Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Summertime Riding: Let the Games Begin

Often, I spend the winter longing for warmer months, so as we dip our toes officially into summer, I am finding that there is a true mix of emotions and reactions from others traveling on the roadways. My personal run-in's on the road often come into full bloom about this time of year, and much as I prefer to live and let live, there are some incidents that cause the fire inside to grow and I find myself living moments that seem entirely avoidable.

Yesterday, Cyclelicious posted about a "suicide wave" he experienced given by a motorist as Richard waited to make a left hand turn on a 4-lane road. If you're unfamiliar with this terminology, it's the idea that a person in a car stops the traffic behind him/her and waves the cyclist to cross in front of their stopped vehicle. The problem with this seemingly nice gesture being that when traffic is coming up behind the stopped car, those approaching may opt instead to go around and the cyclist ends up as road splatter. Not exactly what anyone wants.

The post was interesting timing for me as I've had a great deal of this going on lately. Perhaps it's the warmer temperatures and more motorists realizing that more than the usual number of bicycles are out on the roads, or perhaps some motorists are making a concerted effort to not appear discourteous. Regardless, it can be challenging to deal with these types of situations.

My most recent moment was about a week ago. Sam and I were pedaling back home from goodness knows where and we were approaching a stop sign. The traffic perpendicular to us had no stop signs or signals and so we waited for traffic to clear before crossing.

Right after this stop sign is a short hill (not exactly anyone's favorite on a bike - to lose momentum completely and then have to climb), but I've made my peace with it as I climb it regularly throughout the week.
Sam came to a stop, put his foot down briefly and then continued up the hill. I was a bit spaced out and have been suffering some back issues, so I wasn't confident I would make it across in time to out run the approaching vehicle. So, I sat, staring off in the other direction, waiting for the truck to pass.

It seemed to be taking an inordinately long time, so I turned to look back in the direction of the truck, only to see that the driver had stopped in the road and was waving me across. I smiled, but waved at him to continue forward. He still sat waiting, insisting that I cross in front of him, but I remained in place and continued to wave him on.

I understand that the driver was probably aware that my riding partner had already crossed, leaving me alone on the opposite side and was simply attempting to be courteous to allow me to get across, but I find this to be an incredibly dangerous thing to do as a cyclist -- to accept a motorists "wave" to cross the road.

One problem with accepting this wave is in fact the reasoning mentioned at the start. Another motorist might just as easily decide that they aren't going to stop (because they do have the right of way) and as I make my way across, there is potentially a dangerous situation for all involved. Additionally, in this particular instance, there is traffic coming from two other directions (the parallel traffic to the stopped truck traveling in the opposite direction, and those stopping on the other side of the road making a left hand turn).

I have yet to figure out the best way to deal with these situations. I appreciate motorists who attempt to stop traffic (especially in very busy areas) to allow me to cross on my bike, but at the same time, I know better than to do this because it has the possibility of ending very badly. I often wish I had the means to communicate with the driver to explain that while I appreciate the motive, it is really putting me in a horrible situation. Often, if s/he would just continue on as they should, things would go far more smoothly.

Interestingly enough, I had another incident at this same point of travel a few weeks prior.  I was approaching the stop sign, preparing to stop, as a motorist coming on the perpendicular road was preparing to make a left hand turn in front of me.
The building to the left of the picture (and usually the items sitting outside) block the view of the road from behind the stop sign at this intersection.
Now, I have developed a somewhat routine habit with this junction because the stop sign is set back a bit far to get a proper view. If I stop behind the sign, I cannot see the traffic approaching from my left, so I generally don't stop until I'm about two feet in front of the stop sign, putting me in a position to see approaching traffic from all ways/paths of travel.

On this occasion, as I slowed and prepared to put my foot down, the vehicle turning in front of me shouted out his window, "That IS a stop sign! You don't get to just roll through."

I had no intention of running the stop sign, and I was clearly slowing down, so yelling this in my direction did nothing, except perhaps make the driver feel as though he was somehow superior? I did stop - I just didn't stop where he would've liked. Of course, had he not been severely cutting the corner, this wouldn't have been an issue at all.

What I realize is that generally what I wish from others on the roads is to be treated as traffic. There's no need for a motorist to stop when s/he has the right of way. Generally, traffic and road patterns are well-studied and roads are set up to be as functional as possible. I appreciate the motorists who are trying to be kind and courteous, but they are often putting me in greater danger trying to be nice than they would if they just continued as they should.

Even with that, I also understand that bicycles cannot always function as motorists do. Sometimes, I need to stop in a different location than the posted signs. There are also rare instances when it's actually safer for me not to stop than it is to continue forward momentum. These are fewer and much more far between, but those rare circumstances do arise. While traffic flow is often highly studied, many roads are not set up for regular cycling traffic and what works in a car or truck does not necessarily always work while on a bicycle.

For example, as a motorist, I would never cut in front of all the other cars at a red light to try and be in front; but on my bicycle, I often find it far more dangerous to wait behind other traffic than to place myself at the front, next to the first stopped vehicle. This allows traffic from the opposite direction to see me more easily so they don't attempt to make their left turn behind the last car and end up hitting me (which has actually nearly happened in the last week as well when I waited behind all of the traffic).

So, I'm feeling my summer time riding armor being put on a piece at a time. I'm attempting to find new strategies for dealing with awkward road situations... and I'm kind of wishing that every time a driver's license is up for renewal, part of that test would require a person to take a ride on a bike in their city. I think we'd all have a lot more patience with each other if we knew what it was like to be in each others shoes.

Have you noticed any changes in your city now that the weather has warmed up? What strategies do you implement when dealing with motorists who are attempting to be courteous, but are actually putting you in potential danger? Are there times when you wish that the rules of the road were written differently for those on a bicycle versus driving a motorized vehicle?


