[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.]

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!