Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Seven Deadly (Driving) Sins - A Bike Commuter's Perspective

So, you may be familiar with this blog.  Or maybe not.  Mostly I post about my "memorable rides" - that is, epic trips and mountain bike races. 

But you may not know that most of my time in a bike saddle is fairly mundane.  I commute to work, pretty much every day of the year.  Weather doesn't stop me (although I will make an exception for ice storms).   Occasionally, I will drive if I have to hurry to a meeting or event from work that wouldn't be possible by bike. 

I ride about 15 miles a day to and from work, 5 days a week, all year.  Overall, this amounts to somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 miles a year of bike commuting.  I have been commuting by bike for eight years now.

Point is, I have seen pretty much every kind of crazy driver/cyclist interaction that you can imagine.  And there are some driver behaviors that I have seen so often, that they have their own names.

Now, this isn't a screed against drivers.  A lot of my best friends are drivers (see what I did there?).  In fact, most drivers are normal, caring people, who are not trying to kill me. 

Still, even normal, polite people can unintentionally endanger cyclists by being "polite." 

For instance, there's a move I call the "left cross."  This happens when, in heavy traffic, a driver stops in the middle of the road to create a "gap" for a driver on the other side of the street to turn left in front of him.

Trouble with this maneuver is, as a cyclist, I am often in the right lane, and the person turning left may not see me, or me them.  So, when the "polite" drivers opens the gap, and the other driver turns left, he may hit me without either one of us seeing it coming.  I have had several close calls because of the left cross.

Another "polite" driving behavior that is actually dangerous is what I call "make way for ducklings."

In this scenario, the "polite" drive yields every right of way on the road for cyclists.  For instance, at a four way stop, a driver will abandon the ordinary rules of traffic, and insist that the cyclist go through the intersection first.  This behavior is often accompanied by a frantic hand wave and a big smile by the magnanimous driver.

I don't mean to seem ungrateful for the courtesy and care for my well-being, but this is actually very dangerous.  When I bike on the roads, I follow the same rules as all other traffic.  This makes me safe, because my behavior is predictable to drivers and follows the normal rules.  When drivers break the rules on my behalf, it actually makes me less safe, because now the rules of the road have been disregarded, and other drivers can't predict what will happen next.

For these drivers, I offer the following.  Thank you for being nice.  It's nice to be nice.  And the way you can be the nicest to me is to just observe the normal traffic rules and treat cyclist with care and respect, but subject to the same rules as every other form of traffic.

For other ordinarily calm and rational people, a cyclist can trigger bad driving behavior by his mere existence.  When they see a bike on the road, its like they saw a baby when they boarded the airplane.  Even though the baby may be contentedly sleeping, the person is already in a foul mood and ready to bite the head off of that baby and anyone else around them.  So too, when they see a bike on the road, they start to panic, expecting that the existence of a cyclist on the road will make them hours late for their important job, or will cause them to die in a flaming wreck. 

To those drivers, I say: relax.  Take a breath.  It is very likely that the cyclist on the road will have absolutely zero effect on your day.  Yes, you may have to depress the brake pedal for four seconds until it's safe to pass.  Or you may have to briefly change lanes.  But most likely you won't.

And, the likelihood is that you don't enjoy your drive.  You may enjoy the thought of a pleasant drive on a sunny day in traffic-free roads, but is that ever your reality?  In fact, most car commutes are miserable affairs, made worse by foul weather, and other drivers.  The fault isn't the cyclists.  Accept that your commute sucks and is likely to make you late.  Driving isn't really all that great.

And, let's face it, even if a cyclist costs you 20 seconds on your drive, so what?  Those Ugg boots will still be there at Target.  The slurpie machine at the 7-11 will still work when you get there.  It isn't as though you are transporting human organs or rushing to stop a crime.  People who need priority on the road get lights and sirens and everyone else has to get out of their way.  On the other hand, your kid's softball game can wait for those orange slices and pretzels.  Take it easy.

There are several common driving moves that this type of driver commits.

