Natural Selection

We were thundering down a semi-rural road on our weekly ride. The road was deserted, for a change no cars or trucks were on hand to buzz us.

Off in the distance, we saw a bicyclist turn to cross the road at a right angle. Although the road was empty, traffic does travel fast: 55-60 mph, and sometimes faster. It’s a two-land road with no shoulder. We thought the cyclist was putting herself in some danger.

But she got to the opposite side of the road, and as we got closer, we could see she had taken out her phone, and was using it to take a picture of something.

Just before we pulled even with her, she put the phone away, got back on the bike, and started pedaling in the same direction as we were going — without checking to see if any traffic was coming up behind her. (We were — she never knew we were there, until we passed.)

“Not only that, but did you notice she had both earbuds in her ears?” asked Maggie from behind me.

“Yeah,” I answered. “Earbuds, and no check on traffic before getting back on the road.”

Maggie smirked. “She’s making it easy for natural selection to weed out the stupid ones.”

Hold Your Line!

Recently, I was riding with a group I hadn’t ridden with before. We got along well, and seemed to have similar abilities. About halfway into the ride, we crossed a busy road and got onto a rough street in a rural town. The street made a 90-degree turn to the left to go into the town’s business district.

I was in the middle of the group, making the left turn, when suddenly, a rider to my left called out, “Watch it, there!”

I flicked my handlebars a little to the right to make room for him, concerned that I might bang into the rider on my right. The guy who had come in on the left realized that he had nearly caused a crash, and started apologizing profusely.

“Yeah, I was coming down that small hill and had more speed than the rest of you,” he said. “I was swinging a little wide there. Sorry ’bout that. I didn’t mean to crowd you.”

Well, maybe not — not intentionally. I had picked a line for the turn and stuck with it, mindful of the positions of the riders around me. He had been trailing the group a bit, so we weren’t aware of his presence nearby. His speed caused him to make a wider turn than I was, but since he was on the inside of me, he almost hit me.

The drawing is crude, but you get the idea.

The drawing is crude, but you get the idea.

What should he have done? Braked harder. That would have allowed him to control his turn and stay on a line to my inside. He had been riding behind the group most of the morning anyway, so falling back a little at this point would have made no difference. Besides, we had a rest stop coming up in just a few blocks, anyway. He’d have gotten there pretty much with the rest of us.

In a turn while riding with a group, be predictable. Stick with your line. I’m hearing about too many crashes lately, and many of them result in serious injury.

Share the Road

Share-the-Road-SignA bike advocacy organization, Bike Delaware, has come out against “Share the Road” signs. I’m sure these signs are common in most places throughout the United States — I certainly see them on several city streets near me.

I’ve always been glad to see the signs. It’s an indication that the city recognizes that cyclists use our streets and roads, and is a reminder to drivers that we’ll be out there, too. So often, when a driver gives the excuse, “I didn’t see you,” it’s likely they were not expecting to see cyclists.

But the point Bike Delaware makes is that the signs can be interpreted differently by different people, under different circumstances. The group also contends the signs serve no traffic control function.

Hm. Hadn’t thought about that before. Apparently, some drivers think “Share the Road” admonishes them to give up something they own. Why share the road when it’s mine?

I think most drivers don’t realize that bikes are treated under the law as vehicles, subject to the same rights and responsibilities as cars. “Share the Road” is a reminder that bikes have a legitimate right to be out on the roads.

But I could be easily persuaded one way or another. What’s your take?

Reporting On Cycling

I might have mentioned a time or two before that I am a journalism professor. As such, I see a lot of academic research in that area. In one fairly new venture, the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University sends synopses on research being done on current news topics, with ideas for incorporating that research into news stories.

This morning, I got the latest batch of synopses, and one caught my eye right off the bat. It’s titled, “Ten key issues for covering bicycling and bike infrastructure in your community.” The Center’s newsletter editor suggests that taking a look at these ten issues and related studies can “facilitate deeper coverage of cycling in your town.” Some of these will be old news to seasoned cyclists, but others offer the germ of an idea that just might trigger some more in-depths looks at the role of cycling in a community.

Here are their ten issues:

1. Cycling trends. The Center links to two studies of cyclists, one from big cities, one from smaller towns. “Both include data on trends in the age, gender, incomes and race of cyclists,” the item says. “This background information, much of which comes from Census Data, can help indicate how your state and city are doing relative to others.”

2. Helmets and safety. (Oh oh.- Bike Noob.) The Center cites studies on the effect of helmet laws on children’s cycling injuries, and the health impact of mandatory helmet laws. It also notes that helmet use is less prevalent in Europe than in the U.S.

