The following is a post which was recovered when my last blog deleted itself from the internet. Due to a recent article in the Vancouver Province and a story about actor Ryan Gosling, both about the interaction between bicyclists and others, I feel that the time is right to repost it. Enjoy!
I rarely post about the interaction between drivers and bicyclists these days, as the discussion almost always turns into a flame-war. Each side thinks that they – and only they – are right, and each side tends to propose legislative changes which are vexatious and unfeasible. However, against my better judgment, I thought I would write about my insights into the safety of cycling given that the Ontario coroner has announced an investigation into cycling deaths between 2006 and 2010. This probe will look for common factors and make recommendations to improve safety for two-wheeled road users.
Before I begin my thoughts, I must state that the following are known to be sweeping generalisations. For the sake of flow, I will not necessarily say “some of…” before every point. Rather, I state now that my feelings only apply to some of the road users in the category under discussion. Secondly, I must point out that no road user can claim the moral high ground. The righteous indignation that fuels this flame-war needs to end. If you have driven in excess of the speed limit – even by 1 KM/H – you have broken the law. If you have not come to a full and complete stop at a stop sign or red light, you have broken the law. Car drivers must know that the roadway is for all vehicles, which include bicycles, and that everyone contributes, one way or another, to the tax-base that funds roadways. Bicyclists must understand that being vulnerable or being emission-free does not entitle them to additional consideration above and beyond the rules of the road.
From my perspective, automobile drivers (of which I am one) have not been properly trained on the regulations and privileges that apply to bicycles. Bicycles are vehicles, and are permitted on all roads except expressways in Ontario. Bicycles are required to ride as far to the right of the lane as practical, but are permitted to ride in any part of the lane should they need to. It is not practical to ride through debris, for example. Bicycles are permitted to make left turns from the left lane, like any other vehicle. However, very little of this is taught in drivers education classes. Thus, a driver who is ignorant of the rules is bound to react with frustration when a bicycle rider takes the lane – frustration which could be avoided by including bicycle regulations in drivers education courses.
In addition, car drivers are not instructed on how to properly navigate around bicycles. When approaching a cyclist from behind, drivers wrongly assume that they cannot cross the centre line to pass – and this results in the driver sideswiping the bicycle. They also wrongly assume that they are not allowed into the bike lane to make a right turn – and this could cause a right hook collision where the bicycle rider t-bones the turning car. These are just two examples of conflict, but two which could clearly be avoided by more education when young drivers are getting their licenses.
Finally, car drivers are trained to look for threats to their cars – but they only consider other cars as threats. Like Transport for London’s famous “Awareness Test” commercial reminds us, we often miss what we are not looking for. Drivers must be taught to expect that any road user may be present at any time, and to assume that a bicycle is in the path of a car door unless proven otherwise.
Bicyclists, of which I am one, are not totally innocent either. Bicycles are vehicles under the law, and must respect all traffic rules and regulations. This means no running red lights, no blowing through stop signs, and no riding the wrong way down a one-way street. It means yielding to another vehicle that has the right of way, and not assuming that other road users will cede the right of way to you. Bicycles should have bright lights when riding at night, both to make themselves visible and to illuminate the road ahead – just like automobiles.
Bicyclists should avoid riding on the sidewalk, as it is illegal in most municipalities and increases the chance of a collision at a side street crossing. Drivers often assume that they will only encounter slow moving pedestrians, so they will pull ahead into the crossing unless a pedestrian is already in the way. This puts them right in the path of a fast-moving bicycle. In addition, they often only look towards oncoming traffic before entering the roadway, so they may never see a bicycle riding against traffic until after they begin their turn. Bicycles should not necessarily look to the curb for safety either, as riding too far right invites close passing, could place the rider in the path of doors, and could place the rider in the path of cross-traffic that ventures out too far. In addition, passing a right-turning driver on the curb-side is an invitation to be squeezed against the curb. The car should always be passed on its left.
Thus far, I have listed some safety tips that could be easily included in the drivers education courses that young drivers must take in order to shorten the time they have their novice license and to receive a discount on insurance. While there is an obvious incentive to take drivers ed, there is no similar incentive to attend a Can-Bike course. Also, we tend to learn how to ride a bicycle as children, long before complex concepts like yielding can be easily understood. Since everyone can ride a bicycle by default, it may be appropriate to teach these concepts in elementary school. Even if that student never rides a bicycle again, knowing the rules that apply to other road users can help them become better drivers.
Politicians and cycling activists also need to modify their behaviour in order to improve safety and harmony on the roads. During municipal elections, cycling is often used as a wedge issue and this must cease. All road users – pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and car drivers – are entitled to have politicians consider their needs in good faith. Anything less than good faith consideration is, in my opinion, a failure to live up to the most basic of standards for public officials. That said, the activist community must make itself more mainstream. Most people want to ride bicycles, but they do not want to become members of a subculture. They do not want to wear spandex to fit in, nor do they want their bicycle to be seen as a symbol of protest. To make cycling less alienating, the act of riding a bicycle must be divorced from the culture of riding a bicycle.
Finally, politicians and the activist community must look for innovative solutions to make cycling safer in our cities and towns. The “no bike lanes in my ward” mentality needs to stop, as does the “bike lanes at all cost” mentality. Bicycle paths on the boulevard of suburban arteries (with adequate protection against cross-traffic) and paved shoulders in rural areas are two examples of middle-ground solutions that never seem to be explored but deliver safety with much less political controversy.
There is no simple solution to bringing harmony to our roads, but the biggest impact will come from educating drivers on how to handle encounters with bicycles and from educating bicyclists on their rights and responsibilities. The best opportunity for that education to take place is when the road-user is still learning how to use the road, so we must act now before another generation repeats our bad habits. That said, trying to save the next generation does not excuse us from changing our own ways. We must end the righteous indignation, end the name-calling, end the political scapegoating, end the single-focus policy-making, and end the instances of everyone breaking the law and trying to justify it.