Here in the Boston area, cycling is shockingly popular. You’d think that in a place that seems to have only thirty or forty sunny days a year such activities wouldn’t be such a big deal.
Perhaps because there are so many cyclists on the road, I find that car drivers are, generally, attentive and polite when it comes to sharing the road with person-powered, two-wheeled vehicles. In my experience, the vast majority of drivers do a good job with cyclists on the road. As you’d expect, the rest occupy the other end of the spectrum – they make the roads almost completely unsafe.
Those that fit into this latter category include the elderly, who are often uncertain about how to deal with having a bicycle in their lane at the same time there is oncoming traffic; new drivers (teens) who are completely certain they know how to deal with anything they run across; and almost anyone more occupied with their telephone than the road.
On a recent ride, I thought through the guidelines I use when riding on the road – as a cyclist and as a car driver. Frequently being in each role (I ride over 3,000 miles per year and drive a lot more than that), I feel that I have the experience to see the situation from both sides.
If you’re a cyclist:
- Your safety is your responsibility. No, it’s not the sole responsibility of the car driver to avoid you. The responsibility is legally mutual, but practically, you should assume it’s really 100% yours. Keep in mind that you’re not the only thing on the road. The car driver has to deal with his/her own obstructions, including oncoming SUVs.
- Stay as far to the right as possible. Pretend the side of the road has a gravitational field. If there is a shoulder, use it. If not, ride along the white line. If no white line, stay as far to the right as possible. The only exception to this rule is if there is debris or potholes on the side. Try to find them as far ahead as possible so you don’t end up turning quickly into traffic to avoid them.
- Ride single file. If the road hasn’t been cleared for a cycling event or isn’t otherwise abandoned, ride single file. It drives me nuts to see side-by-side riders clogging up traffic. Behavior like that trashes the very concept of sharing the road and the bad will it causes might come back and bite me some day.
- Excessively acknowledge the courtesy of drivers. Wave, yell “thanks,” nod your head, do something to acknowledge when a driver stops to let you by, slows to give you more room, or otherwise goes out of their way to make your ride easier or better. The good will you create will help five other cyclists (OK, that’s not scientifically proven or anything, it’s just my estimation).
- At least attempt to obey traffic signals. Yeah, coming to a complete stop at a stop sign is a pain in the ass, especially when you’ve got a good pace going, are climbing a hill or have to unclip from your pedals. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense. Unless you’re in the boonies, though, it’s a whole lot easier than the long hospital stay that’ll result from being flattened by an oncoming vehicle.
If you’re a motorist:
- Consider the condition of the road. Especially in northern areas, where roads freeze and thaw frequently, the shoulders of roads are often littered with broken asphalt and potholes. Additionally, there is almost always a variety of shrapnel – glass, metal, twigs, rocks, sticks, etc – and wet leaves. They are all hazards for a cyclist. You may think it’s inconvenient avoiding a cyclist on the road. It’ll be a lot harder if said cyclist blows out a tire and falls in front of you.
- Accelerating a bike is harder than accelerating your car. The driver of a car can use small motions of their right foot to get going or accelerate out of trouble. It’s much harder for a cyclist. That means that a bicycle will move differently than a car. Don’t expect a bicycle to react to situations the same way your car does. This also means that a cyclist is likely to do everything possible to maintain his/her speed. Just expect it.
- Honking at a bicycle is a last resort. Scaring a cyclist won’t elicit the response that you desire. Yeah, the biker may now know you’re there, but only if they survive the heart attack you just gave them. keep in mind that two wheels with two one-inch contact patches is not the most stable of platforms.
- Don’t hang on the cyclist’s wheel. There are many drivers who because of either fear or kindness, don’t want to pass a cyclist until they have a 50 mile stretch of straight, flat road with unlimited visibility. While I appreciate what these drivers are trying to do, that behavior will often cause more problems than it eliminates. Riders with a car sitting on their rear wheel will frequently do stupid things to try to get out of the way. If you can’t pass, try and stay back a little further. It’s not always possible and riding on the bike’s wheel is certainly better than passing dangerously, but overall, more space is better.
- Give way, if you can. When you take a high-performance driving course, one of the first things you’re taught is that people tend to drive where they’re looking. I see this happen all the time when riding. On a nice wide road with a big shoulder, a car will cross the white line into the shoulder, only to quickly recover after it passes me. My guess is that they were looking at me, probably with the intent of keeping the passing situation safe. Of course, they did just the opposite. If you have the room, leave as much space for the bike as possible and realize that you might actually be closing the gap instead of opening it.
I think that just about does it. I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Please pass along any more that I haven’t mentioned. Of course, these are just my guidelines. You first need to make sure that you follow the laws of your state, town, municipality or whatever.[Update: one other thought for riders that I forgot in the original post . . . When a car is entering the road in front of you, always make eye contact with the driver. Never assume that they see you. In fact, if you don’t see their eyes, assume they haven’t seen you and either do something to make them notice you or avoid them alltogether.]