Cyclists, drivers seek harmony on the road

craig.hill@thenewstribune.comMay 27, 2012 

Bike long enough and you will be flipped off, hollered at, mooned or honked at for no good reason.

Drive long enough and you’ll be cut off or have a near miss with a cyclist.

“There are a lot of great drivers and a lot of great cyclists out there,” said Blake Trask of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington. “And there are crummy drivers and crummy cyclists.”

Washington state law clearly states that cyclists and drivers must share the roads. But for some reason we still too often do this the way children share toys.

Mine! Me first! Leave me alone!

Blaine, a 60-year-old Spanaway resident, is so fed up with cyclists he asked that I don’t use his last name for this column. “Serious cyclists are rather militant these days,” he said via email.

He says cyclists are “wonderfully egotistic” and act “entitled.”

Bob Myrick, a local cycling advocate, has been hit by cars and heckled by motorists, but he keeps peddling pedaling in hopes of cultivating better and safer interactions on the road.

He says the best way for road users to get along is for more people to ride bikes. He and other advocates point to research such as a 2003 University of New England study that concluded that cyclist-related accidents decrease when more cyclists use the roads.

“Motorists get used to seeing you and cyclists start to get more and more respect,” Myrick said.

But, how likely are people to bike if they feel unsafe and unwanted?

“Yes,” Myrick said, “it’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation.”

State Patrol trooper Guy Gill has responded to numerous vehicle-bike accidents and says sharing the road requires “effort on both parts.”

So, as a cyclist and motorist, I’m doing my part right here by offering a 10-step guide to road harmony.

STEP 1: KNOW THE RULES

I recently spoke with a motorist who told me he couldn’t stand cyclists because they’re always breaking the rules. I asked for specifics.

They ride side-by-side, he said. They ride on the road when a bike lane, path or sidewalk is available, he said. They go through stop signs as groups instead of one at a time, he said.

“You realize,” I replied, “Everything you just mentioned is legal.”

“OK,” he responded. “Then I don’t like the law.”

This seems to be where a lot of people, cyclists and motorists, end up, they get ideas of what the laws should be but don’t actually know what they are. Not liking the law is not a good enough reason to get outraged with people who aren’t doing anything wrong.

If you really must lean on your horn, drive to Olympia and honk at your lawmakers.

This goes for cyclists too? Know the rules.

Yes, you have to stop at stop signs and stoplights. Yes, you have to wear a helmet in unincorporated Pierce County (and most cities including Tacoma) and all of King County even though it’s not required by state law.

And, no, you can’t wear headphones while riding on the road.

STEP 2: CHOOSE ROUTES WISELY

Did you know that it’s legal for cyclists to ride on most of Interstate 5 and Interstate 90?

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the wisest choice.

Many times there are alternative routes that will take you away from congested or less bike friendly roads. Pierce and Thurston counties and the Washington Department of Transportation offer bike maps for planning safe routes.

“These maps are great,” Myrick said. “And it’s also a good idea to travel outside the busy commute time if you can.”

STEP 3: ACT INVISIBLE

Gill says when a motorist hits a cyclists the most common response is “I didn’t see them.”

“Don’t ever assume that (a motorist) sees you,” Gill said. “When I give safety talks I tell cyclists to pretend like they are invisible. Use your safety lights and vests.”

Ever wonder why cyclists often wear loud jerseys when they ride? It’s not entirely because they look cool. They’re trying to give motorists a better chance of seeing them.

STEP 4: THINK LIKE A DRIVER

Ernie Bay, a cycling advocate from Puyallup, told me recently he almost hit a cyclist while making a right turn in his car. Bay looked both ways and signaled, but as he turned a cyclist darted off the sidewalk parallel to him on the right.

Near misses like this can be avoided if cyclists are a little more thoughtful. Not just understanding they are required by law to follow pedestrian rules when riding on a sidewalk, but anticipating what drivers will do and what they are looking at.

“Think like a driver,” says Diane Wiatr, mobility planner of the City of Tacoma.

This shouldn’t be too difficult, because most cyclists are also motorists.

STEP 5: STOP HONKING

A long time ago somebody (probably the same people who decided you need to wait an hour after eating before getting in the pool) decided it was a good idea to honk when passing a cyclist.

