[Nothing on this blog should be confused for legal advice. I am not a lawyer, public official, or officer of the law. You, the reader, are liable for your own behavior and knowledge.]

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Decision Tree

Here is a simplified decision tree for motorists who find themselves driving near cyclists:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Driver's Ed

Why didn't I learn all of this back in driver's ed?

That's a good question. Chances are you did learn some of it and, like most of what we all learned back then, have forgotten it. Unfortunately, though, most driver's education curricula focus almost entirely on how motorists should behave around other motorists, ignoring pedestrians, cyclists, and others whom motorists will inevitably encounter while on the road. If you are a person in a position to affect this kind of curriculum--which, hint, includes all of us as voters--keep in mind all that you've forgotten.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Night Rider

I just saw a cyclist riding at night. Isn't that unsafe?

Not necessarily. Most municipalities require cyclists who are riding any time between a half-hour before sunset and a half-hour after sunrise to have lights. These should be a solid white lamp in the front of the bike and a flashing red light in the rear. Beyond that, and irrespective of the time of day, it is best for cyclists to make themselves as visible as possible by dressing thoughtfully. At the one extreme is neon yellow and at the other is asphalt gray. Always keep an eye out.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Distracted Driving

Is it OK to text while I'm driving near a cyclist?

It is never OK to text while driving whether one is near a cyclist or not. Driving is an endeavor stocked with risk, and any distraction (e.g. eating, talking on the phone, etc.) increases the likelihood of disaster. Keep your focus on the road where it belongs.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Turning in Front of Cyclists

Is it OK for me to turn right at a stop if a cyclist is to my right?

If a cyclist is to your right at a stop sign or traffic signal, one of three things is going on. First, the cyclist could be in a designated bike lane in which case the law and safety require that you yield to the cyclist and wait to turn. Second, it's possible that you overcame the cyclist as s/he was approaching the stop which was discourteous and unsafe of you; you should have waited your turn. Defer to the cyclist. Finally, it's possible that the cyclist overcame you at the turn which was rude and dangerous of the cyclist; regardless, since the cyclist is more vulnerable, you should wait for the cyclist to proceed before turning.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Pullover (No, it's a cardigan, but thanks for noticing.)

If a cyclist knows that I'm behind him waiting to pass, why doesn't he just pull over and let me go around? I'm in a hurry!

Cyclists do not interrupt traffic; we are a part of the traffic! Image if you had to pull your car over on a freeway every time a faster motorist approached you from the rear. You'd constantly be pulling over and would never get anywhere. Consult the Car Analog Rule.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Pass and Turn

When a cyclist is behind me, do I need to worry when I make a turn that I might hit her or him?

If a cyclist is behind you, it is the cyclist's responsibility not to run into your car as you slow, stop, or turn just as it would be for any car that might be behind you. However, it is not OK to pass a cyclist and then slow down in from of them to make a turn, in effect cutting him or her off. Think about the Car Analog Rule, again. Would you pass a car only to slow down and turn? No. That would be rude (and likely unsafe) so don't do it to a cyclist. If you know that you're approaching a turn while you're waiting to pass a cyclist, do the safe thing, and simply wait to make your turn.

This often becomes a problem with bike lanes. Instead of recognizing cyclists as a part of traffic, bike lanes can give motorists the impression that bikes are separated and negligible. Unfortunately, this means that motorists will often forget to check that they are not cutting off cyclists who are behind them when crossing bike lanes to make right hand turns. Driving with the appropriate vigilance reduces these kinds of dangers.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Passing with Oncoming Traffic

Is it OK to pass a cyclist with oncoming traffic?

This is one that happens pretty frequently. The answer is no. On two-lane roads with traffic traveling in opposing directions, motorists should never pass a cyclist if there is oncoming traffic. If the motorist gives the cyclist a safe passing berth, it almost invariably means that the motorist has entered into the path of the oncoming motorist. The equally poor alternative is to buzz the cyclist. Even more, imagine what would happen if the cyclist should swerve or, even worse, fall. There simply isn't enough room for forgiveness. The motorist has the impossible choice of veering into oncoming motor traffic or hitting the cyclist. It is best to wait until the oncoming traffic has cleared to pass. Be patient. Be safe.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Signaling a Turn

How do I make sense of the hand signals that cyclists use to signal a turn?

