Recently, I had a conversation with a motorist who was perplexed by the way some cyclists behave on the road. She couldn't see why we would impede traffic by cycling in the middle of the lane. As far as she could see, all we are doing is preventing motorists from passing.
The problem is, motorists generally do not understand cycling - at all. They do not understand that most of us are not joyriding but commuting; they don't understand the dynamics of cycling or how we cyclists must act to preserve our safety. Many do not understand the law as it relates to cyclists; they do not understand cyclists' rights, nor do they understand that cycling laws, cyclists' rights and cyclists' actions on the road all arise out of the need for us to be safe. Often they think that safety involves doing what veteran cyclists know to be unsafe - i.e. keeping out of the way of traffic. So I think here, I'll try to explain a little of the unintuitive nature of cycling safety. Hopefully some motorists will see it and perhaps learn from it, but if not, maybe some cycling advocates can use it as a resource to help educate their motorist friends.
Here are some of the more common motorist criticisms I see, and my answers to them:
Cyclists Take Up the Whole Lane!
Well, here's the deal. Cycling safety is all about visibility. The most dangerous threat to a cyclist on the road is another vehicle. Knowing this, many road cyclists do their best to avoid interacting with other vehicles, so they ride in the gutter. In fact, so many of us ride in the gutter that many motorists believe that we are required to ride there, and that we're safer riding there. But riding in the gutter is a mistake. Why? Because when we ride in the gutter, we make ourselves less visible to other road users - this often results in collisions, especially at driveways and intersections, where a motorist has failed to see a cyclist and turns into him. It also results in glancing blows from cars whose drivers have tried to squeeze past the cyclist in the same lane.
It's far safer for cyclists to ride well into the road, so that we are as visible as we can be to other road users and so motorists know to change lanes when passing. Cars have brakes and steering wheels, and their drivers do not want to hit us. But in order to be able to avoid hitting us, they must see us first, and they must not be tempted to pass too closely.
Cyclists Impede Traffic!
Another major criticism is that cyclists go too slow and get in the way. I think this comes out of the general attitude that says that cycling is a leisure activity - so people just assume we're not doing anything useful. People generally fail to understand that most cyclists on the road are commuting to work or going somewhere they need to be. People see bikes as toys and not as tools.
However, the law is very clear - a bike is a vehicle and the vehicle in front has the right of way and basically owns the road - that applies to ALL vehicles, even bicycles. If you can't pass safely, you must wait until you can - hours if need be (in states where slow moving vehicles are not required to pull over), because the law recognizes that a cyclist traveling at a normal cycling speed (average 10mph) cannot be accused of impeding traffic. The assumption that a motorist has a right to a certain speed on the road is not the case.
Note that (having said what I said above) I should clarify that the average wait time behind a cyclist is measured in seconds, not hours. Most cyclists will, if they are not turning off the road soon, pull over to let faster moving traffic overtake. Of course, that wouldn't apply if the cyclist were traveling at, or close to, the speed limit for the road - yet I've had drivers honk at me when they were trying to speed on a low speed limit road. Again, there is no right to a certain speed on any road (speed limits are not minimums, nor are they recommended speeds - they are upper limits), and if a cyclist is traveling at a reasonable cycling speed on a narrow lane, drivers must wait until it's safe to overtake.
Cyclists Should Stay In the Bike Lane!
Many motorists seem to believe that, where a bike lane is provided, cyclists are required to use it. And this is indeed the case in a few states (my own state of Maryland being one of them). However, most states do not require bike lane use, and those that do so recognize that using the bike lane is often unsafe (i.e. when it's filled with debris or waterlogged, or when approaching an intersection) and even illegal (i.e. when turning left), and use is not required in those cases.
The fact is, bike lanes are often dangerous - many of them are striped in the door zone of parked cars - what they call a 'suicide lane' (for good reason). Also, as with riding in the gutter, bike lanes place cyclists out of the focal point of passing motorists. In numerous studies, bike lanes have been found to be more dangerous than the road because, as with any facility that removes cyclists from the traffic lane, visibility is reduced.
Cyclists Should Stay Off the Road!
The road appears dangerous to many people, and many believe that riding on the sidewalk or on the shoulder of the road would be safer because these facilities appear safe. But actually, cycling on such facilities causes many accidents, because sidewalk and shoulder riders are less visible and often come to grief at an intersection due to motorists simply failing to see them. Sidewalks are also often filled with obstructions that make traveling at cycling speeds risky. A study done in 1998 found that riding a bicycle on the sidewalk was 25 times more likely to result in a crash than was riding on a major street with no bike facilities.
Cyclists are required to use the road because that's the safest place to cycle - even when there's a shoulder or sidewalk, because shoulders and sidewalks are less safe than the road for cyclists. That's because riding on the shoulder or sidewalk places the cyclist outside of the focal point of drivers. Many cyclists are killed each year while riding on these facilities - they are clipped by passing cars, they are 'right hooked' by turning cars - both a result of a driver's tendency towards tunnel vision. Shoulder and sidewalk riding is quite unsafe. This is why cyclists have been lobbying to strike down laws that require shoulder use.
