Saturday 23 November 2013

Road Hazards

I couldn’t make an exhaustive list of road hazards if I tried, there are too many. Not only that, but road hazards vary by geography, weather, road architecture, etc.

Still, I can make a list of the most common problems I have encountered on the road, and I suspect they will resonate with most urban riders. They are in no particular order.

1. Waiting to go straight through an intersection from the bike lane or curbside when there is a right turner beside you.

The primary issue is the driver thinking he or she is fast enough to “jump” you, e.g. turn in front of you in defiance of traffic law. My solution is to communicate my desire to ride straight through to the driver and get his or her assent.

Another common situation is the driver at the intersection in the right turn lane and you are in the straight through lane just to the left of it. On more than one occasion the driver in the right turn lane has made a last minute decision to go straight, and since it is hard to see their right turn signal when you are to the left of them, you may not know they have changed their minds. And anyway, as they are not supposed to go straight from the right lane, and most drivers don’t bother to signal when they are in a right turn lane, why would you even bother to check for a signal? When I have been in this situation and I’m not confident the driver will be making a right turn as they should I wave at the driver, point at them and point to the right, they generally nod to let me know what they are doing, or in certain cases turn on their signals. How do you know if a driver has changed his mind about the turn? You don’t, but I generally check the driver to see where they are looking when they are in the intersection. If they aren’t looking right then there’s a chance they may not be turning.

2. Waiting to make a left turn across traffic at an intersection with lights.

To make a left turn you have to be in the left hand lane, on the right hand side of it. So your first step is to switch lanes from the right lane, this involves shoulder checking before committing to the change and doing so between cars. Riding on the right hand side of the left lane is a position many cyclists find a bit unnerving, as they have fast moving traffic on both sides of them for a change. Nonetheless stay in the left lane and eventually you will come to the intersection. Stay on the right hand side of the left lane and indicate your left turn. If you don’t have an advanced green you move to the middle of the intersection like a car would and wait to make the turn in sequence. If you do have an advanced green then you cycle straight forward. Why not make a left turn right away? Well, there are cars that are going to want to make the tight left turn, so it is safest to cycle straight ahead (motorists will be turning away from you when you do this) then make a turn of 90 degrees further ahead, completing your left turn. I call this a “box corner” turn and it works very well to keep the cars and I separate on turns.

The chief challenges of this maneuver are getting into the left turn lane in the first place, which involves lane changes in fast traffic, and once you are there tolerating the presence of fast traffic on either side of you for a change. The actual turn itself is comparatively safe as you are never in the path of the left turning cars or the right turning cars.

3. Car approaching from behind with right turn light on.

The main idea here is that right turners want around you but may not want to wait for you to clear their intersection. If so, they may make a last minute decision to pass you and cut you off (bad) or ride your back wheel (bad). In the first case I recommended slowing down a bit when they pass you to ensure proper stopping distance. In the second case I recommended exiting the road if the driver was too aggressive and too close.

4. Traffic Exiting to Highway

If you are on a major artery that crosses a highway there will generally be an exit lane for highway traffic and one or two through lanes. The concern here is that traffic often has to “squeeze” to get into the exit lane (due to congestion) and traffic will often be speeding up to get to traffic speed. This is a bad combination for cyclists. Everyone involved should realize that a bike will not be going on the highway, so motorists should expect you to be in the straight through lane. So you have two choices. Either you ride at the right hand side of the middle or right straight through lane, or you dismount and ride on the sidewalk with pedestrians. The latter option is perfectly safe if you respect the pedestrian traffic.

The former option is also workable, but it is a bit intimidating for new cyclists. When you move forward in this situation you will have two lines of fast moving traffic, one on either side of you. I do this maneuver regularly on my way home down Keele and there are certain days when I decide against it as I’m not in the headspace to be between two lines of fast moving traffic. However, the method works just fine, and once you have lost your highway drivers to the exit things return to normal. There will be motorists who want to switch from the straight through lane to the exit, and they may be conflicted about whether to do it behind you or in front of you. I have been cut off on more than one occasion by someone who wants to switch to the exit lane at the last minute. The key here is to maintain your line and stay where you are supposed to be, the right hand side of the straight through lane, traffic will just go around you.