In the past, cyclists would signal a left hand turn by extending the left arm parallel to the ground and a right hand turn by extending the left upper arm parallel to the ground and the forearm perpendicular to the ground forming an uppercase L. That was the past. This system started in the early days of cars, before automobiles had electric turn signals. Obviously, a driver in a typical car, old or new, is unable to reach his/her right arm out the right window so the L signal was created. Cyclists have two arms that are equally visible and equally capable of signaling turns so most cyclists will simply extend the left hand to the left for a left turn and the right hand to the right for a right turn. Occasionally, some cyclists use the antiquated system so it's still worth understanding.

Another signal that can be useful for motorists to understand is when a cyclist extends his/her hand down with the palm facing back. There are variations on this, but they all mean "I'm slowing," "I'm stopping," or "Stop! Do not pass!" Of course, there is also the easily interpreted "go around" wave.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Riding Further Left

Why do cyclists ride so far into traffic? Couldn't they get further to the right so I can pass?

Often, the first parts of the road to experience weathering and wear are the places that cyclists are supposed to ride, the right side of the road. This is the first place that potholes and bumps usually appear. Remember that most road bikes do not have suspension systems. (Those are typically reserved for mountain bikes.) Every knock, bump, and rattle is absorbed by the cyclist's butt, legs, and arms. It can often be grueling, and many of us have the bruises and saddle sores to show for it. Because of this, when we can, cyclists will try to ride a little further left, into the lane where roads tend to be in better shape. The big asterisk here is that cyclists should only do this when traffic allows.

One area of shared interest for both motorists and cyclists is in the condition of our roads. We can work together to improve these. Contact your local, state, and federal elected officials, and encourage them to support legislation and policy to regularly maintain our roadways. Vote for laws and referenda that increase funding for road construction and repair. Stop complaining mindlessly about how unreasonable your taxes are without first acknowledging the benefits--like quality roads--for which your tax dollars pay.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bike Lanes

Why don't cyclists just stick to the roads with designated bike lanes?

The same problems that arise with shoulders often accompany bike lanes (e.g. dangerous debris and a false sense of separation). In many municipalities, bike lanes--if they exist at all--do not cover enough distance to facilitate rides of any effective distance. Moreover, bike lanes are often intermittent, disappearing when the road becomes too narrow to accommodate them, like on bridges or at intersections, forcing cyclists to weave unpredictably in and out of traffic. Bike lanes can be good for cyclists who ride relatively short distances for transportation in areas with otherwise intimidating levels of motor traffic, but they come with risks. Ultimately, bikes belong on the road.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Constant Speed

Should I speed up or slow down when passing a cyclist?

Neither. Like passing other cars on a freeway, you should maintain your current speed if possible. Revving your engine can be intimidating, and there is certainly no need to go slowly; it only increases your contact time. It is often necessary for motorists to resume a normal speed after waiting behind a cyclist, but even in these cases, motorists can resume speed gradually and safely.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Approaching Stop Signs and Lights

Is it OK to pass a cyclist when approaching a stop sign or a traffic light?

Think again about the Car Analog Rule: Would you pass a car when immediately approaching a stop light/sign? Of course you wouldn't! It's just plain rude. In order to discourage this practice, many cyclists hedge further into the center of the lane as they approach stop lights/signs. Take this as a hint to wait your turn.

Correspondingly, cyclists should not pass motorists who are queued at a stop sign or traffic light. Many cyclists assume that because they can pass on the right, they should. This, however, violates all three of the General Rules. All of us should be patient.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Cutoff

When is it safe for me to turn into a lane where a cyclist is riding?

Many motorists think unconsciously along these lines: cyclist = slow = I can proceed. Motorists regularly underestimate how fast most cyclists travel. Competitive cyclists can reach speeds above 40 miles per hour on a flat stretch of road. Many cyclists reach speeds above 50 miles per hour when descending hills. Even beginner-level riders, those out for casual rides, and people on recovery rides will travel at average speeds above 10 miles per hour. It is always best to pause, gauge the approaching cyclist's speed, and proceed only when it is safe. It is often safer for the motorist to let the cyclist travel through the intersection, turn into the lane behind him/her, and then pass the cyclist when it is safe to do so than to cut the cyclist off.

Our cousins of the road, motorcyclists, often encounter similar problems. We are often invisible to motorists who think that roads belong to cars. Unlike that other kind of "biker," we don't have the option of loud pipes to announce our presence.

A related issue is that motorists should never turn onto a road parallel to a cyclist. Again, it is safer to wait for the rider to pass, turn, and then pass her/him when it is safe.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Passing in a No Passing Zone

Can I pass a cyclist by crossing the solid yellow line in a No Passing Zone?

Yes, you can (and should) pass a cyclist by crossing a solid line when it is safe to do so. In fact, there is an exception written into the traffic code for this in most places. Even if there is not, no police officer is likely to fault you for this--so long as you're being safe.

