Sharing the Road
As cyclists, we’re often surprised at how many of the non-cyclists we meet consider themselves experts on cycling safety. Generally, this takes the form of a declaration that some heavily traveled bike route or other (Hwy. 1, Hwy. 68, River Rd., Carmel Valley Rd., etc.) is “unsafe for bikes.” This kind of thing is harmless enough as idle chatter, but more of a problem when it raises its ugly head (as it invariably does) as an argument against making bike safety improvements to roads (as in, “bike lanes shouldn’t be added to road X because road X is unsafe for bikes and adding bike lanes would just encourage cyclists to ride in a place where they don’t belong”).
We also find it interesting how, any time a cyclist is hurt in a traffic accident or attacked in a road rage incident, regardless of the actual facts of the case, hundreds of comments get posted on the news sites carrying the story saying, essentially, that cyclists are asking for it by failing to follow the rules of the road (the chief offense being failing to stop at stop signs), by riding in places where they don’t belong, and/or by riding too far out in the lane of traffic.
All this makes us think that perhaps it’s time to take a look at what bicycle safety and the rules of the road look like from the saddle of a bike …
First of all, just about any road is safer to travel on by bike than by car. If we were to start banning various classes of vehicles from dangerous roads based on safety data, it’s cars, not bikes, which would be losing out. This isn’t because cycling isn’t dangerous. It’s because riding in cars is even more dangerous. It’s simply a fact that you’re much, much more likely to be gravely injured or killed in an hour of riding in your car than you are in an hour of riding on your bike – even if you spend that hour riding your bike through Big Sur.
That being said, some roads are certainly safer to ride a bike on than others. But why are most non-cyclists so clueless about which roads these are? Probably because they consider only one factor – the size of the shoulder. To most drivers a wide shoulder means a road is safe for bikes and a narrow or non-existent shoulder means the road is unsafe for bikes. We’re here to tell you that, as drivers routinely use not only the lane but the shoulder as well, and as standard size lanes are roomy enough for a car to pass a bike, there’s a lot more to bicycle safety than shoulder size.
Safety, for a cyclist, is all about the amount of time drivers have between the moment they first notice you and the moment they pass you. The more time they have, the better the job they’re likely to do of passing you safely. Speed is also important. The more slowly they’re going as they pass you (assuming they don’t – like some idiots – just come up and drive along next to you), the more likely they are to do it safely.
This is why the single most important factor in determining how safe a road is for cyclists is generally the difference in speed between the cars and bikes.
Most non-cyclists we know, for example, think Cachagua Rd. is highly unsafe for cyclists because it isn’t even a full two lanes wide and has no shoulders. Most cyclists, on the other hand, feel completely comfortable riding Cachagua Rd. This is because the average difference in speed between cars and bikes there is probably less than 10 miles per hour. A driver traveling at a relatively slow speed and catching up to cyclists at 10mph or less has plenty of time to prepare to pass them safely.
This is also why thousands of cyclists persist in riding the Big Sur coast each year in spite of all the hoopla from non-cyclists about how unsafe it is. Yes it has narrow to non-existent shoulders, but this is more than made up for by the fact that the traffic travels so much more slowly than on the average two-lane highway. Like most cyclists, we’d rather ride a road with no shoulder where traffic is catching up to us at 20 to 30mph (like Hwy. 1 on the Big Sur Coast) than ride a more typical narrow shouldered highway where traffic is coming up on us at 40 to 50mph or more.
The Rules of the Road
From reading the anti-bike ranting on the Internet, you’d think that hostility between cyclists and drivers is much more widespread than is actually the case. The reality is that the vast majority of drivers are extremely courteous and friendly to cyclists and, judging from the many smiles and waves we get, many actually appear to be happy to be sharing the road.
Those who aren’t so happy focus most of their complaining on cyclists not obeying traffic laws. From a cyclist’s perspective this seems, frankly, a bit odd. How many drivers obey all traffic laws? The average speed on most roads is 5 to 10mph over the speed limit, use of turn signals has almost disappeared and people roll through stop signs more often than they make full stops. Yet anger and even assaults on cyclists are justified on the basis that “they don’t obey traffic laws.” Are we missing something here?
We’ll just take a stab at it and guess that all this deep concern for traffic regulations is more or less a cover for the real reasons these people don’t like cyclists. Things like not being able to stand being delayed for a few seconds by a guy on a bike or being jealous of all the fun the cyclists look like they’re having. In other words, to cover up real reasons too petty and stupid to admit.
Meanwhile, the average cyclist continues to do a better job than the average motorist of obeying traffic laws, mainly because their safety depends on it. This is not to suggest that there aren’t reckless cyclists. There most certainly are. Unlike reckless motorists, though, the risk they pose is mainly to themselves.
