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Cyclists’ Rights & Making it Right in the Media

USA Today’s Drive On Blog recently had a provocative piece asking whether motorists have let cyclists rights go too far – apparently missing the irony that it was cyclists in the 1880s that literally paved the way for motor vehicles, while simultaneously laboring under the misunderstanding that people’s right to use the public right of way is held at the whim of motorists.

While no doubt hoping to stir a lively debate, the author rehashed the tired – and false – notion that motorists and cyclists are at war and cannot coexist peacefully. The overwhelming majority of cyclists has absolutely no intention or desire to deliberately obstruct motorists. A tiny minority of riders may be oblivious and thoughtless about what’s going on behind them – and very, very occasionally a critical mass ride or equivalent will deliberately fill up a street or intersection for a few minutes, once a month, in a handful of cities across the country. Not exactly apocalyptic stuff.

To be honest, drivers are very much more effective at clogging up city streets, twice a day, every work day, 52 weeks of the year, all by themselves without any help from cyclists. Seriously, if a few more people walked, took transit or biked instead…?!

In one case highlighted in the article, a driver – apparently already notorious among the Los Angeles bicycling community for similar prior behavior – passed a group of cyclists heading down a canyon road and deliberately slammed on the brakes in front of them, with fairly obvious consequences. He was mad at having to wait behind them.

By chance, my son and I were in the LA area the week after this happened. As we drove down some of the amazing canyon roads, at the speed limit, we were illegally passed by impatient motorists who crossed the solid yellow center lines on blind corners and as we approached intersections – not just once or twice, but enough times that it became something of a standing joke between us. Except that it isn’t funny when people get hurt.

The other case involved a Maryland driver who hit and killed a cyclist in front of her that she “didn’t see”. The USA Today article, local media and even early statements from the Maryland Highway Patrol suggested that if the rider had been in the right portion of the lane instead of the middle, the crash might have been prevented – a little hard to fathom, given that the motorist didn’t see the cyclist when he was straight in front of her. Surely we should expect drivers to be aware of what is going on right in front of them – and surely the news media and police should bolster that expectation, not excuse careless, dangerous or inattentive driving.

The author contacted the League for a “little perspective”. He used a “little” of what Jeff Peel had to say in response. He actually managed to single out phrases that had both cyclists and motorists irritated with us at the same time, which is no small feat!

Our Smart Cycling program teach that there are times when cyclists do need to take the lane, even on streets with bike lanes: when the bike lane or right hand side of the travel lane is blocked, or has a dangerous drainage grate or pothole, or has broken glass, piles of snow or leaves – all things which can cause a cyclist to crash. It’s really no different for motorists encountering delivery trucks, wheel-swallowing potholes, broken down vehicles, illegally parked cars, etc. You don’t just drive over them if you can help it.

There may be times when the travel lane is simply too narrow to share side by side with a car, and rather than ride in the gutter or on the sidewalk (surprising to many, sidewalks are among THE most likely places for everyday cyclists to get in a crash with a car) it is safer for the bicyclist and the motorist for the cyclist to ride in the center of the lane. Not to get in the way; and not on the interstate. A cyclist is more visible, and frankly more predictable, where you can see them and see their intentions.

There are times when a cyclist may be going straight ahead and there’s a right turn only lane – to the motorist, it may appear that the cyclist is “in the middle of the road”; to the cyclist, they are just trying to get where they are going without having someone turn right in front of them. The same is true if a cyclist is making a left turn – they should usually be making it from the left side of the lane or left-turn lane.

Truthfully, this whole debate isn’t really just about bicyclists and bicycling versus motorists and cars – even though that makes for better copy and more strident discussion. It’s about civility and safety on our streets, for which we all share responsibility. There are rogue cyclists and rogue drivers; and failure to comply with traffic laws – be they stop signs for cyclists or speed limits for motorists – is sadly endemic in our culture, and we tolerate it at our individual and collective peril every time we hit the road.

And don’t even get me started on cell phone use and texting while driving…or cycling.

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