3. Balancing health benefits and risks of cycling. A British study examined the use of a bike share program in Barcelona, Spain, and found that deaths rose when people used the bike share, but because of increased physical activity, 12 times that many deaths were avoided each year. With any physical activity comes risk, the Center notes.

4. Automotive air pollution and cyclists. A 2011 environmental study found that cyclists who share the road with motorized vehicles have decreased heart rate variability for three hours after being exposed to car exhausts. That is associated with a higher risk of heart attacks.

5. Bike-specific infrastructure and laws. One study looks at cycle tracks, and how they reduce the chance of injury, while another finds that even in a city with a bicycle-friendly attitude, bike infrastructure can be “patchy.”

6. Conflicts between cyclists and cars. One study used helmet cameras to track commuter cyclists, and found that in 90 percent of collisions, it was the motorist at fault. Another found that the three-foot passing law in Baltimore is routinely ignored.

7. Car-free events. You’ve heard of “ciclovias” — when city streets are closed to cars for a day? One study looked at the health benefits of four different ciclovia programs. It found the more often such events are held, the greater the health benefits.

8. Immigrants and cycling. One study showed that immigrants are 41 times more likely to use bikes than to drive cars, while another found that as the number of cycling immigrants goes up, so does the rate of car-bike collisions.

9. Commuting by bike. One study did an overview of the literature on bicycle commuting. It found that the distance of the commute was a factor, but so was bike infrastructure and the availability of such amenities as showers at work.

10. Commuting by car, transit and other modes. Two studies look at the health costs of commuting by car, compared to other means. The numbers are startlingly high: $180 billion/year for traffic crashes, and $50-$80 billion from traffic congestion. Any ideas for a healthier, cleaner and cheaper mode of transportation? (Oh, you mean bikes?)

Most, if not all, of these issues have been touched upon either here or in other popular cycling blogs. Maybe it’s time to revive some of these discussions. I’d be happy to tackle them, using the studies suggested by the Shorenstein Center. What’s your take? Are these ideas worth investigating, or have they been done to death? I’m interested in your reaction.

Don’t Turn In Front of Me

It was one of those things that, thankfully, happens only once in a while. On the return leg of our Sunday ride, I was in the bike lane of a four-lane divided suburban arterial, probably moving at 18 mph, gaining speed. A road on the right made a T-intersection with my road. Oncoming traffic on my road could use a left turn lane to make a left. I saw a red pickup truck enter the turn lane.

No problem, I figured. He’ll just wait for me to go by him, then he’d turn.

Yeah, right.

After coming to a complete stop, the pickup truck driver looked as though he was weighing the pros and cons of turning in front of me. Don’t do it, I thought to myself. He did it.

By this time, I had covered enough ground that I was almost to the intersection. I pulled on the brake levers and slowed, just enough to let him turn in front of me.

I’m sure most of us have a had a similar experience while driving our cars. Sometimes, someone will make a left turn across your path, and you have to brake to avoid hitting them. It’s enough to make you grumble, or worse. So why doesn’t that situation apply when you’re making a left turn and it’s a bike in the oncoming lane, not a car?

Maybe some drivers just don’t have a handle on how fast bikes are moving. It’s a bike — I’ve got time to make the turn. Or maybe they figure that the result of a car-bike collision would be a lot less dire than a car-car collision. Specious reasoning, that.

Hey, if you’ve got to think about whether it’s safe to make that turn, you probably shouldn’t make that turn.

I’ve had plenty of drivers turn left across my path. I really don’t mind it, as long as I don’t have to brake. But if I do have to brake to keep from hitting the turning car, the driver of the car has made a bad move.

Unfortunately, this is one of those situations for which I see no solution. Just stay alert, and be ready to react if a driver does something dumb. (Which they do often enough that you should always be alert.)

Bike Lanes Are Inadequate

I’ve noticed that more bike lanes are popping up around town. I think that’s generally a good thing. My attitude is, if I stay in my lane and motor vehicles stay in their lane, we should have no problem.

Of course, we’ve all had experiences with drivers who can’t seem to control their vehicles and cross into the bike lane from time to time. In addition, bike lanes tend to become repositories of broken glass, gravel, and other debris that can make riding there hazardous.

Still, if I have the option to use a bike lane, I generally take it.

But during the week, my attention was drawn to an interesting collection of infographics regarding bike lane design. In essence, the infographics suggest that a three-foot wide bike lane is inadequate to meet the safety needs of cyclists. They’re part of a web site called “I Am Traffic,” whose stated goal is to achieve equal status for bikes with other vehicles on the road. Some of their information is new to me, and quite thought-provoking. Here’s a sample:


Click the image to enlarge.

To see the whole collection of infographics, and get an in-depth dose of cycling infrastructure ideals, visit I Am Traffic.

