949, is a Seattle-based provider of auto, home, boat, life, and umbrella insurance to Washington state residents. PEMCO Insurance is sold by community agents throughout the state and through PEMCO offices. For more information, visit