Yet even careful cyclists are known to do things like running stop signs and even red lights. Is it all just arrogance and a belief that the rules of the road apply only to cars? Not at all.
Just like the average driver, the average cyclist will generally fail to make a complete stop when there is no traffic coming. But there’s more to it than that. An extremely common reason why cyclists run stop signs is because drivers wave them through. When a bicycle approaches a 4-way stop where a car is already waiting, more often than not the driver motions for the cyclist to pass through the intersection ahead of them. When this occurs, the cyclist normally takes a look to make sure there isn’t traffic approaching from some other direction, acknowledges the driver’s gesture with a wave, and crosses the intersection without stopping.
Stopping under these circumstances would keep the cyclist in compliance with traffic laws, but at the cost of violating social norms, as it would constitute a fairly rude rejection of the favor offered by the driver. Whether on bikes or behind the wheel, when people are forced to choose between meaningless (from a safety standpoint) compliance with traffic laws and common courtesy, common courtesy is going to win pretty much any time there isn’t a cop standing by.
Another reason cyclists run stop signs is that it is sometimes safer for them to do so than it is for them to stop. A cyclist turning from a secondary road controlled by a stop sign onto a highway where traffic does not stop would be foolish to come to a complete stop if the highway is clear when they reach the stop sign and there is limited sight distance to the nearest corner (a situation that arises more often than you might think). Letting your momentum carry you quickly across is clearly safer, in this case, than spending longer in the danger zone by starting out to cross a high-speed road from a complete stop.
There are even some good reasons why cyclists run red lights. The most common being that many lights don’t change for cyclists. In such a case, if no cars happen to be going your way, you have little choice but to run the light when a safe opportunity arises. Another reason is safety. When waiting for a light at the edge of a left turn lane on a highway where cars are flying by inches away at 60mph or more, even the most law-abiding cyclist may well decide (in the absence of oncoming traffic) to just go ahead and make the turn against the light.
Taking the Lane
The final complaint we hear is that cyclists don’t ride close enough to the edge of the road, or that groups of cyclists obstruct the road by riding two or three abreast. First of all, we agree that it is both rude and unsafe for groups of cyclists to obstruct busy roads by unnecessarily filling the lane. People who do that are an embarrassment to cycling.
BUT … drivers should be aware that there are a variety of circumstances where it is fully justified, as well as a very good idea, for cyclists or groups of cyclists to “take the lane.” These mainly involve situations where passing the cyclists would not be safe even if they were all in single file on the outermost millimeter of the road (a circumstance that is usually much more obvious to the cyclists than it is to the motorists). The cyclists in such a situation may be sending you the message that this is not an appropriate time to pass them – please respect that message. And remember that the total time you’re going to add to your journey by waiting for cyclists to clear the road is likely to be less than a minute.
There are also situations where drivers just plain need to lighten up. If a group of cyclists is riding on a lonely country road where they maybe see a car once every 15 or 20 minutes, drivers shouldn’t expect them to ride single file just so as to avoid causing the occasional driver a second or two of delay. Similarly, if a road has a shoulder wide enough for cyclists to ride two abreast without obstructing the lane, drivers should just keep to their lane and try not to blow a gasket over it.
Finally, drivers should be aware that cyclists are often forced away from the edge of the road by gaping potholes (especially with the ever growing “deferred maintenance” of our roads), truck tires and other road hazards and that, in town, cyclists must stay far enough out in the lane to avoid being hit by opening car doors.
Sharing the Road
For the most part, cyclists and motorists get along quite well. Considering the thousands of motorists we see on an average ride, displays of rudeness are actually quite rare. But they do happen.
We recently waited through four complete cycles at a stoplight that wasn’t designed to change for bikes without any cars showing up that were going our way. When we finally ran the light (completely safely – there were no cars within half a mile in the direction that was green) a woman who was waiting to go in a different direction and had not been inconvenienced by us in any way, just about fell out of her SUV screaming at us about how traffic laws apply to bikes too. Any cyclist can tell a hundred similar stories.
So all we ask is this. The next time you find yourself getting angry because a cyclist just did something like running a stop sign right in front of a car whose turn it was to go, or riding in the middle of the lane, ask yourself some questions. Do I really know that the driver I thought was being cut off didn’t wave the bike ahead? Is it possible it was necessary for the cyclist to “take the lane?” And, most of all, why is it that traffic infractions or carelessness on the part of cyclists make me so much more angry than the hundreds of similar infractions and rudenesses I see committed by my fellow motorists every time I go for a drive?
Cyclists on the South Coast, October 2008
An excellent video on bicycle safety and traffic enforcement has been produced by the Chicago Police Department and the Chicago Department of Transportation as a training tool for the Chicago police.