Cycling Etiquette

The president of the cycling club I belong to usually takes the lead in organizing club rides. He traditionally starts the Sunday morning ride, which is our “main” ride of the week. He’s got years of riding experience under his pedals, and is happy to share his ideas about cycling with anyone.

Last week, he posted on our club Yahoo group some points of cycling etiquette. He gave me permission to use them on the blog. “They may or may not work for you,” he wrote, “but at least you will know why I am doing what I am doing the next time we ride together.” Here they are:

•Passing other cyclists on either the right or left is OK as long as you can safely get by. Corollary: if there is no room to pass on either side then passing is not OK.

•You are responsible for your own behavior: as opposed to “I ran the red light because someone else on the ride did it too.” If your friends all jumped off a bridge would you do it too? (Sorry, I forgot who I was speaking to. Of course some of you would!)

•If you hit someone from behind it is primarily your fault.

•If someone hits you from behind it may still be just a bit of your own fault (esp. if you vary your well established line abruptly), but it is still primarily the person behind you who didn’t give enough room for your unexpected behavior who should bear responsibility for the crash.

•Calling our “On Your Left,” etc. will more often than not cause the person you are planning to pass to turn his or her head that way. As goes the head so goes the bike. If you do that nine times and get by safely and then once you come to grief, well then it is still mostly your own fault and memories of those other nine safe passages will fade before your road rash.

•Among riders who are very familiar with each other, a gentle touch on the passing side hip will alert the rider in front to the fact that you are coming by and it all should happen like clockwork. (Warning: Don’t touch strangers; they may not like it.)

•If you come upon a group of riders in single file you must make absolutely sure that:

A. You are welcome in that line,

B. You have the skill and ability to negotiate your turns in the line (ride along behind and to the side for at least one whole rotation of the line to be sure you aren’t getting in over your head), and

C. There is adequate room for you to slide in safely (that means a gap of ~1.5 bike lengths if you are all experienced riders: give more room if any of the affected parties are less experienced in pace line dynamics).

•Under no circumstances should you assume any of the above. Make darn sure it’s a fit before you throw your personal monkey wrench into their gears. If you cram into a line of riders unannounced or unwelcomed, or unsafely, you should expect to get an earful. Cyclists are not generally well known for self-editing.

•If you hear this complaint more than once you should assume you are guilty and fix your problem.

•Most Bikes don’t have brake lights to let riders behind know that you are going to suddenly slow down (If yours does, trust me, nobody knows what they are for).

•Good riders can pick up on the audio and visual cues when someone in front takes pressure off the pace but if you hit those brakes you will rapidly find very close company from the rear about whom you may have been, until just then, blissfully unaware.

•When you are planning to hit the brakes you should make that announcement orally and, if you can do so without increasing the risk, with a hand signal (hand raised, palm forward, like a cavalry captain for the entire peloton, or held palm facing out behind your saddle for just the rider immediately behind you).

•If you need to touch your brakes suddenly you should be well aware that the person behind you will find your deceleration problematic and you may want to consider first altering your own line (if you can do that safely without cutting off an overlapping wheel) to give all of you more room to breathe.

•When you are in a large group on a narrow winding road it makes sense to stay together to establish a substantial visual impact on passing motorists.

•However, if you find cars stacked up behind the group you will find it easier to wave them past if your group is not so large that it blocks visibility of the road ahead. Consider breaking into more, smaller groups to give cars a chance to get by safely.

•On this same topic, if the group is too large for a following car (or even cyclists at the back of the group) to see the front rider waving a left arm for a safe pass then the group may need to be broken into smaller segments.

•And if the riders in the middle are too far from the rear of the group to even know there is a car looking to pass, then your group might be too large.

•It’s not about rights or owning the road, it’s about not causing a problem situation in which you will be severely disadvantaged. Car>>Bike in terms of F=M*A. That’s higher math for “OUCH!” and “OH NO, MY COSTLY BIKE IS DESTROYED!”

He continues: “You probably have your own set of rules for keeping safe. Please share them. Making sure others around you know how you plan to behave in tight circumstances can only help those rules to do their intended job, i.e. keep you safe.

“If your personal rules differ from mine I’m happy to hear it. If your logic is convincing I’ll most likely steal your ideas and claim to have invented them myself.

“But, if your plan is to take unwarranted chances, exposing yourself and others around you to needless risk, then you should not expect willing company in that adventure except as it may involve others who could represent a hazard to themselves and you with their own Brownian Motion bike handling skills.”

Your thoughts, Bike Noob readers?

