Yielding at Intersections

Safety Corner logoIn April, we talked about the importance of riding single file in traffic. Another of our safety-related priorities is yielding at intersections. It’s common to see cyclists (including cyclists on CRW rides) ride through a stop or yield sign when traffic is approaching, or through a red light (traffic or not). Motorists tend to be better than cyclists about yielding at intersections, even though cyclists are more likely to be injured in a collision. Unfortunately, frustration with slowing and waiting can tempt cyclists to break the rules. For a motorist, there’s no pain or inconvenience in stopping beyond the small loss of time and a small increase in fuel consumption. But cyclists notice right away that slowing or stopping lowers riding efficiency. It takes quite an effort to regain momentum. When stopping, we have the additional burdens of unclipping from a pedal, standing still while our muscles tighten up, and then clipping in again.

In group rides, the temptation can be even stronger. At a stop sign, cyclists at the back of a group have to slow or stop before the intersection because the riders in front have slowed or stopped, but often can’t safely enter an intersection when the front cyclists start to move. At a traffic signal, cyclists in the rear may not make it through before the light turns red. In these situations, the herd instinct kicks in, and cyclists in the rear are tempted to stay with the pack when they should wait.

So, what’s a well-meaning cyclist to do? We certainly can’t change the laws of physics, but we can overcome the largely psychological barriers to yielding. Keep in mind why you’re riding in the first place. If it’s for exercise, fresh air, scenery, and companionship, yielding at intersections will compromise none of these. If you’re in it for speed, it may help to remember that motorists don’t get to abandon courteous, safe, and legal practices to race on public roads, and neither do we.

When riding in groups, our responsibilities go even further. Let’s suppose you’re feeling a little competitive and would like to demonstrate your superior strength and speed to your riding companions. Dropping your companions at an intersection, however, only serves to demonstrate your lack of consideration. If you’re at the front of the pack, back off the pace slightly after passing through an intersection to let others catch up. If those behind you know that you’ll wait, they’ll be less tempted to rush through intersections. If you’re in the middle or at the back of the pack, be sure to decide for yourself whether it’s safe to enter an intersection. This is sometimes referred to as the “lemming law” in honor of those furry little rodents that allegedly follow each other over cliffs. You’ll have a better chance of getting through an intersection together if your group lines up two- or three-abreast when stopped at a traffic signal. Keep it neat, though, and never occupy more than one lane. Once you start moving, be sure to single up as soon as it’s safe to do so if traffic is following you.

Whether riding alone or in a group, shift to a lower gear before stopping at an intersection so you can accelerate quickly and smoothly. You minimize both your exposure in the intersection and the effort required to regain your speed.

At many traffic signals, the right lane serves both straight-ahead and right-turning traffic. If you intend to go straight, merge to the center of the lane. This will discourage right-turning motorists from pulling alongside you and turning across your path.

There are times when you’ll have little choice but to go through a red light. Many traffic signals are triggered by wire-loop actuators. You can often see the rectangular cuts where the actuators are buried under the pavement, but they are not always visible. Sometimes actuators are not adjusted to detect bicycles. Wait directly over the right or left side of the loop, because these are the most sensitive spots. If the signal doesn’t change, you’ll either have to wait for a motorist, or enter the intersection on red. Once you’ve given it a fair wait (don’t jump to conclusions), look for a gap and go. You’re not breaking the law—the signal is defective. For more on signal actuators (including photos), see http://www.bikexprt.com/bicycle/actuator.htm.

One last point. If there are motorists waiting at a stop sign or traffic signal as you approach, it’s generally best not to pass them. (You might make an exception if there are very long queues, if you plan to turn right on red, or if there’s a clear lane available.) Just pull up behind the last motorist in line. Most of the waiting motorists have probably passed you already. If you move to the front of the line, you’ll force them to pass you again. Besides, unless you wouldn’t make it through on the first green cycle, this maneuver doesn’t save much time. If your average riding speed is 15 mph and you move up 100 feet at a traffic signal, you’ll save less than five seconds—not a big sacrifice for being courteous.

Remember—safety is about choices. What choices will you make?

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