One place where this happens often is when a cyclist is climbing a hill. Since most hills obstruct the the view of oncoming traffic, the ascending lanes on hills tend to be No Passing Zones. Motorists should take extreme caution when passing cyclists in this situation as it is impossible to see oncoming traffic beyond the hill. When in doubt, be patient.

Many cyclists will move further right than they normally would in these situations, sometimes even into the shoulder, in order to allow faster traffic more room to pass; this, however, is not always possible or advisable and certainly isn't required.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Why do cyclists ride in the road and not out of my way in the shoulder?

The air displaced by cars and trucks tends to clear the road of debris. This debris ends up in the shoulder. It's often a mix of things like rocks, sticks, gravel, and sand that can cause a cyclist to crash along with other things like broken glass, nails, screws, and metal shards that can cause punctures (what cyclists call "flat tires"). If the shoulders were swept regularly, cyclists might be more inclined to ride there, but keeping shoulders clear is ultimately impractical.

Moreover, the size of shoulders varies considerably, even on a short stretch of a single road. It can vary from as much as six feet to zero inches. If cyclists attempted to ride in the shoulders where available, we would be weaving in and out of the road in unpredictable ways, putting ourselves and motorists in danger. It is far safer for cyclists to ride consistently in the part of the road that doesn't deviate, several feet into the right-hand side of the lane.

Further complicating things, motorists often mistake the shoulder marker as a barrier and will not observe adequate passing distances. Ironically, by riding in traffic, cyclists and motorists become safer.

Regardless, as vehicles, bikes belong in the road! It's a space for us to share.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Car Analog Rule

When I'm caught behind a cyclist stopped at a red light and I'd like to turn right, why doesn't the cyclist get out of my way so I can turn on red?

A second rule beyond the General Rules (i.e. safe? legal? courteous?) to which I've already alluded is, Would I do this if the bike was a car? If the answer is no, don't do it; bicycles are vehicles. I'll call this the Car Analog Rule. (A major warning here is that the opposite of this rule is not true. Just because you would do it if the bike was a car doesn't necessarily mean that it's acceptable to do to the bike.)

So, in this situation, would you expect a car that is in front of you at a red light waiting to go straight through the intersection to get out of your way so that you can turn right a few seconds sooner? Of course you wouldn't! Why would you expect a cyclist to behave any differently?

That said, as a cyclist, I regularly try to get as far left in the lane as safely possible when stopped at a red light to courteously allow a possible car behind me that might want to turn right that opportunity. This isn't always possible or advisable, though, and certainly isn't required. Be patient.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Never Honk at a Cyclist

When is it acceptable for me to honk my horn at a cyclist?

Never honk at a cyclist! This is one of those rare rules that cannot be intuitive to people who don't ride bikes regularly. As a motorist, you may think you're being courteous, but being honked at is terrifying. Car horns are designed to be loud enough to penetrate the steel shell and insulation of a car and to overcome the noise of the air displaced around the car, the sound of the engine, the noise of the HVAC and any music you might be listening to on the car's stereo. That ends up requiring quite a loud horn. Strip away the steel, insulation, wind, engine, HVAC, and music, and imagine how scary that loud noise could be. Regardless, there generally is not a need to alert cyclists of anything. It's stark how much more one can hear and sense when not enclosed in that steel shell, and we're used to being hyper-vigilant. Most honking comes from cars and trucks behind cyclists who are annoyed that they can't pass as quickly as they'd like or, more benevolently, who want to make us aware of their presence. Trust me, we know you're there, and we're trying to be as courteous as safety allows. Be patient, be safe, and keep others safe.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Why don't cyclists just ride on the sidewalk?

In virtually all municipalities, it is explicitly against the law to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk (except for young children). It is prohibited for a reason. People regularly underestimate how fast most cyclists travel. Competitive cyclists can reach speeds above 40 miles per hour on a flat stretch of road. Even beginner-level riders, those out for casual rides, and people on recovery rides will travel at average speeds above 10 miles per hour. Even these relatively slow speeds make walking unsafe for the pedestrians for whom sidewalks are intended. Anyone who has been buzzed, let alone struck, by a cyclist on a sidewalk knows how terrifying this can be.

Even if it weren't unsafe, it is simply impractical for cyclists to travel on the sidewalk. There are curbs and other impediments to navigate and hidden driveways that can pose serious danger. Further, there simply aren't enough miles of sidewalk in most places to satisfy the distances that most cyclists cover. Bicycles are vehicles and belong in the road.

