Monday, July 14, 2008

Motorists and Cyclists, ch. 1

Readers in the DC area no doubt have heard of the recent death of a young woman in the city, who was hit and killed by a garbage truck while riding in a marked bike lane. The story has gotten a lot of attention online, and there are a variety of places you can go to look at and discuss it:

These are just a couple of pages from the Washington Post website. There are others if you search around a bit.

I can only imagine what her family and friends must be going through. To have someone with such promise and such a good spirit taken so young is awful. I only hope that her death helps further dialogue and action to prevent future deaths on our roads.

It certainly has inspired dialogue, at least online. What I find shocking is the amount of anti-cyclist venom that has bubbled up in some of the forums I've read. A number of writers imply, or even state outright, that she got what was coming to her. I can't imagine how someone can see it that way, even if it were known that the crash was her fault (fault has yet to be determined). To be fair, there are some pro-cycling folks making some asinine comments as well, but none seem as awful as the anti-cycling comments. Of course, I'm biased.

That being said, I've decided I want to start writing about the interaction of motorists and cyclists, from my own point of view, with some reference to other sources now and then. I will do my best to be fair and even-handed, but I am a cyclist first and foremost, so that will no doubt skew the discussion somewhat.

To start with, in thinking about the topic, I realized it was important to make it about "motorists" and "cyclists"... not "cars" and "bikes". The latter dehumanizes the whole issue, and it is ultimately a human issue. It's a person... somebody's child, somebody's parent, somebody's sibling, somebody's friend... who makes the decisions and who suffers the consequences. We all need to remember that.

So, to start with, I want to relate an incident that happened to me on Sunday morning. My six mile commute is split roughly half and half between a multi use path and roads, mostly residential streets. There is one stretch of about a half mile where I'm on a road with no shoulder and 35mph speed limit. I cover that stretch in something like 2 minutes or less, and make a point of only entering the road when I've got a healthy gap between me and any car that's going to be overtaking me. Most mornings, I time it so there is no car in sight for several hundred yards, which means they don't approach me until I'm about to turn off the road anyway, so if I slow them down at all, it's for a few seconds at most.

Sunday morning, I timed it pretty well. One car was approaching me from behind as I neared my turn, which is a left hand turn. Obeying the traffic laws, I was in the travel lane, to the right of center, but far enough into the lane that any passing vehicle would have to enter the opposing lane to pass. This prevents someone from attempting to pass me dangerously closely when there's oncoming traffic, and is absolutely allowed by law. As I neared the turn, I signaled with my left arm out, clearly indicating my intention to turn left. At the same time, I moved further into the lane to reinforce my intentions and to discourage anyone tempted to pass on my left. A moment before I actually started my turn, the car behind me, who had been behind me long enough to have seen my turn signal, pulled around me on the left. Had I started my turn a second sooner, he probably would have hit me!

Now, let's look at this... I was riding legally, signaling a left turn as required by law. The car behind me would have "lost" perhaps 10 seconds, tops, if he had simply waited while I made my turn. And if I had been in a MOTOR vehicle doing the exact same thing, I'm sure they would have waited... but because I was on a bicycle, for whatever reason he or she assumed the laws didn't apply and passing me on the left while I was making a left turn was acceptable. The kicker is, after passing me, he made a right turn into a side street perhaps 20 yards further on... so any time he "saved" by going around me was utterly pointless. And could have gotten me killed or severely injured.

The amazing thing is, it's not the first time this has happened to me, at this spot as well as others. The law is absolutely clear on this... a cyclist making a left turn from a roadway is allowed to and SHOULD get out into the lane, preferably near the centerline of the road, to make their left turn JUST LIKE A CAR. It's all part of the Uniform Vehicle Code, adopted to some degree by pretty much every state, which mandates that bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists, with certain specific exceptions... none of which make it okay to pass me in the situation described above.

So those of you out there in your cars... think about what you're doing before you do it, and even if it is "just a bicycle" remember that they have the same right to the road that you have, and require the same accommodations. In fact, here's a summary of the rules of the road for the Greater DC area, from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association:

Now, to be fair, I will say that there are a lot of bicyclists out there who do not obey the laws themselves or behave in a responsible and predictable manner. I take issue however with the sentiment expressed by many motorists that "all bicyclists flaunt the law"... don't condemn every cyclist for the bad behavior of some. And I won't condemn all motorists for the behavior of some of them. I will however periodically use this blog to describe incidents that I encounter out there on the road, in an attempt to further better relations and understanding among road users.

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