“I’ve never heard of that (honking being the appropriate practice),” Gill said. “They might mean it as a courtesy but it is maybe not the best practice. It could startle a cyclist.”

In some situations, a honk might be appropriate, but do so at an appropriate distance. Horns, designed to be heard by drivers inside cars, are particularly loud to cyclists.

STEP 6: DON’T HATE

Of all the negative interaction I’ve had with motorists, there’s one thing I do that tends to bother them the most.

I wear spandex.

I’ve been flipped off, whistled at, had beer bottles thrown at me and called enough dirty names to fill a book just for wearing bike shorts. Some cyclists, obviously with more appealing backsides than me, have told me about passengers in cars even reaching out their windows to slap or pinch them. (FYI: This could get you cited for assault, Gill said.)

OK, motorists, let’s get something straight here. We know these tight shorts don’t look cool.

There’s a very practical reason for this skin-tight attire. Bike shorts are much more comfortable, hygienic and aerodynamic than more flattering shorts. Especially on long rides.

But gentlemen, be courteous. For the sake of everybody, please stick with black shorts.

You should appreciate cyclists, Wiatr and Gill said. Each cyclist signifies a little less pollution and one less car you’ll be stuck behind during rush hour.

So next time you see a cyclist, show some love. Wave with all five fingers instead of one.

STEP 7: RELAX

Why is it that motorists and cyclists seem to get especially upset when they have negative interactions?

We seem so much quicker to forget when a fellow motorist cuts us off. Perhaps this has to do with the vulnerability of the cyclist. A little incidental contact very easily can result in a serious injury or worse. Likewise, a mistake by a cyclist could leave a driver suddenly at the wheel of a vehicle that just killed somebody.

Trask said people need to recognize why they’re getting so upset. And they should recognize that it doesn’t really make sense to hold grudges based on a handful of negative experiences when most interactions are safe.

“People sometimes miss things,” he said. “Everybody just needs to take a deep breath and relax.”

STEP 8: MIND YOUR DOOR

Sharing the road with moving cars is nerve racking for cyclists, but so is driving past parked cars.

Motorists exiting their cars can inadvertently cause a deadly road block when they open their doors. Cyclists can crash into the door or veer into traffic.

Riders call this “getting doored.”

The fix. Cyclists should stay as far away from the cars as they safely can and motorists should make a habit of checking their rear view mirrors before opening the doors. In fact, state laws requires motorists to make sure it’s safe before open your door. It’s also illegal to leave your door open.

STEP 9: 3 FEET (OR MORE)

“When I pass a cyclist I try to give them as wide a berth as possible,” Bay said.

Washington state law says motorists need to give cyclists “a safe distance to clearly avoid coming into contact” when passing. How much space is safe?

Cyclists would like at least three feet. In fact, 24 states have a 3-foot passing law. The Bicycle Alliance of Washington is working to add the 3-foot law in Washington.

Cyclists are sometimes very fast so be absolutely certain you’re safely clear of the cyclists before moving right again.

Sometimes it’s not possible to pass cyclists because they’ve taken control of the lane. Keep in mind it’s perfectly legal for the cyclist to do this. While it might inconvenience motorists for a few seconds it’s sometimes the safest strategy for cyclists.

But cyclist, be considerate. It’s good form to let vehicles pass as soon as possible or even find a safe place to pull over if cars are lining up behind you.

“But cyclists shouldn’t sacrifice their safety in order to be courteous,” Trask said.

STEP 10: PUT DOWN THE PHONE

Cyclists, bike advocates and law enforcement authorities agree that the No. 1 road safety concern is “distracted motorists.”

Specifically, people talking and texting on their phones.

“This is the biggest one and it is a growing issue,” Trask said. “We really need to enforce this law.”

And really, being alert might be the biggest key to a harmonious roadway.

“Bicyclists need to be aware and drivers need to be aware,” Gill said. “It just takes one moment of distraction and you look up and realize you are going to hit a cyclist and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Craig Hill’s fitness column runs Sundays. Submit questions and comments viacraighill@thenewstribune.com and twitter.com/AdventureGuys. Also get more fitness coverage at blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure and thenewstribune.com/fitness.

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