I work on a college campus and live in a college town where bicycles tend to be more numerous, but sadly, this increased prominence of bicycles is not regularly accompanied by well-behaving bike owners. Many casual or novice cyclists are simply unaware that riding their bikes on the sidewalks is unsafe, illegal, and rude so it is incumbent on all of us to educate them in a neighborly manner. If you see a person riding his or her bike on the sidewalk, politely inform them of the law. Don't be afraid to contact your local police or sheriff's department and ask that they more consistently enforce the existing laws against bike-riding on sidewalks.

Friday, July 20, 2012

3-foot Passing Laws

How much space do I need to give when passing a cyclist?

In general, a three-foot clearance is considered the bare minimum. Currently, 19 states[1] have laws specifically codifying this, and Pennsylvania even has a four-foot passing law. There are three considerations that come along with this, however, of which motorists should be aware. First, three feet is the minimum. As your speed increases, so should your clearance. Three feet is fine if you're traveling at 25 or 30 miles per hours, but at speeds above 40 or 45 miles per hour, you should probably double that to at least six feet. Second, maintaining this minimum distance is the motorist's responsibility, not the cyclist's. The passing distance should be measured to the left edge of the cyclist's body, not the edge of the road or the shoulder of the road. Just because a cyclist is further into the lane than you might like, you do not have a right to crowd him/her. Third, if you are driving a larger vehicle, like a bus, truck, or semi, you need to yield more distance than a car. Nothing is quite as terrifying as being passed unexpectedly by a huge vehicle in close proximity. Remember, you are driving a vehicle that likely has more than two tons of mass compared to most cyclists and their machines which amount to less than 5% of that.

3 Feet Please is a great resource for those seeking more information on this subject.

[1] Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin

UPDATE (8/21/12): Here is more data on the varying passing laws from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The General Rules

How should I behave around cyclists?

Overall, this is fairly simple. The better question is, How should[1] I treat this person if s/he were in an automobile? In general (and with a few exceptions that I'll get to in future posts), treat cyclists like cars. This does actually work both ways: you should expect bikes to behave like cars. If you see cyclists running a red light/stop sign or turning without signaling, by all means, report them! They're making the rest of us less safe. Contrary to most people's assumptions, roads were created not for cars but for vehicles. Bicycles are vehicles.

Here are three general rules to use when you encounter a cyclist on the road.
  1. Is what I am doing safe?
  2. Is what I am doing legal?[2]
  3. Is what I am doing courteous?
If you're about to do something unsafe, don't do it. If you think it's safe but it's illegal, don't do it. If you think it's both safe and legal but it is rude, don't do it. Always remember to be patient. You, as a motorist, are sitting in a climate controlled steel shell on a soft, cushy chair. That cyclist is sitting on a narrow saddle, exposed to the elements, working hard to better her- or himself. Have some compassion, and Give 'em a break!

[1] Should, not would. Most of us don't drive very well around other cars, but most of us know how we should behave.

[2] Yes, being legal is second to being safe. Never forget that the law exists to keep us collectively safe and secure. No law can predict every circumstance, though, which is why it is always better to bend the law if it means keeping oneself or others safe.

First Post

Why this blog?

First of all, it will not be a place to bash motorists. (It certainly won't be a place to vent about cyclists.) Instead, I hope this blog becomes a place primarily where motorists can learn from cyclists and vice versa, a place of open and civil dialogue. I got the idea to start this after posting a "friendly reminder" on Facebook for motorists not to honk at cyclists. (I'll cover this in a future post.) I was surprised when several friends were confused by this. "Really? Is that bad?" While virtually all cyclists are also motorists, most motorists are not cyclists. All motorists will eventually encounter cyclists, though. We need a venue to educate each other and to share concerns. This blog is, I hope, a step toward that.

To begin, let's put things in context. Think about what cyclists are doing. There are four reasons that most cyclists ride: transportation, recreation, fitness, and competition. Each is completely and independently justified in and of itself. Cycling offers at least three major social benefits. First, bikes are one of the few true zero-emission vehicles. They reduce greenhouse gasses and other kinds of air pollution. Unlike the internal-combustion engine, bikes don't emit carbon dioxide, and unlike the new electric cars, bikes don't rely on an electric grid that is powered predominantly by carbon dioxide-spewing coal. Second, cycling reduces the chances that people will become a burden on the already strained healthcare system. Active people, on average, are healthier people. Third, the presence of cyclists on the road makes motorists safer. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the more cyclists that are around, the more aware and cautious drivers are forced to be; we can't simply put it on autopilot.

There you have it. Happy riding! Happy reading!