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Vienna Pedaler: Remember Rules of the Road

As warm weather arrives, best practices for sharing the lanes with motorists

The early spring we seem to be having means we’ve suddenly got a lot more cyclists out and about. My last column was meant as so today we follow up with a similar reminder for sharing the roads with automobiles.

Even a mild winter like the one we had typically means a lot fewer folks riding, so drivers and cyclists are out of practice in dealing with one another. Let’s see if we can ease the transition a bit.

First, remember that as a cyclist on the road, you are generally expected to obey the same rules and regulations as a motorist. That means you must ride in the same direction as automobile traffic, NOT opposite.

Some people think it’s safer to face traffic, or believe they were taught at some point in the dim past that was the correct way to ride, but it is both illegal and dangerous. If you ride in the same direction as the rest of traffic, you make it much easier for drivers to understand and predict your next move, and they will be much more likely to see you.

Think about it... when you’re in your car, sitting at an intersection, do you expect to see a vehicle coming toward you from your right, in the near lane? No, you look to your left, because that’s where the cars are coming from.

I think one of the reasons people ride facing traffic is because they are really afraid of being hit from behind, and they think they can avoid that by facing cars. But a little math will help dissuade you of that idea. Look at it this way: if you are riding at 10 mph and cars are going 30 mph, if you ride in the same direction, they are only overtaking you at a relative speed of 20 mph, giving them more time to see and react to you.

If, on the other hand, you ride facing traffic, the effective “closing speed” is 40 mph, giving far less reaction time and causing a much greater impact in the awful event you do get hit.

While it may be hard to believe, statistics show that getting hit from behind is one of the least common bike/car accidents. So please, ride WITH traffic, not against.

In addition to riding with the flow of traffic, cyclists are required to keep as far to the right as practicable and safe under the given road conditions. Note that the law says “practicable and safe”, not “possible” ... you are NOT required to hug the curb, where there may be potholes, broken glass and the like, you are simply expected to keep generally to the right of faster moving traffic. The law also gives you the right to “take the lane” if need be, such as when the lane is too narrow for a car and a bike to pass side by side.

In such conditions, while it may take some getting used to, it’s actually safer, AND LEGAL, for you to occupy the lane, so that any overtaking traffic must wait until it is safe to pass you in the opposite lane. Obviously a measure of common sense and courtesy must be exercised on all sides, but remember that it can actually be far more dangerous to hug the edge of a narrow roadside with traffic passing too closely, than it is to take the lane.

As a cyclist, you are also required to obey ALL traffic signals, stop signs, and lane markings. Talk to any motorist in any major metropolitan area, and you’ll hear a litany of complaints against cyclists who flout such laws. And sad to say, there’s some truth in it.  We’ve all seen the cyclist “blow” through a stop sign without even pausing, and sworn under our breath at them. Such behavior is illegal, dangerous, and does nothing to ease the sometimes tense relations between motorists and riders.

But let’s not condemn all cyclists for the acts of a few, especially since drivers are far from perfect as well. And please, dear rider reader, do stop at stop signs and red lights ... it will help keep you alive and safe.

In addition to traffic signals and signs, cyclists are required to obey lane markings, which unfortunately is news to too many people, both riders and drivers. When you are on a multi-lane road, and come to a point where the far right lane becomes a right turn only lane, you as a cyclist must carefully move over to the “through” lane if you are going straight through the intersection. If you don’t, you put yourself at grave risk when you reach the intersection and try to go straight through when cars to your left are trying to make right turns.

A trickier situation is when you wish to make a left turn at an intersection on a bicycle. If there is a separate left turn lane, you must carefully navigate your way over to that lane before making your turn. If there is no left turn lane, you need to position yourself as close to the yellow dividing line, so traffic can safely pass to your right as you make your left turn. This is one of the more intimidating things to do for a novice cyclists, so it may take some practice. If all else fails, and you just can’t position yourself properly, then STOP and wait until traffic is totally clear and make your way across the intersection. In many cases, you may find it simplest to do a “dog leg”, meaning you stay to the right, cross the intersection, the stop at the corner to change direction, waiting for the light to change or traffic to clear.

It’s also vital to clearly signal your intentions to those around you. Hand signals, the kind many of us were taught in driver’s ed, are a great tool here, and are what the law and many drivers expect of you. The simplest and most obvious is the left turn signal, in which you extend your left arm, pointing in the direction you are going to move. For right turns, you have  the “driver’s” version of a turn signal, in which you extend your left arm, bent at the elbow so your fingers are pointed upward. This was designed to indicate a right turn from a car, where you obviously can’t stick your right arm out the window. As a cyclist, you CAN use your right arm to signal, and in most cases I find that’s the clearest indication of your intent, simply extending it outward and pointing your direction of travel. Finally, when slowing or stopping, you can extend your left arm, elbow bent with fingers pointing down, to indicate your actions.

Whenever possible, try to make eye contact with motorists, especially at intersections. This is helpful to both make sure they see you and to communicate your intentions to one another. Nods, gestures, facial expressions all can go a long way toward smoothing relations between us and our motorized fellow travelers.  And above all, stay alert and be aware of everything that is happening around you. Look before you move, and signal your intentions, and we’ll all be a lot safer out there.

Have any tips to contribute?  Please comment below.  I know this is a “hot” topic for both drivers and riders, and talking about it can only help.

For another resource, read John Allen's "Street Smarts."

(Coming next, just who are those folks in the brightly colored vests on the W&OD? Learn about the Trail Patrol, and all that they do, in the next Vienna Pedaler.)

Amelie Krikorian March 20, 2012 at 10:51 AM
Thank you for posting this. I hope our biking friends will take time to read this and remember that sometimes their unpredictable and illegal actions put them at risk!
Erik Weber March 20, 2012 at 02:13 PM
Definitely a great post, though for new cyclists I think it could use even more emphasis on the practicable not possible distinction. I've seen one accident and half a dozen close calls in the past 6 months from novice bike riders hugging the curb/parked cars and making themselves practically invisible to traffic. I also hope your next post will be one to drivers reminding them of cyclists' rights on the road and how to appropriately share road space with us!
B March 20, 2012 at 04:36 PM
Emphasis on the practical about lane position. The Virginia regs list about 12 exceptions to the rule "stay to the right" (like when maneuvering to a left turn only lane to turn left) to the point that there are very few situations where a cyclist is supposed to stay all the way over to the right. AASHTO guidelines state a minimum lane width of 14-feet is necessary for a car to overtake a cyclist in the same lane. In those situations a cyclists should stay to the right. Most urban lanes however according to AASHTO are 10-12 feet on urban arterials. So in most urban cases a cyclist should take the full lane. But in general a good tip sheet for first time cyclists. Urban cycling has a steep learning curve. Pay attention and learn the first 2 months before you try to be a bike courier. They make crazy stuff look easy, but it's a lot more dangerous than it looks.

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