  1. Obviously I was there, but this has happened to me so many times I can't count anymore. It actually scares me at this point when someone decides to break the rules and randomly stop for me, or another cyclist, but I have witnessed the same thing in a car, many, many times. They leave a blind spot for you to get nailed, and they think they are helping. I appreciate the sentiment, but you truly need to treat me like a car, and allow me to wait my "turn".

    1. It does happen frequently, but it seems to be happening more as the temps have warmed, I think. I try not to get frustrated with others on the roads, but some days I just wish they would do as they should and let me do as I need to as well.

  2. In this case I usually give a friendly wave, try to look totally exhausted, put both feet down, and reach toward my water bottle. This gives drivers the impression that I was planning to stop for a moment any way. It usually works pretty well, and they move on their way.

    I read a book about dog psychology once that said our dogs basically think of us as dogs with an asterisk. Dog* I think that's a pretty good way of explaining how I want to be treated on the road, as a car with an asterisk.

    About the "warmer" weather. My commute home today was 97-degrees and so humid that the so-called heat index was 109. Ick.

    1. It's been sticky and hot here too, Kendra. Probably not as sticky as your way, but more than I'd prefer, particularly since we are supposed to live in a "dry" climate. Of course, summer here tends to be much more humid than winter. I definitely feel for you.

      I love the idea of dogs thinking of us as a dog with an asterisk... and completely makes sense. It's probably why mine are so out of control as well (If Sam reads this, he'll say it's because I baby them with everything - and it's probably true). I think that's a great way of looking at cyclists in traffic though as well. Yes, we are a part of traffic, but there are simply moments when there have to be exceptions or slight deviations from what is considered "right" on the roads.

  3. Virginia doesn't make it easy for motorists or cyclists when it comes to trail crossings. Most of the trails in my neck of the woods have stop signs facing the trail. The confusing part is that those intersections have crosswalks, big yellow Bike/Trail Crossing signs, weird zig-zag lines on the street leading up to the intersections, and sometimes "yield" signs on the street. So... what does a motorist do? According to people on my community's Facebook page, cars are supposed to zoom on through and the county sheriffs were ticketing drivers this week who have yielded to cyclists and pedestrians at these weird intersections. I've been asking my county bicycling commission if there's any way to get a light put in at a particularly super busy trail/road intersection, but that prospect is mired in too much red tape.

    Now for regular streets intersecting with other streets, yeah, I don't want motorists to wave me through or "let" me go ahead of them if they have right of way. Much too risky.

    (BTW, hi! Network security has relaxed access to blogspot again. :-) )

    1. Hi Melanie! Long time no see. :O) I hope you're doing great.

      What an interesting set of circumstances in the scenario you've described. I can't imagine why motorists would be ticketed for doing what the signs tell them to do (yield). It is a shame that there isn't a way to get it somehow set up so that no one feels as though they're in danger when they reach one of these intersections. A light seems like a perfectly reasonable response, but I understand that they can get hung up for quite some time - if they happen at all.

      I recall for many years we were trying to get a signal out of our neighborhood which was an artery onto a highway. It was nearly impossible to get across on foot or bike. It took several major accidents and even deaths for it to come about, which is just sad. It shouldn't take losing lives in order to get things accomplished. I hope you have better success with getting your area in a better state of affairs.

  4. G.E., you are right on target with one of my biggest pet peeves. The nicey-nice driver that stops for a cyclist when they shouldn't. Unfortunately, the cyclist ends up the bad guy if they don't comply. An experienced cyclist will find a way to avoid this invitation to disaster. Interestingly, several commented above that "acting" class is a prerequisite for cycling. I say that tongue-in-cheek, of course, but unfortunately, it appears to be true. Make the driver think you are doing something else besides crossing the road.

    Melanie is also on target with her pursuit of an answer by visiting the local bicycling blog or Facebook page. Many communities have them and many cities have a bicycling planner or program manager. Both are avenues to get the word out. Education of drivers is key, in my book. Not only with the stopping when they shouldn't issue, but other issues - such as educating drivers on why an experienced cyclist rides a line out of range of car doors. Someday, we will live in a world where drivers will have been cyclists and will understand why cyclists do what they do. That world exists outside the U.S., so I know it can happen. In the meantime, I think we all need to promote education. Every school in the U.S. teaches young children how to cross the road safely. Some might actually teach something about road safety for bicycles. I think bicycle safety should be a mainstay of our education program everywhere.

    1. I have done that as well... pretending that I'm occupied with something else, rather than going out into the road. It does seem to appease motorists a bit better than just trying to wave them on. I really am a "can't we all just get along" sort of person, but I also really don't have a death wish, so whatever it takes to get through the situation.

      I hate to think this way, but I have said more than once that I wonder if "our" world here in the US will ever see better conditions for cyclists. I haven't given up hope, but it's frustrating to watch on a day to day basis. Education is probably one of of the best ways to begin educating everyone so we're all playing using the same rule book.

      Oddly, I had a dream last night during which I was riding on a road. I had come out into the lane because there was a lot of debris in my path and I was concerned about a potential fall. As I came out into the lane, I could hear traffic coming up behind me. Suddenly, I felt this great panic and I made a right hand turn, trying to seek refuge in a building near by. As I was walking into the building, two guys in cars were shooting at me. I didn't realize it at the time, but when I got inside the building, I realized one of them had hit me in the abdomen. Perhaps a little extreme (though not entirely as a cyclist was gunned down here about 3-4 weeks ago and they still haven't caught the shooter), but situations do have a way of escalating sometimes and I can't help but think it would be beneficial for others to know what it's like to be traveling on a busy road with traffic that can easily injure or kill us.


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