Wednesday, January 26, 2005

"Fear is the mind killer"

"Fear is the mind killer".....Dune by Frank Herbert.

Cyclists, especially new cyclists, have an almost universal fear of being hit from behind. But is this a valid perception, or is it a wild exaggeration? Some cyclists perform elaborate maneuvers, traversing sidewalks, parking lots, or any other paved space unoccupied by motor vehicles, believing that by doing so they are safer. Is this a realistic belief? I don't think it is, and that's based on over 30 years of experience and the League of American Bicyclists formal classroom training. I'm a certified instructor through LAB.

First, we must overcome one basic misconception - that cycling is 'extremely' dangerous.

Everyone 'knows' that cycling is dangerous. Your Mom tells you that. Your spouse and co-workers tell you. Although it's a popular belief, it's not necessarily true. There was a time when everyone believed the Earth was flat, and we can see how that worked out. There's a great deal of fear regarding getting hit from behind. It's probably the most common fear any cyclist has.
That's why so many hug that right-hand fog line whether they're experienced or not. Worse, many newbies are wrong-way riders, believing that by facing traffic they're somehow safer. They couldn't be more wrong. Wrong way riders are responsible for 23% of all cyclist/motor vehicle crashes.

Think of this from the viewpoint of a motorist. As he stops at an intersection, intending to turn right, the very last thing he'll do is look to his left for traffic. He simply will not see a wrong-way cyclist in the vehicle lane or -worse yet - on the sidewalk. No one is looking for traffic coming the wrong way in the wrong lane. Drivers simply aren't programmed to do so.

It's fear that puts some cyclists the wrong way, but is the fear justified? Of all cyclist/motor vehicle accidents, getting hit from behind comprises only 9%, while 45% involve failure to yield on the part of either cyclist or motorist. So the true danger of collision is at intersections, but we fear getting hit from behind, and it's a baseless fear by comparison. The intersections are where the crashes occur.

Here are the statistics:

Bicyclist failure to yield 18%
Motorist failure to yield 27%
Motorist overtaking cyclist 9%
Bicyclist riding against traffic 23%
Bicyclist on sidewalk 10%
Other 13%
Source: NHTSA 1998 Paul Schimek
Ref: Access Boston 2000-2010 Bicycle Plan

I suspect that when we ride the fog line, we're inviting motorists to overtake and pass when it's not safe to do so. How many times have we seen a cyclist hug that white line around a blind curve or over a crest? Where's the overtaking motorist going to go when suddenly confronted by an approaching car as he straddles the middle line? We know it's the cyclist who'll get bunted off the road. So does riding the fog line and being a 'considerate cyclist' make him any safer? I think not.

Riding further left, in the right side tire track, has several advantages. It takes away the option of 'squeezing by', making the decision simpler for the motorist. He can't dither, wasting valuable time and distance as he overtakes. Motorists are actually very good at avoiding objects directly in front of their vehicles. But when they have to use judgment regarding side clearance, they have more problems. As a practical example of this, look at the right sides of some minivans and SUVs in a school parking lot.

When a cyclist takes the lane, he forces overtaking traffic to wait until it's safe to pass - and this is safer for everyone, motorist and cyclist alike. Moreover, it's perfectly legal for a cyclist to do so when the lane is too narrow to share safely side-by-side with motor vehicles. It is always the responsibility of the overtaking traffic to so in a safe manner. When he rides further left in a narrow lane, the cyclist is more visible to motorists on intersecting streets, besides having better visibility himself. There's also an effect that has to be experienced to be believed. A motorist will often pass a cyclist with about as much clearance between car & bike as there is between bike & curb.

Riding legally and regularly is itself a kind of advocacy. We influence people without saying a word. To the motorist fuming because I'm 'inconsiderate, rude, and obstructing traffic,' I say that my safety outweighs consideration for their inconvenience. They don't understand the basis for my actions, since nearly all motorists are appallingly ignorant of cycling practice. But sometimes, just sometimes, the little light goes on and they say to themselves, "Hey! I can do that too!"

I'm a commuter cyclist, riding almost daily in traffic, demonstrating it CAN be done despite the popular misconception of cycling as a high risk activity, a misconception all too common to cyclists as well. Every day I engage in the 'death-defying feat' of riding a bicycle to work. I seldom have problems, but I'll admit that I've learned through experience. It was eye-opening to read Effective Cycling and discover that John Forester wrote about the very things I'd learned the hard way over the last 30 years. The techniques really do work. Don't take my word for it, though, read the book and discover it for yourself.

(As I finished this, I was reminded that the League offers a new book on cycling techinque that may be more readable than Effective Cycling. I haven't seen it yet, but I'll get a copy soon.)

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