I haven’t gotten a lot of chances to ride my bike this winter. Blame the weather, my inability to get connected with my winter cycling buddy, other burdens and distractions.
Today’s ride gave me a chance to shake off some of rust, both physically and in my riding skills.
I was barely three blocks from home when a large SUV slapped the rust off with a move that is truly one of the most dangerous things a driver can do around someone on a bicycle, or any other non-automobile set of wheels. My bicycling guru, Howard Smith, took great pains several years ago when I got back into riding to warn me about this situation. I haven’t seen it in quite a while, but it is shocking when it happens.
I mention this to help you think about the situation and, I hope, avoid it.
Here’s the scenario:
I’m riding my bike on a through street, watching for traffic coming from the side streets.
Here’s the sequence of events:
1. A car approaches from behind as I approach I side street where I’ve already seen that no cars are waiting at the stop sign. There is no question that the driver of the approaching car has seen me.
2. The car passes me, swinging a little wide. The little bit of a wide swing actually contributes to the problem, because I start to believe that the driver is considerate and giving me extra space.
3. As the car passes, I start to accelerate after slowing slightly as the car approaches.
4. With no signal or other warning, the car makes a right turn across my path onto the side street. If you mapped out the scene, I was probably at the epicenter of the driver’s right side blind spot.
5. I hit the brakes hard and, although I’m not saying that I did this, someone without maximum self-control might start yelling at the driver, using language some might find inappropriate. The driver, looking in the rear view mirror and oblivious to what has just happened, wonders what my problem is.
6. (Optional) The cyclist spends most of the rest of his or her ride composing a blog post about the dangers drivers of large SUVs pose to cyclists.
What is shocking about this move is how sudden and unexpected it is and how horrified the driver of the car would be if he or she realized or saw what he or she had done. I’ll also note that I was much closer to the car when I hit the brakes than you might expect from the just-the-facts tone of my narrative.
For me, being three blocks into my ride, it actually helped get the blood and adrenalin flowing so I didn’t need much more warm-up.
So, I spent a good chunk of the rest of my ride thinking about safety. It’s a big issue because it seems like driver’s education classes dropped the chapter on sharing the road with bicycles many years ago. Many drivers simply do not know what to do around cyclists and unnecessarily place cyclists into danger. There is another set of drivers who are aggressively hostile toward cyclists, and proud of it. I actually know some of these people. I will not ride my bike in their neighborhoods.
My conclusion is that I can do nothing less than take on 100% of the effort on my safety and not rely on drivers to accept any of the burdens. It’s not that I ride super-cautiously, but I also assume that I am the one who will need to make the extra effort a meeting between and a driver.
Obviously, I believe that wearing a helmet is essential. I also will not wear headphones or listen to music while riding. Being able to hear cars and other dangers is a must.
What I’ve decided is the biggest danger is unpredictability. That’s the key element of danger in the scenario I sketched out above. The car simply does something much unexpected and, unfortunately, in a way that leaves little time to react. A pothole, grate or broken glass is not a big issue if I know where it is or see it far enough in advance. If I don’t know about it in advance, any of these can turn into a big problem.
What I’ve noticed lately is that it’s the large SUVs that often cause the biggest problems.
A common, easy-to-understand, problem comes with drivers of new SUVs who don’t have a good sense yet of how wide they are. They’ll often come much closer to a rider than they probably believe they have.
The other thing is the surprising number of times a driver of an SUV will look right at you and pull right out in front of you. It’s an amazing phenomenon that used to catch me off guard. You know that the driver is sitting up high enough to see everything and they are looking right at you, but they still pull out in front of you.
After a few of these experiences, I realized that looking at you is a far different thing than seeing you.
Now I have a “safety factor” I assign to any encounter with a car. It works like this:
Safety factor = (looking at you + paying attention + expectation + recognition)
Let me explain.
I wanted to end up with a number for the safety factor between 1 and 100. You might play with the weighting of the elements, but I give each of the four elements a possible score of 25 points. The higher the score, the better.
I think that you need to consider all four elements. Looking at you is not the same as seeing you. The driver must also be paying attention while looking and they must recognize you as someone on a bicycle they need to be concerned about. Recognition improves as expectation increases.
Expectation is a very important factor. During the winter, drivers simply do not expect to see people on bicycles. It’s cold and it’s not summer. During the winter, I assume a score of zero on expectation. This means that the best safety factor I expect when encountering a car in winter is 75 out of 100. In other words, I simply have to be more careful in the winter.
In the classic SUV pulling out in front of you scenario, I score a 25 for looking at you. I mean, they are looking right at me. Where the problem arises most often is in paying attention. If you see a cell phone in hand, you might as well drop the paying attention factor to zero.
Finally, the driver has to put the whole picture together. They must recognize you as a bicyclist who they must deal with as another vehicle on the road. I ride a red bike and usually wear bright colors, but I often notice that drivers do not recognize that I exist or will be surprised as if I appeared out of nowhere. The issue is one of recognition. If a driver is not expecting someone on a bike, they will generally only see cars – that’s what they are looking for.
So, I ride toward a large SUV ready to pull out from a side street. I see that the driver is talking on a cell phone while looking right at me. Assume it is winter time. My safety factor calculation probably goes to 25 and I give serious thought to stopping the bike, getting off of it and standing on the sidewalk or grass until the SUV driver has turned onto the road and gotten out of range.
Another element of safety is position. I can generally do a good job with things that happen in front of me, especially if they occur at a distant beyond the distance required for me to stop. I can also do a pretty good job reacting to things behind me, especially if I’m not wearing headphones or listening to music and if I use a rearview mirror.
The danger comes from something that happens beside me or a very short distance in front of me. I almost have no control over the situation. The “right turn after passing you” scenario involves both of these things.
Let me bring this to an end by talking about the three biggest dangers when riding on a bike trail, or, more accurately, a multi-purpose trail.
I actually found myself in the most dangerous bike trail scenario today, but it is a relatively common one.
In reverse order:
#3. Encountering anyone wearing headphones. It takes ears and eyes to be safe. Walkers, roller-bladers and cyclists listening to music on headphones have a tendency to “zone out.” A common effect is that they will “drift” on the path and, unaware of you, put themselves directly in your path.
#2. Inadequately supervised small children who are unfamiliar or unskilled in riding whatever set of wheels they are riding. Please notice all of the qualifiers. The problem is not the children – they are just being kids. It’s a parental problem. The closest I’ve ever come to hitting a child while riding a bike happened on a trail when I had all but come to a stop and a child did the most unexpected move that he could have made (the child was walking). The parents were walking close by, but not close enough and it was almost a real problem, even though I was barely moving and had moved almost as far out on the wrong side of the path as I could move.
#1. Dogs on any kind of long leash, but especially those reel-em-up leashes. Talk about the ultimate unpredictability. Many trails now seem to post rules on this issue. I like dogs (although I’m allergic to them), but they will do unpredictable things, especially if they encounter another dog. Giving a dog enough leash to let the dog cross the dividing line on a two-lane path is inviting a collision. The concept of a reel-in leash is a good one, but you need to know to use them. In my incident today, the owner had about 15 feet of leash out and the dog crossed over the lane right in front of me, bringing me to a stop while the owner figured out how to reel in the leash. A collision between a dog and a bike will not be a good thing for anyone, but tangling up a dog and a roller-blader would be very bad indeed.
As they say, hey, let’s all be careful out there.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]