5. Four Way Stops

The general principle is to slow down, determine if you can see and hear well enough to assess the traffic situation, and move forward when the way is clear. If there is a line of traffic at the sign wait your turn in the traffic sequence and proceed when you have right of way. If you arrive to an intersection at the same time as a car in your lane, and you are both going forward, you can leave when they leave, using the car as “cover” against oncoming traffic.

6. Door Prizes

When you are cycling to the right of the curb and parked cars (whether in a bike lane or not) someone in a parked car can open a door suddenly and you can smash into it, going through or over the window, and potentially breaking your neck. There are a few options to reduce your risk in a situation like this. First, you can look at the driver’s side seat to determine if anyone is in the car. You can have false negatives (someone short was there and you didn’t see them), but you don’t get many false positives. When I see someone in the seat I slow down a bit in case they decide to leave suddenly. More generally I suggest slowing down whenever passing parked cars, and drive out as far from the cars as possible. In a bike lane area ride on the far left of the bike lane to stay as far away from doors as possible. Some cyclists ring their bells when they pass parked cars, this is a good idea but you can’t rely on it, as many drivers don’t hear you until they are already out of the car.

7. Driver in the traffic lane to the left of you slows down in front of you.

If a driver is in the left lane ahead of you (going in your direction) and they slow down while there is steady traffic in the right lane but no obvious left turn, there is a good chance they are planning switching to your lane, whether they signal it or not. Watch this kind of driver, as they will frequently feel they have time to switch to the lane in front of you when they are actually too close. You are safe if you are riding with the traffic, as the driver will not likely switch back into the lane when there is traffic there. For the most part cars underestimate how fast bikes can go.

8. Being last in the line of traffic.

Because bikes are slower than cars they are generally overtaken by them. The pack of cars passes you by, and when the last car passes a gap opens up between you. When you approach an intersection the distance between you and the last car matters a great deal. People waiting at four way stop intersections will often see the last car go through, not see you as you are too far back, check in the opposite direction for oncoming traffic, then go into the intersection without checking for you as they saw the “last” car go by already.
Anyone who has cycled in the city can probably tell of a time when they rode towards an intersection and watched as a car waiting to turn across their path decided to go as there appeared to be a lot of time left, but for longer vehicles (e.g trailer trucks) there can be close calls. When I approach a four way stop like this I slow down, stand up in my saddle to be seen, and if there is a car waiting at the intersection I ensure they have seen me (by making eye contact with the driver) before committing to the intersection. Ultimately, if a car is waiting at an intersection as you approach you can’t know if they are waiting for you or not. In my one and only cycling accident, many years before I regularly commuted, I was hit by a car which had been “waiting” at the intersection for quite some time after the last car went through. I assumed it was waiting for me, and didn’t bother making eye contact with the driver. But in actuality the driver was on the phone and had stopped there to talk. The driver looked at the last car going through, checked in the other direction and rolled out when it was clear. I wasn’t noticed at all.

One of the things I realized after this experience was that speed was a factor, if I had been going more slowly (as I now would in a situation like this) then the car would have had more of a chance to see me. I would also have had more time to make eye contact with the driver.