But The Law Says That Cyclists Should Ride Far To the Right!
Let us remember that 'as far right as is safe and/or practicable' (which is what most states' traffic law requires) is actually the center of the rightmost traffic lane that serves our destination. Every inch we ride farther right is less safe and less practicable. Unfortunately, some state laws also require that we cyclists ride on the 'right side' of the lane. This part of the law is, in practice, trying to get us killed. Especially so, given that most Law Enforcement Officers believe that cyclists are required to ride far right.
Why Must Cyclists Ride Two Abreast?
Cyclists riding two abreast are actually being safer and this actually makes overtaking easier. They are safer because they are effectively taking the lane (making drivers change lanes to pass, which has the effect of making passes safer), and it's far quicker to pass them than it is to pass two cyclists in single file formation. Often two cyclists in single file will tend to be passed too closely, because drivers tend to underestimate how long it takes to pass cyclists.
Unfortunately, many drivers don't recognize that cyclists riding abreast make it faster and safer for motorists to pass, and I see many comments from motorists saying that cyclists are behaving poorly by doing it. The tendency is for motorists to assume that cyclists belong far to the right, but the safest lane position to take when two-abreast cyclists move to single file would be a central position in the lane - so a motorist would gain nothing. This idea that two-abreast cycling holds up motorists is one of the biggest motorist misconceptions that I see online, and it causes a lot of misunderstanding between drivers and cyclists.
Cyclists Always Ignore Stop Signs!
Not always. For example, I am teaching my daughter always to obey Stop signs. She has never once ignored one.
But the fact is, ALL of us (not just cyclists) tend to break rules we can get away with, especially if those rules involve inconvenience. To a motorist, stopping at a Stop sign requires only that he push gently on the brake, yet this minor inconvenience results in so many motorists failing to stop at these signs that the practice has a name: the 'Hollywood' or 'California Stop'. To a cyclist, stopping at that same Stop sign means he loses his balance and loses his momentum - and starting from a stop is much more unbalanced than coasting through. And many times Stop signs are placed indiscriminately in quiet neighborhoods, purely as a way to calm traffic and reduce engine noise. Many times, when we are faced with a Stop sign on an empty street, there is no real reason (other than what seems an arbitrary law) to stop.
Cyclists run Stop signs because Stop signs are placed indiscriminately, because the law is not enforced, and because for the cyclist, there are major advantages in convenience and safety in running the sign.
But Surely Running Red Lights Is Dangerous!
Absolutely! And I do not understand why so many cyclists do it. Many say that it gets them ahead of traffic so that they are not passed by so many cars so closely. But I think this comes from taking a position in the road that is too close to the curb. If these cyclists rode farther out into the road, they would not have to fear traffic, because they would be controlling it. Also, they would not run the risk of being struck in the intersection where they ran the red light. Only with more education about the real safety issues can we prevent poor practices like red light jumping.
Well, the Reality Is That Roads Are Not Built For Cyclists. Roads Are Built For Cars!
Actually, no. Roads were made for cyclists. Cyclists built the US road system in the 1890s - it was improved specifically for cyclists to have a smooth surface on which to ride. These days, roads are built to accommodate all vehicles, from 18-wheelers to the humble bicycle. But roads are not really built for the vehicles - roads are built for people, and people have a choice of what vehicle they use on those roads. This is how it was in the past, how it is now, and how it always should be, as long as we value the freedom to travel.
A lot of cycling safety is unintuitive; the above are just a few examples of the most common misunderstandings. All drivers really have to do when dealing with cyclists is give them plenty of room. Most of cycling safety lane positioning (as promoted by the League of American Bicyclists - the officially recognized cycling safety organization in the US - and by Cycling Savvy and other cycling advocacy groups) is designed to encourage drivers to pass cyclists safely. That's why some of us (though far too few) ride our bicycles 'in the middle of the road'. It's just to give ourselves enough room to be safe.
Thankfully, cycling is actually a very safe activity. We hear a lot about cycling accidents, but the fact is, cycling has a lifetime risk of death nearly half that of driving. Motorists see cyclists in the road, with no airbags or crumple zones that motorists see as essential, and they assume that the cyclist is vulnerable. However, in practice, drivers are more vulnerable, even with their cars equipped with roll bars, airbags and crumple zones. This is most likely because motor vehicles travel at greatly higher speeds than cyclists do. The funny thing is, as a father who cycles with his daughter to school every day, I often get drivers telling me they would never cycle, as it's too dangerous with all the traffic. I've given up trying to explain to them that they're actually taking a greater risk than I am.
The Motorist's Reaction.
After I explained these things to the motorist, she wrote, "...you have changed my view on cyclists. I was one of those drivers that were exasperated by them but that is all changed now. I have a clearer view of the rights of cyclists and will adhere by them... What I thought was that cyclists felt like they owned the road and we just had to deal with it. Obviously, that is NOT the case and I thank you and applaud you for your very intelligent and informative answers."
A good result, I think. This shows how, when everyone involved is open to communication, everyone stands to benefit when we take some time to see both sides and to explain our perspective clearly.