Car Culture: Taking safe road back to cycling
A friend recently offered a vintage ladies’ Schwinn — and since any mode of transport that burns calories instead of fossil fuels seems like a very good thing, I hope to be pedaling around on close-to-home errands this summer instead of firing up the hatchback.
Wanting to be a good biker, I looked up some state regulations and based on recent observations there is no question that there are just as many two-tire scofflaws are there are on four, giving credence to some of the bike-bashing reader emails I received following a recent column about annoying road habits.
We’ve all seen areas where a lot of protections for bicyclists exist, including special lanes and signage warning motorists to “share the road.” But some bikers — especially those with the fanciest bikes and most regalia — do seem to apply a double standard. Although the law requires them to follow the same traffic patterns and regulations as motorized vehicles, they often do not.
Just in the past few days:
■I have been spooked by two-wheelers zooming out unexpectedly from a one-way side street — in the wrong direction!
■Seen bikers blowing through stop signs where they are expected to halt.
■Watched bicyclists bypass long lines at a left-turn light by weaving in and out among waiting traffic, then actually darting out and turning left ahead of the lead car at the light.
■Been blocked on a two-lane country road by bikers riding abreast, chatting, when there was too much oncoming traffic for us backed-up motorists behind them to safely swing out and around. If you’re traveling 20 mph on a road customarily handling 55 mph traffic, I don’t care if you’re on a donkey, a farm tractor or a bicycle — pull over and let the cars pass.
■Been startled by the appearance of low-riding child trailers being towed in rush-hour commute time on busy city streets. Even with flags, those flimsy-looking little carts are often invisible when traffic is densely packed.
John Lindemayer, executive director of the Lansing-based advocacy group Michigan League of Bicyclists, agrees that bad-egg bikers exist and taint the reputations of the good ones.
“It is frustrating, and the source of a lot of the vitriol out there,” he said. When bicyclists break the rules, “they really stand out in drivers’ memories and all bicyclists get painted with the same broad brush.”
On the other hand, about two bicyclists are killed, every day of the year, in car-bike accidents, according to statistics published by the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center. And nearly 50,000 a year are injured. Clearly, cars and bikes are tangling all too often. Infrastructure improvements and heightened awareness will help, but mutual courtesy will go a long way, too.
Bikers have their own pet peeves about motorists, from skimpy passing clearances to cars popping out of driveways without looking, Lindenmayer said. And there’s also “the hook,” as bikers call it: When cars with a bicyclist on their right speed up and make a sharp right turn just in front of the biker in the curb lane.
As a returning bicyclist, I plan to follow the rules of the road. And as drivers, we also have to learn to interpret new inputs, as more bike-friendly and pedestrian-friendly traffic patterns emerge. Last fall I nearly mowed down a biker on a country road when pulling out of a parking lot. As I evaluated approaching 50 mph traffic for a break to make my turnout, the guy in the yellow shirt pumping his bike up the shoulder just didn’t make my radar screen. He had to halt and hop off his machine as my auto squealed out inches from his front tire. Fortunately it was a momentary red-faced embarrassment; a few more feet and it could have been a tragedy.
The league offers a number of resources worth a review by bicyclists and motorist alike at its website www.LMB.org and its related Share The Roads/Share The Experience site, www.sharemiroads.org, which aims to cut down on car-biker crashes.
“We don’t have air bags and seat belts and thousands of pounds of steel protecting us,” Lindenmayer said. “It’s really important that drivers be aware of their surroundings and avoid distractions. We’re all just trying to get where we need to go.”
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com.