9. Rejoining the traffic flow.

Getting back into traffic requires extra vigilance. According to Forester, 23% of urban car-bike collisions happen on reentering roadways. The watchword here is to either reenter at an intersection or reenter from the side of the road, but to only do so when there is no traffic in the lane you wish to enter. Riding the sidewalk at full speed then exiting on to the regular road (whether from the side or when crossing an intersection in the pedestrian walkway) is both highly illegal and very risky. I only reenter on to the road when it is empty, that way I can ensure that I do not cause any problems for the existing traffic flow.
On a related note, you are generally expected to dismount your bike and walk it across a pedestrian crosswalk. I have never seen someone ticketed for riding slowly on a mostly deserted sidewalk, I have seen cyclists ticketed for cycling quickly across a pedestrian crosswalk while in use by pedestrians. If I wait with the pedestrians to cross I generally ride just outside of the crosswalk so I can move as fast as I want to.

10.  Risks associated with different varieties of vehicle.

I have no official statistics on this, but many years of riding experience has made me amply aware of which vehicles tend to present me with the greatest threat on the road. In rough order of danger, here is a list of vehicle types I have encountered on the road
1. Large-commercial and non-commercial vehicles without specially trained drivers
2. Transit vehicles (buses)
3. Taxis
4. Small regular cars
5. Large regular cars
6. Large commercial vehicles with specialized drivers
7. High-Performance cars

I have had the most problems with people driving larger sized vehicles, commercial or otherwise (e.g. cube vans) who were not properly trained for those vehicles. For example, people driving moving vans; people who were not formally trained to drive these vehicles and don’t normally drive them. Larger vehicles such as mini-vans have also proven a problem, as many of their drivers are not used to their size either. Transit vehicles are a mixed bag, but for the most part I find that bus drivers are not good to cyclists, they have a tendency to either come up right behind me or to squeeze me out as they close to the curb. Taxis are a mixed bag too, but to be honest I have had more problems than not with taxis. I suspect this is due to the fact that many new taxi drivers take the job out of necessity, and may not have the driving skills.

Most truck drivers (e.g. pickup trucks) tend to be fairly competent, and trained and licensed drivers of commercial vehicles like big rigs tend to be the best drivers of all, as they have been trained to drive well and they risk losing their licence and their livelihood if they have a collision. This is one of the reasons why I advocate for using commercial and service roads to ensure safer cycling, they tend to be thinly populated and truck drivers are fairly good to you. High performance car drivers (e.g. sportscar drivers) for the most part are good at controlling their vehicles and desperately concerned not to get them dented or scratched, so they tend to be good to me on the road. I have detected no correlations in terms of driving quality and gender or nationality.

For the most part I tend to pay more attention to vehicles (whether they be behind or in front) when they are one of the first 3 on my list. If they are behind me and I’m not comfortable I may exit the road. If they are in front and concerning me I slow down. There is, of course, no absolute rule here, mini-van drivers can be exemplary and regular car drivers can be atrocious. Still, when I see one of the more egregious offenders I give them a wider berth. Case the n point on my regular commute there is an intersection (at St. Clair and Oakwood) where the section of Oakwood North of St. Clair is “offset” from the section South of St. Clair. The southbound portion of the road is further West, so when I am driving South on Oakwood approaching St. Clair the traffic beside me has to turn a bit to the right (West) to get over to Oakwood South of St. Clair. On a consistent basis vehicles in the first three categories misjudge the distance between the curb and their vehicles when they turn slightly to the right, squeezing me out. Now when I am approaching the intersection I check my mirror and if any of the worst offenders are nearby I slow down a bit so I’m not at the corner when one of those vehicles directly passes.

11. Cyclists disobeying the road rules

I could write a book on this one alone. I’m not talking about the cyclist who forgets to signal, or the one that rides a bit too far out from the curb. These are small sins that are easy to overlook. I’m thinking here of the cyclist who rides the wrong way down a one way street, or the cyclist who weaves in and out of traffic, or the cyclist who crosses an intersection on a red light as they think they can beat the intersecting traffic.

