Guest poster Jeff Hemmel encounters the most dangerous situation for cyclists.
So there I was, cruising along in one of the widest, most well-designated bike lanes in the county, when the car that had been alongside me for the last 30 seconds or so suddenly eased ever so slightly ahead…then abruptly turned right into a parking lot. No brake light, no turn signal, just a quick right-hander directly across my path.
Like most bikers, I’ve got my share of traffic stories, but this was my first close-call with the dreaded “right hook.” Named because it pretty much describes the overhead view of the action taken by a motorist turning to the right across the path of a bike in a parallel lane, the right hook has been described as one of the most dangerous threats to a cyclist. It often happens at intersections, but also virtually anywhere there’s a parking lot or driveway. All it takes is a distracted driver, and you’ve got all the makings of a serious accident.
Safety experts say to avoid the right hook by keeping traffic behind you. At a busy intersection with lots of potential right-turning cars, that means riding farther to the left of the lane, encouraging, almost forcing the motorist behind to wait to turn. Likewise, don’t pass a line of slow-moving cars on the right if you can avoid it; if you do, use extreme caution. As I discovered firsthand, you can’t count on a brake light or turn signal as a visual. If you’re moving the speed of traffic, take the lane, rather than stay far to the right, which might encourage cars to try to squeeze by. If you’re approaching an intersection, merge left into the lane of traffic in order to pass a car turning right on its left-hand side.
While my situation had obvious similarities, it didn’t perfectly fit any of the above scenarios. I had actually noticed the car for a while, as it alternately eased ahead of me, then dropped back throughout a 25mph zone, while I maintained a steady 20 mph in the bike lane. Because of the back and forth (and the passenger looking out the window directly at me), I reasoned the driver was well aware of my presence. Still, I was being cautious. I live in a beach community, and this was a well-trafficked road during peak tourist season. I guessed he was probably looking for an address or business, hence the on-and-off the gas behavior. As the end result proved, however, I wasn’t cautious enough. Intent on a good training ride, I maintained my speed and trusted I’d see that blinker or brake light before any right turn.
Obviously, those visual clues never came, and that driver I thought couldn’t have possibly forgotten about me turned directly across my path.
Fortunately for me the driver was just slightly ahead of me. As he turned, and I locked up the brakes, I skidded but stayed upright. It could have been a lot worse. Just a few feet ahead and I would have hit the car at speed. As it was, I still worried I’d lose control and go down between his front and rear wheels. Instead, I ended up literally skidding up against his back door.
And, as much as I hate to admit it, filled with rage. Normally a pretty easy-going guy, I countered his apology with a verbal assault that probably had parents for miles around reaching for the earmuffs.
Lessons learned? Always be aware of the traffic that may be turning right whenever you’re riding, even if you’re within the safe-feeling confines of a generous, marked bike lane. Watch for a car’s brake lights and turn signals, but don’t count on them. Always look ahead for intersections, turns, and driveways that could pose a threat. If a car gets slightly ahead of you, slow down and be prepared to take action, even if it means ruining that nice average speed you’ve been targeting for the last 10 miles.
And should a close call happen, watch your temper. Though that seemed impossible in the heat of the moment, the valid points I was making about using turn signals and watching for bikes in the bike lane were probably lost on the driver as I added so many expletives to the mix.
But then again, maybe not…