Image from here:
"The right hook."  This is a common move - the driver speeds up to pass, only to immediately thereafter to cut in front of the cyclist, slam on the brakes and turn right.  As a result, the cyclist has to grab his brakes to avoid hitting the car.  Not sure what the motivation here is, maybe fear of being "stuck" behind a cyclist?  Whatever the motivation, it never saves the driver any time over just staying behind the cyclist and turning right thereafter. 

"Hurry up and wait" is similar to the "right hook."  It happens when a driver races to get in front of a cyclist just before a stoplight or stop sign.  Usually, the move includes sudden acceleration, sudden lane change, sudden braking, and always involves cutting off the cyclist. 

Another hurry-up maneuver is the "close pass" or what I call "this lane is your lane, this lane is my lane."  In this move, the driver is in such a hurry to pass the cyclist, that he disregards other traffic, often straddling the centerline and pushing the cyclist into the curb, to make a pass. 

Another group of drivers freak out when they see a cyclist on the road and lose all understanding of the fundamental rules of traffic.  It's as though there's a loose giraffe running on the streets.  This class of driver just doesn't know what to do or how to react to the cyclist.

This type of driver may engage in the "the roadrunner."  The roadrunner likes to give a couple of short horn blasts before/while passing a cyclist.  "Beep beep."  I think this behavior may have its roots in cycling country roads, where there is very little traffic and a driver may wish to announce its presence to the cyclist.  However, in city traffic, it mostly just startles the shit out of a cyclist to be honked at.  And usually, II assume it's someone who is mad at me for being on the road.  Don't be a roadrunner.

"The Creeper" is a driver who seems unable to decide how and when to pass a cyclist, so will simply follow the cyclist in his lane, even when it is completely safe to pass.  This is creepy as fuck.  Just pass.  As a driver, if you find yourself so befuddled by an unusual object in traffic, it's probably time to hang up the keys.

This type of cyclist, when they summon the nerve to pass, will usually engage in "the Hail Mary" (or the 100 yard pass).  The driver will get as far away as possible from the cyclist to pass, because he is just plain freaked out that the cyclist may suddenly veer wildly in front of him.  Again, this type of driver is dangerous, because they are driving scared and unpredictably.

Finally, the last category of drivers are just plain assholes.  These are the most dangerous kind of drivers and the ones that I'm least likely to reach.

These drivers can be best understood as being assholes all the time.  Not just behind the wheel, these drivers are angry everywhere and probably are not having good lives.  I recently read an article describing such folks as "multi-modal assholes" (although I can't find a link to the article anymore).  Meaning, they're assholes whether behind the wheel, on a bike, or in line at the grocery store. 

People in this category make several common driving mistakes.

Perhaps the most common is the "Dear Abby."  The Dear Abby always often helpful advice to cyclists out of his car window, like "get the fuck off the road," and "you belong on the sidewalk."  My favorite is "why are you on the street, when there's a bike path right over there?"  The best response to a Dear Abby is usually, a "thank you" and a friendly smile.  This seems to baffle them long enough to stop the tirade.  I had a taxi driver recently tell me that I was "not allowed" on the road on my bike.  This confirms what I already suspected - taxi drivers aren't required to understand or follow traffic rules.  Seriously though, watch out for the taxis.  They are trying to kill you.

The "buzzkill" is a driver who wants to demonstrate to a cyclist how unsafe it is to be on the road, so he takes it into his hands to provide a demonstration.  This usually comes in the form of a pass so close that you can smell their breath.  These drivers are psychopaths.  They view cyclists as an abstract evil, and not as people with jobs, and others who depend on them. 

The "gun and go" driver likes too show how annoyed he is with your presence by revving his car motor loudly.  This can happen when the driver is behind, passing, or has passed the cyclist.  These drivers generally make me laugh.  What greater flailing sign of impotence could there be than your gas pedal? 

That's all I've got for now.  I'll talk about more fun stuff next time.

Be brave, and so it in traffic.

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