Empty Days

Sunday, August 08, 2004



Never follow the cyclist.

Ken Kifer rages a lot against bikers who don't follow traffic rules to a T, under the pretext that it's dangerous and that it makes motorists hate cyclists. Of course that would be me - I don't follow all the rules all the time, but I am mostly careful about traffic and I don't despise motorists: I share the road with them, and they with me, and motorists are more afraid of me than I of them - they could be charged with murder, after all.

On the other hand, a cyclist can still cause murder through no fault of their own. There is an interesting phenomenon that car-drivers should be told about in driving-school because it could endanger their lives: never to follow the hint from where a cyclist goes and assume that the way is clear or that the street is bi-directional and they can go there too.

There were situations in my riding where this follow-the-cyclist instinct nearly caused deathly accidents for car-drivers who followed my moves instead of thinking and looking for themselves.

Example: I was going against traffic and a car-driver from the side street stared at me instead of looking in the direction from where traffic was coming, and started crossing the road - I just had the time to signal ferociously for the driver to back down and only a swirl from high-speed incoming car avoided full side-collision. Is this my fault? Not exactly - the attention of the driver was caught by my approaching the intersection from the wrong direction, and she got focussed on her goal to cross before I did. As a result she paid no attention to the life-saving rule - not to cross a road that has no stop-signs without checking for high-speed car traffic.

Similar example: I am in a two-lane road with parked cars on the side. I've approached a red-light, there is a tall van parked on the corner that blocks the view into the side-street from a car who got to the intersection a little ahead of me. The light is red for us, but I can see that there is only one car coming from the side-street and that I have all the time I need to cross. The car-driver next to me can't see into the side-street yet follows my move forgetting the red-light - the car from the side-street honks to it furiously, luckily preventing it from advancing into collision.

Most recent example. Yesterday I was taking a leasurely ride in rich residential neighbourhoods with a variety of meandering streets and not much traffic. I was a bit ahead of a SUV coming into an intersection with a one-way road. I smoothly curve into the road, against traffic (there are no cars but the street is one-way and narrow). The SUV behind me begins the same move to follow me and I just have time to signal to it that it's taking a wrong direction so it has time to change course. The driver looks all nonplussed and puzzled from the discrepancy between my behavior and signs (the fact that all cars are parked in one direction usually means it's a one-way street, even if you can't see the sign).

I can understand that motorists would consider motorbikes similar to cars in behavior and follow their moves, just as they would follow the moves of other cars. But a cyclist is not a motorbiker - cyclists don't go on high-speed thruways, but they can go on sidewalks and they squeeze on the side of the traffic in streets which makes them more similar to pedestrians than motorbikers.

I never assume I can ride in front of a car as if I were myself a motorist, even when traffic is fairly slow.

The trade-off of this is that I don't consider it unthinkable to go on sidewalks, but I only do it when the traffic is too hectic, with too many cars parking and opening their doors, when there is almost no space to squeeze between parked cars and the traffic moving in lane, and all other conditions that make it impossible to ride on the road. However when I go on sidewalks, I do realize that pedestrians are more important than me, so I either ride really slow or stop and break to let people have right of the way and I don't try to pass impatiently unless there is enough space and I am sure no kid will decide to fall under my wheels. Eye contact, some respect, and patience - that's all there is to it.

I also don't think that it makes sense in city conditions to follow all traffic rules "as if" you were a car. You're not, you go much slower, you don't have all the rights of a car, there are too many streets and intersections, and you will lose quite a lot of time and effort stopping and starting at every sign instead of just breaking, checking for turning or incoming cars, and going through if there are none - red-light or not, stop-sign or not, and even wrong direction or not.

So basically the trade-off for not having all the rights of a car is the common-sensical ability to disregard some traffic rules. There are two ways of disregarding these rules - a foolhardly dangerous way, and a circumspect careful way. It also depends a lot on your ability to control the bike well. If you can't stop and balance without dismantling, it will make it more dangerous to disregard signs because you won't have time to check for dangers when you slow down - you will be ennoyed to dismantle instead of just pausing and continue, so you'll be driven to go right through at some speed rather than go full stop.

I don't like to see what some bike-courriers do in downtown traffic however. They sure have all the required skills and they could ride upside down for all I know, but I don't see how this is a reason for riding on the separating lane between two flows of dense traffic, or zig-zag between cars surprising every driver by your sudden appearances and disappearances from view (car-drivers can't see all around, I've never driven a car but even I know that), or scaring the shit out of pedestrians by flying right in front of them and so on and so forth. When people get too used to downtown traffic they become heedless that way. I've seen this in some business parts of Manhattan, NY, where bikers do unbelievable things in unbelievable traffic. It's even hard to be a pedestrian in NYC, let alone ride a bike like they do these guys. I hear they get run over fairly regularly - hardly a great surprise.

I've tried to bike in Paris a little bit but it's just way too hard there - too many streets are way too narrow to accomodate both cars and bike, and there are far more people than side-walk space. There are boroughs where you can bike, and there are others where you just can't - no matter what you do, you can't.

So basically I don't know what it means to bike in an environment where car-drivers have no clue about cyclists and don't know how to share the road with them. I don't know what Ken Kifers talks about when he says he militates for motorists to respect cyclists. I get all the respect I need in this city. It gotta be different on inter-city roads but I have no experience of those. I suppose if the road is only two way and there are no shoulders, then the motorist with his much higher speed gotta have a problem seeing that he needs to encroach on the opposite lane to pass the cyclist. If people are not used to cyclists being out there, it can get them nervous and ennoyed to either take risks or slow down - disoriented between the need to follow the speed of traffic and being pushed off into the wrong lane.

This kind of fear is something I see only rarely in town - usually it's a nasty old lady in a huge 1970's cadillac or chrystler honking at me bitterly because she can't envision the option of speeding up and encroaching on the opposite lane to pass me. I wonder what such a lady expects to achieve by honking at me: make me go at 30mph or maybe see me squashed into a parked car? The latter is more likely - usually such an old bitch waits for a chance to finally run me off the road altogether, speeding and honking triumphantly. The fact that this kind of thing usually happens on a distance as short as a 100 meters doesn't matter - it's a psychological thing, got nothing to do with real time lost or gained.

It could be that in Ken's days all motorists were similarly affected by the rare cyclist on the road - it forced them to take risks or practice a behavior they couldn't envision. So they got all nervous or bitter and bitchy. I think things have changed somewhat - there are more cyclists, cars are not as wide, and speeding to pass is not such a problem. On country roads a wide slow trailer is probably more of a problem for traffic than the slow yet narrow shape of a cyclist. However, narrow roads without shoulders still offer a wonderful opportunity to get killed - or ride off the road and get a lot of wonderful flats to boot.

With all my cycling, I can say that the only few accidents I ever had were due to me being foolish or careless or discoordinated (when I started biking after a long depression and was totally paranoid about everything). Only on one or two occasions I nearly missed a very bad accident due to a motorist being foolish and/or mean. That's a matter of luck - people make mistakes due to nervousness or absent-mindedness, not to mention those drunk or behaving as if they were.

I ride carefully as much as possible but I know that it is no garantee of an eternal safe-riding - Ken, the great legalist, got squashed by a drunk driver. Following rules does help - but you only die once, as they say.





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