Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Driving 101: Interacting with Bicyclists

This month, as we continue our ongoing Driving 101 series, I want to focus on interactions with one of the other primary forms of road users, cyclists. Despite being a more vulnerable road user, cyclists are in a rather unique position to be both a benefit and a challenge for drivers. They are a benefit in that the more cyclists there are, the fewer drivers there are clogging up our roads in their individual cars. However, they present a unique challenge in that they tend to travel at average speeds that are less than cars while in motion, but because of their narrow width, have the ability to move in-between other vehicles and catch up when cars are stuck in traffic. As an automotive enthusiast, I want to see more cyclists on the road to help reduce congestion. As a cycling enthusiast, I want to see greater awareness of cyclists and their rights from my fellow drivers.

To start, cyclists are considered vehicles in just about every single place in the US. This means that they are allowed to lawfully make use of the full width of a travel lane if it is necessary to do so for their safety. This also means that when interacting with them, drivers should treat them the same way they would another car, avoiding all of the usual illegal behaviors such as tailgaiting, but also give them extra space because they are much more vulnerable.

That is the most important fact to remember: bicyclists are much more vulnerable than the occupants of a car and thus extra care should be taken when interacting with them.

Since cyclists are allowed to take a full lane, but are less protected than a car, it is important for drivers to maintain a buffer around a cyclist at all times. For instance, if you are going to pass a cyclist, at a minimum, give them 3-feet of room when making the pass or, if possible, change lanes entirely so allow them full use of the lane they are occupying. If there is not another lane and there is not enough room to provide 3-feet of clearance, then reduce your speed and remain behind the cyclist at a safe distance until there is sufficient room to make a safe pass. A close pass may not seem like much to you as a driver cocooned inside a car, but to a cyclist the turbulence created by a car passing too closely at speed can be disorienting and even potentially dangerous.

Another frequent situation takes place when making a right turn. Since many cities that have bike lanes force drivers to cross over the bike lanes to enter a right-turn lane, it is important to pay extra attention for cyclists as you approach the turn lane. Just as you should when executing any lane change, an over-the-shoulder check for other vehicles, including cyclists, should be done before moving into the lane. The same applies for any right turn into a drive-way or intersection and absolutely if preparing to parallel park. If a bike lane is present, mentally keep track if you pass a cyclist and make sure that you look for them again before executing any of the above maneuvers. Most importantly of all, use your turn signals!

Speaking of parallel parking, if you cross over a bike lane to enter a parallel parking space, take extra care to check your mirrors as well as do a head check to make sure that there is not a cyclist approaching before opening your driver's door. The same should apply anyway in regular traffic flow, but extra precaution should be taken to look for cyclists. Getting "doored" is one of those things that every cyclist fears and is part of the reason why many cyclists ride as far away from the curb as possible when there are bike lanes and why many cyclists take up extra lane space when riding near parked cars.

Finally, when traffic is at a stop, it is not unusual for bicycle traffic to be able to continue to flow freely between cars parked along the side of the road and traffic stopped in the middle of the road. Take extra care to remember this and give cyclists extra room to maneuver. They will be appreciative of the space and by keeping them moving, it prevents them from taking up precious room in the general flow of traffic.

All of the situations mentioned here are extremely common, especially in major cities, which are seeing a resurgence of interest in cycling as a regular mode of transportation. If we as drivers do more to cooperate with cyclists, then more people will ride, leading to improved cycling infrastructure that will help keep reduce confrontations between cars and cyclists. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the more people who cycle, the fewer people who drive. The reduced congestion can only be a good thing.

Tags:  automotive, bicycle, cycling, driver education