When Nice Drivers Cause Problems

Just the other day, I mentioned that sometimes when drivers are nice to cyclists (it does happen!), it can cause safety problems. Sure enough, on our club ride Sunday, we ran into that very situation — twice.

One of my favorite routes is Fitzhugh Road. It’s in the Hill Country west of Austin, but not too far west. In fact, it’s only about a 10-mile ride to get there, and then the rider can go for as long as 30 miles, on some challenging rolling hills. We didn’t go that far Sunday — in fact, we went only about five miles on Fitzhugh before we turned back.

But here’s the tricky part. When Fitzhugh ends at U.S. 290, we have to make a left turn onto the highway. At this point, 290 is four lanes wide with a center lane. Cyclists take the center lane, because in just about 200 yards, we’re going to make another left turn — and being in the center lane is safer, believe it or not, than trying to ride an iffy shoulder, then cut across traffic lanes to get into position to make a left.

Most of the time, it’s an easy maneuver. Because of the way stoplights are timed along 290, we often can make our left turn from the center lane without dealing with oncoming traffic. But that wasn’t the case this time. We were in a tightly-packed group of 10. The oncoming traffic was as heavy as I’ve ever seen it. We reached the left turn, and had to stop.

But one of the oncoming cars decided to do us a favor. He stopped, and waited for us to turn in front of him. We all stayed put, and signaled him to keep going. After all, he had the right of way. But one of our group decided to take him up on his generous offer, and started to make the turn. The car, responding to the group’s gestures, started up again. Then, more cars headed in his direction caught up. Our cyclist friend could have been t-boned, and the result would not have been pretty.

Later, just yards from the end of our ride, we were in the left turn lane of a four-lane divided road. We were about to turn into the shopping area where our Starbucks meeting place is situated. The traffic spaced out enough that some riders opted to proceed across the oncoming lanes. Others of us weren’t quick enough in our reactions, and stayed in the left turn lane, waiting for all the traffic to pass. But one car decided to be a nice guy. He stopped — in the middle of a 50 mph suburban arterial — to let us make our turn. Other traffic was closing the gap. We had to decide quickly what to do. We all made it across, waving at the guy as we did.

We get enough static from bike-hating drivers that it’s a pleasant change of pace to see someone who’s looking out for bikers. But when their generosity has the potential of causing worse traffic hazards, I’d just as soon have them be less nice.


  1. says

    The lesson is: ANY event that messes with the flow of traffic can create a life-threatening hazard, whether that event is yielding when it’s your turn to go, ‘taking the lane’, blowing a stop-sign (with bad timing, against traffic), or whatever. When I see cars try to yield to me when they have the right of way, I’ll go out of my way NOT to take advantage of the situation – even turning in the opposite direction (if it’s safe), just so that I’m not part of the imminent collision the ‘courteous’ driver is about to precipitate. Courteous doesn’t count if it’s inappropriate to the traffic flow.

    • Tim says

      Nothing wrong with “taking the lane” as long as it is done when you have right of way and don’t impose on other vehicle right of way. Taking the lane may change the speed of traffic but it does not mess with “flow.”

  2. Tim says

    I’ve never run into that situation but I can imagine how some drivers would react that way. They really don’t understand the rules of the road and the concepts of right of way, superior/inferior roads, etc.

    I have seen dolts that don’t understand the flow at a four way stop. Very frustrating to put my foot down at the stop (thus signalling to the car that I’m acknowledging right of way) and have them sit there and stare at me. The confusion it causes other people at the stop would be comical were it not a source of danger.

  3. says

    There are a few tricky interchanges near me and I see this sort of stuff all the time. The other day, I was waiting to cross and one person did the nice thing and stopped. But there was another lane of traffic still moving on the other side of him. He kept waving me on and I could see he was getting frustrated that I wasn’t acting on his generosity. I pointed to the other lane and waved him on. He threw up his hands as if to say, this is what I get for being nice, and went. I’m sure if he stopped to think about it he’d see I had no choice, but I’m also sure this was a negative reinforcement

  4. Jeff says

    Happens a lot around here. And yes, frequently the driver gets exasperated, wondering why we’re ignoring their “kind” gesture. Think there should be some bicycle education on driver’s tests so that everyone understands the rules of the road and what they should and shouldn’t do. As it stands now, a lot of drivers have no clue as to the rights of cyclists, and a lot of cyclists forget to act like drivers.

  5. says

    I find that when I am waiting at a red light, cars behind me will give me a great deal of space – so much so that they do not trip the light sensor and we are now permanently stuck at a red light. When I gesture for them to move up, they are confused. When I move back to them to explain, they get nervous about my intentions. Good times.

  6. J-Dub says

    Great post. I find that there is safety in consistency and predictability. We’re safe(r) when we, as cyclists, obey the rules, and when motorists do the same. While I always appreciate the kind gesture of a driver of a car waving me through an intersection, it’d just be safer (and probably quicker) for all road users to behave as if the vehicles on the road were all vehicles.

  7. says

    Totally agree, although it’s nice, I cringe thinking the good driver is going to be hit from behind by the bozo paying no attention! Here in CO. , cars are suppose to STOP at crosswalks for peds, etc. in the crosswalk, 95% don’t pay any attention and cruize on through, the few that obey the law are just minutes from being rear ended by the morons! SIGH. :(

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