Conquent: Without Limits
Conquent: Without Limits
John Bissell's Blog

Bicycling and being seen in traffic

2010-12-09 09:46:53
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There was recently an article posted on the Davis Bike Club list serve about traffic safety and bicycle commuting:

The article is interesting, though the statistics may have some fault (1. It was done in Australia where there are many differences in tolerances, road rules and population densities, 2, The study group was very small, 3. The study group was comprised of volunteers – all of whom knew they were being monitored). However, there is some intuitive correctness to the study as well. The basic point that it showed is that cyclists were more aware of their surroundings than the car drivers. I believe that must be true because we crash if we don’t pay attention to a lot of small details that don’t matter to cars, like road surface type, paint striping locations etc.

This article spurred many e-mails about how cars drivers don’t pay attention, don’t use signals, turn right on top of cyclists, turn left across the oncoming cyclists right-of way and general don’t notice that we are there. This line went on pointing out that the only thing auto-drivers are looking for is other cars. Many e-mails even talked about their invisibility as well lit motorcycle riders. There are many studies (some pointed out in this line) that show that people only see what they expect to see and that car drivers only expect to see cars and trucks.

Still more e-mails (and many of the same authors as the above type) lauded the importance of lights, reflectors, bright colored clothes, ankle cuffs, and other means of being seen.

Though I would not discount the importance of being seen too much, as I was reading these e-mails the basic contradiction kept coming to me: they don’t see you because you’re not a car. Lights, bright clothing and reflectors will help with the minority that is paying attention, but it still makes the basic false assumption that will lead to unsafe cycling behavior: “they will see me.” My basic safety program is to assume “they will not see me.” That assumption makes me take responsibility for all the traffic around me, and make changes to my riding line, speed and stopping based on that assumption.

Using that assumption, there are things you can do to make yourself be seen that have nothing to do with your brightness. They have more to do with your positioning in the lane. Note, to do any of these things, or to mange traffic in any way, you must have a mirror. You have to be able to see what is behind to know if you are going to be run over from behind.
1. Don’t ride right up against the curb – you won’t be seen.
2. If there is no shoulder (so all you have is a car lane to ride in) ride out far enough to make it impossible for cars to use that lane. Sometimes that will be in the right wheel track of the lane, sometimes in the left. By riding in this position, the drivers will notice an obstruction in their lane and will be forced to drive around. It also gives you room to get out of the way for the driver that doesn’t go around far enough.
3. On down hills, ride out in the lane, not in the shoulder or bike lane. Most drivers don’t look at there speedometers; If they see you, they think – bikes are slow, I must go faster. They will try to pass at high speeds, down hill, even if it is not safe. If you go out in the lane, they cannot pass, and often will look down at their speedometers and slow down. Don’t worry about impeding the traffic, your safety is not worth the few seconds the driver might save. Also riding in the shoulder or bike lane down hill puts you at other risks such as parked cars opening doors, cars pulling out of driveways, uneven pavement, pedestrians and more.

Some people think these tactics are illegal. Most traffic laws require the bike rider to stay as far to the right as practicable. However, they use the word practicable to give a certain vagueness. If the shoulder or bike lane is not safe, or the right side of the lane is not safe, then it is not practicable to ride in that unsafe place, and thus it is legal to take the lane. I know this to be a true interpretation of the law in California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

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