I've never seen someone misinterpret a hand pointing in the direction a person wants to go. It's about as basic as you get. Even dogs understand. But my wife and friends started noticing people who have issues with the L-shaped right-turn signal. They know they have to use some kind of kink in their arm and raise it up but just can't seem to get it right. And they use it despite there being a perfectly good alternative.

We can blame this all on our obsession with automobiles. I'll explain.

A right turn signal is supposed to look like Option A, according to many governments:

or Option B, the "alternative" right:

(Source: MTO)

Even the Ontario government recognizes that Option A is ridiculous so they let the sorry folks who can't figure out Option A use Option B. But only to be used in emergencies. Or if you're a child in which case the government tells them to use Option B as the first choice (and Option A if they're missing a right arm?). But when you're an adult you put childish ways behind you and get behind the self-evidently superiour L-shaped signal. For some unrevealed reason.

But we've even seen some really interesting in-the-wild examples where the L-shaped signal has morphed into new forms. (I drew them for you with my expert hand, since we've yet to catch them in the act with a camera):

Signals in the wild
Just stop trying to signal, you're making it worse. On the left: L-shaped right hand. On the right: Over the head left-hand

So why do we tell people to use the left hand for signalling right?

Using the left hand to turn right came about because of cars. Drivers needed hand signals that could be clearly seen from behind, which meant that only the left hand could be used.

Automotive hand signals
Source: NYT

Yet when signal lights took over the hand signals were relegated to very rare occasions when the lights were broken. In my years of driving I've yet to see a driver having to resort to these hand signals. Yet ironically, this ill-suited custom, is foisted upon fresh, inexperienced cyclists as the "proper" way. CAN-Bike and other courses even make claims that the L-signal is even more visible in some situations. As a former CAN-Bike instructor, I confess to filling students heads with such baseless claims. I've yet to see any proof or study. Without such, it seems to me to be a justification after the fact. If cars hadn't been invented would we have independently invented the L-shaped left hand right turn signal? Who knows, but I think it's highly unlikely.

The automobile-derived signal is just so counter-intuitive for anyone on a bike, that unless people get specific training and remember it correctly they will invariably get it confused. They want to correct it; it seems wrong. But they just make it worse. Some even know that pointing in the direction they want to go works so they try to adapt a substandard signal into something that works. The funny collision of meaning happens when they attempt to stick to what they learned was "proper".

What is so important about the automotive right signal that we need to force it upon everyone biking despite the confusion? I can't think of one good reason.

Folks: just point in the direction you want to go. We'll all understand you.

@RespectTO on Twitter claimed that "Bloor has the worst rate for collisions in #biketo. Safe passage now. #topoli #BloorBikeLanes". They were rightfully celebrating the fact that we're one step closer to getting bike lanes on Bloor. Maybe I should have left well enough alone but I asked them: ".@RespectTO explain "worst". Gross numbers or per volume of cyclists compared to other streets?" It was an honest question but hard to explain intention in Twitter, thus my blog. How would we know Bloor Street is the worst and by what definition and measure? @RespectTO told me that it's according to City stats but they didn't have a link to share.

Let me just be clear that I'm quite happy that Bloor is getting this focus and deservedly getting bike lanes (hopefully) to help make people safer. But I think it's worth digging into this a bit. In the past I have dug up and analyzed statistics to help answer such questions, so let's do the same here. 

The claim: "Bloor is the worst for collisions". How can we make the claim testable? We'll need to compare Bloor Street to other streets, obviously, but we can't just use the entire lengths of streets because then we'd be comparing apples to oranges. We need equal measures. More importantly, the Bloor Street bike lanes pilot is only going from Shaw to Avenue so that's the only stretch that might become safer post-install. So let's compare the crash stats of Bloor from Shaw to Avenue to an equal length on an other street. I chose Queen St West, partly because it passes through the same cross streets as Bloor, going from Shaw to University, and because it's also a well-used route by people on bikes. (I could have also chosen Dundas, King or College for similar east-west streets.) Then I think if we just count all the collisions on Bloor and Queen along the same stretches we will know which one has had more collisions.

Note that there are also different ways to interpret "worst". In the gross sense, we might be focused on the total numbers of crashes and trying to reduce them. From the point of view of an individual person on a bike, however, the concern would be about the risk of a crash, that is, which street is more "dangerous". In this latter case, we're more concerned about the chance of a crash per person. And for that we'd need to divide our crashes by the volume of people cycling since that can be quite different depending on the street. But this will be too much work and it wasn't the original claim, so I'm just going to focus on the gross numbers.

The closest we have to crash stats by location is this map from a few years ago produced by the Globe and Mail, mapping out all collisions from 1985 to 2010.

crash stats -- which is the "worst" street?
Which street is the worst for collisions? Not so simple


So I just started counting the dots and this is what I got:

Total collisions on Bloor Street, Shaw to Avenue: 261 collisons. 1 fatal, 14 major injuries (1985-2010)

Total collisions on Queen Street West, Shaw to University: 308 collisions. 1 fatal, 19 major injuries (1985-2010)

So Bloor and Queen are pretty close with Queen just edging out Bloor. We can speculate to why: maybe the average cycling volumes on Queen are a bit higher? Or maybe the streetcar tracks make Queen a bit more dangerous? We can't really know unless we have more data.

I'd actually like to see if the numbers on Queen have dropped since the protected bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide were installed, creating a continuous route from Shaw to University (and beyond). With people going to those alternative routes the volumes on Queen have dropped and hopefully the overall crashes. And I hope the same happens on Bloor.

At any rate, I think we can conclude that the original claim by @RespectTO might have been true at some point (though I'm not sure) but it doesn't seem to be true anymore. But I will celebrate with them that we're finally getting bike lanes on Bloor.

[Update: I decided to count College Street between Shaw and University and came up with 259 collisions. 0 fatalities, 11 major injuries from 1985 to 2010. There are painted bike lanes along about 2/3s of the stretch, no physical separation. I believe the bike lanes have been there for the whole period, I'm not certain. It's not a surprise that College numbers are this high since it is also the busiest street for bike traffic. So if the City is serious about reducing collisions they could upgrade College. A painted bike lane is obviously not enough.]

Bloor bike lanes pilot area

Last night the City presented the preferred option for the Bloor Street bike lanes (pilot) (see more coverage here, here). I couldn't make it but looks like it was option C, which was the one with the most extensive physical separation between people biking and driving. That's nice and quite a surprise actually. I had expected more compromises and we got fewer. It is indeed something to be celebrated given the large political barriers overcome (and still to be overcome). Councillors Cressy and Layton should be commended for pushing this and taking a political risk. A key part of this is the new cycling manager Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati who is willing work hard at taking advantage of this political opportunity. Previously the Cycling Unit has often been content at not upsetting the apple cart and were more than happy to delay the Bloor bike lanes by agreeing to unnecessary Environmental Assessments.

In terms of the design there are two main items which I feel are compromises:

  • the stretch between Bathurst and Spadina will only have flexiposts on the one side, which was given up to preserve car parking on one side
  • a number of people were asking the staff to take a risk of trying Protected Intersections on Bloor but looks like they've decided to stick to the substandard approach of forcing bikes to "intermingle" with cars at all intersections. This approach has already proved to be problematic on Richmond and Adelaide and does nothing to try to reduce the worst locations for collisions: intersections

That being said, this will still be a game changer as much as the protected bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide were game changers, having a huge impact on people flowing into, through and out of the core. It's only been 40 years!