Cyclists and speed limit laws

Debate is swirling in Minneapolis about the 10 mile per hour speed limit on bike trails in and around the Twin Cities. Yesterday the city’s park commission debated a proposal that would eliminate the speed limit on city park paths. In its place cyclists would be required to adhere to “reasonable and prudent” speeds, based on their judgement.

Officials struck the proposal down, in part, due to vagueness in the new speed rule. Both sides made (and continue to make) valid points.


Those against eliminating the speed limit cite the dangers of high-speed collisions between cyclists and other cyclists or pedestrians. It’s a similar rationale for car speed limits. Evidence shows a strong relationship between speed and road traffic accidents.

On the other hand, many cyclists:

  • A) Don’t really know (and underestimate) how fast they are going because unlike cars, bikes don’t come standard with an odometer.
  • and B) Like motorists, many cyclists don’t pay attention to how fast they are going.

And then there’s enforcement. Sure many cyclists on these paths have been clocked at speeds well about 10 mph (I’m guilty of that myself). But from the perspective of a law enforcement officer in a major metropolitan city, should ticketing cyclists for speeding on a bike path be a high priority? As Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto said in the Star Tribune article on the debate, “against a priority of keeping inner-city parks safe from gangs and violence for kids, tagging speeding bikes isn’t high on the list [of priorities].”

But, I think there’s one important and overlooked aspect of this debate, and it comes out of research on automobile accidents and speed. Despite some of the claims about speed and deadly car accidents, there is quite a bit of research concluding the opposite. This video talks about those studies.

One study from the 1980’s found no real association between the fatality rate and the average speeds of drivers.

Then what’s the major factor? It’s about relative speed.

When all cars on the road are traveling similar speeds, the fatality rate is low. When there is large variation is speeds, there is an increased risk of accidents.

Now, I have no idea if the same applies to cycling. There isn’t the same extensive research on speeding among cyclists and accidents/fatalities (not to mention the prevalence of fatal cyclist accidents is far smaller than that of motor vehicles). But it seems like an interesting piece of research to consider in this situation.

By keeping the speed limit on bike paths artificially low (at speeds that many cyclists exceed anyway), does this create larger variation among cyclists who use the path? With the larger variation in speed, does this increase the risk for accidents?

And unlike cars, there is some relationship between skill and ability to travel fast with cycling. Presumably, the more advanced cyclists can travel at faster speeds, which require higher amounts of power output by your leg muscles. With a car, your speed has nothing to do with your own ability but that of the car. So when it comes to those cycling at speeds well above 10mph, are these the same cyclists who can do so safely because of their superior skill and experience in handling a bike?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Share in the comments section below.


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