In addition to being at risk for collision with cars rogue cyclists are a risk to all other cyclists on the road. The accident statistics Forester cites bear this observation out, the percentage of collisions between bikes and cars is about the same as that between bikes and bikes. The problem is that it is often easier to determine what cars are doing as they are larger (so there are some places they cannot go, such as the sidewalk) and they have easily activated signals. You can also tell when a car is braking or backing up thanks to automatic lights. Bikes are the worst possible combination of speed, maneuverability, size and opacity of intent (e.g. it is difficult to determine what the cyclist is doing). Cyclists frequently don’t signal, they can go pretty much wherever they want, and they lack automatic lights.

There are basically two situations of interest to you when you are getting close to other cyclists, either you will be passing them or they will be passing you. If you are passing them be sure to remember that you are silent on the road, so unless the cyclists ahead has a mirror and is using it they will likely not know you are coming. Thus if you plan to pass a cyclist up ahead you should ring your bell to let them know. When you start to get closer check your mirror to see if you will be able to pull out to go around them. Some more thoughtful cyclists will pull over to the far right of the road or bike lane to let you by, others will stay in place forcing you to get closer to traffic. In either case, take your time, you can always wait for the traffic to clear to make your pass.

If you are approaching cyclists waiting at an intersection do not attempt to “jump” them or squeeze by to take traffic priority, instead get into the line of bicycles at the end and wait for your turn. On that note I believe it is never a good idea to ride side by side on the roadway, bike lane or not, unless it is utterly devoid of motor-vehicle traffic. There is a temptation to “ride beside” fellow cyclists, but it significantly increases your “traffic footprint”, or conversely it shrinks your effective pocket on the side of the road as you are sharing it with another bike.

If the cyclist is passing you there are a few choices. First off, if you see someone behind you speeding up then you can either put the pedal to the metal and try and stay ahead, or you can let them pass. When I see someone approaching I move slightly to the right (to let them know I have heard their bell or seen them coming) and I slow down a touch, to get them past me faster. If someone is riding fast and then settles in behind me I will generally “wave them” on, letting them know I would prefer if they went ahead.

The watchword here is similar to that on the bike path or trail, when you are passing someone you have to make yourself known as you can’t be sure you have been seen or heard. In addition, if someone wants to pass you, make space as much as possible. In principle a fast moving bike is no different than a fast moving car, make space for it as you would for an automobile, and hopefully they will extend you the same courtesy.

Outside of these specific examples of potentially dangerous situations, I have two other general observations that will help you to drive safer. First drivers frequently misjudge the speed of approaching cyclists, in both directions (e.g. sometimes they think you are faster than you are, sometimes slower). There is of course no systematic way to compensate for this, but t I do have a few observations to make. First, if a motorist thinks you are faster than you actually are, they may change their minds about waiting for you to clear an intersection before making a turn. I have had this happen dozens of times, I approach an intersection without any cars behind me, and there is a vehicle waiting to make a left turn across my lane. They wait as I approach, and then when I am quite close to the intersection they decide to make the turn as they thought I was faster than I actually was. 

The only suggestion I have here is to slow down slightly as you get closer to the intersection so, if need be, you can make a sharp right turn if the vehicle starts up at the last minute. This is not without risk of course, you could go over if you are riding too fast, or you could overshoot the turn and hit a car waiting to make a right at the intersection. Still, anything is preferable to a head on collision with an approaching vehicle.  The other suggestion is to make eye contact with the driver waiting to make the left, when I do this they will frequently wave me through.

The other general point I wanted to reiterate is that, for the most part, drivers do not look at sidewalks as they drive. They rely on their peripheral vision with respect to sidewalks as that is usually sufficient to spot any pedestrians who might want to get on to the road. What this means is that they will not necessarily notice a bike if they make a right turn on to the sidewalk, especially as bikes can come up rather suddenly as the driver slows down before making the turn. And as mentioned before, they will not be expecting you to hop off the sidewalk back into moving traffic. Thus the best thing to do when encountering a right turner or when riding the sidewalk while there is traffic beside you on the road is to moderate your speed and watch approaching traffic in your mirror to spot potential turners.



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