Bicycle Injury Study

This blog is aimed primarily at road bikers, and based on the comments and feedback I get from readers, most fit that description. However, I think it’s also safe to say that lots of road bikers don’t stick exclusively to road riding. They might engage in other types of riding, too, such as commuting or utility biking.

That kind of riding is usually done on city streets, and transportation cycling garners a small share of overall trips — as low as one to three percent in the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Australia. One reason often cited for this is safety. Bicyclists tend to be injured more often in countries where transportation cycling is less common.

Examples of cycle tracks in Holland.

A study done in 2008-09 in Canada has gotten some renewed attention here. It’s called the “BICE” study — for “Bicyclists’ Injuries and the Cycling Environment.” The study — of 690 bicyclists who had been hurt in bike crashes — found that the kind of infrastructure available for cyclists is associated with the risk of injuries from bike crashes.

The highest risk infrastructure was a city street with no bike lane and with parked cars. Other high-risk features included train or streetcar tracks, downhill grades, and construction.

Lower-risk features included off-street bike paths, major streets with bike lanes and no parked cars, and residential street bike routes. But the safest bit of cycling infrastructure was the “cycle track.” That’s a segregated bike lane adjacent to a street. They’re not seen much in the United States, but are quite common in the Netherlands.The authors of the study suggest that transportation planners can use the results to help pick cycling structure that will improve safety, and thereby, promote transportation cycling.

The University of British Columbia has a synopsis of the study on its “Cycling in Cities” website, and a complete version of the study can be found as it was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

How is safe cycling infrastructure being incorporated into your area?


Three Common Bicycling Accidents – and How to Avoid Them

This is a guest post from attorney Ray Thomas, who represents injured cyclists.

Sharing the road with motorists can be frightening, especially if you live in an area where drivers don’t consider bicycles as legitimate vehicles. I often hear bicyclists say they’d like to incorporate cycling more into their everyday lives, but they just don’t feel safe riding alongside high-speed traffic.

Many states are increasingly enacting laws that help establish and protect the rights of cyclists. While these laws can provide critical legal resource in the event of a collision, they don’t necessarily prevent such accidents from happening. Instead, the onus is still on the cyclist to be aware of how these collisions occur and get proactive about preventing them.

Here’s a look at three of the most common types of bicycling accidents – and how savvy cyclists avoid them:

1. Hit by a right-turning car (aka the Right Hook).

When making a right turn – whether at a stoplight or into a driveway – motorists often fail to look for bicyclists who may be coming up from behind. What’s worse, many drivers nowadays will simply turn suddenly, without signaling, giving the cyclist no advance warning. Whether you’re riding in a bike lane, on the road or on the sidewalk, it’s always safest to assume motorists traveling in the right lane may turn right at any time.

There are two things you can do to prevent this type of collision. First, when you’re at a stoplight next to a car in the right lane, stop either just in front of the car (out of the motorist’s blind spot) to make sure you’ll be seen, or just behind the car so you can gauge whether the driver is going to turn right. Second, never pass a slow-moving vehicle on the right. Instead, wait for an opportunity to pass on the left, assuming it’s legal to do so in your city. Having a rearview mirror on your bike is invaluable for this.

2. Smacked by a car door.

Street parking is another common hazard for cyclists. Many drivers who park by the curb will simply open up the car door without thinking to check for approaching cyclists. Often the cyclist has no time to react, or cannot safely swerve left to avoid the door.

If you’re riding on a street with curbside parking, it’s wise to stay on the alert for vehicles that have just parked or have people inside them. That way, at least you have enough warning to give these cars a wider berth. Again, a rearview mirror is also a valuable tool, as it allows you to continually monitor the traffic behind you so you know whether it’s safe to swerve in a pinch.

3. Hit by a left-turning car (aka the Left Cross).

You and a motorist are approaching an intersection from opposite directions. The motorist either doesn’t see you or misjudges your speed and decides to suddenly turn left just as you cross the intersection. This can be one of the most difficult types of accidents to avoid, because cyclists often simply don’t see it coming.

The important thing here is to make yourself as visible as possible to motorists. For starters, don’t cross an intersection by riding from the sidewalk into the crosswalk, as this makes it even harder for motorists turning left to see you. Instead, stay as far to the left as you safely can; if possible, consider taking up the entire lane as you cross the intersection. Also, by being aware of this type of hazard, you can adjust your speed while traveling through intersections in order to allow yourself to brake quickly if needed.

Defensive cycling skills can take time and practice to develop. However, hyper-awareness coupled with the ability to think quickly and plan an escape route can go a long way toward preventing collisions.

Ray Thomas, a founding partner of the Portland law firm Swanson, Thomas, Coon & Newton, applies his personal injury litigation expertise to the area of bicycle and pedestrian law in the state of Oregon.