Standing Your Ground

Safety Corner logoIt might surprise you to read about assertive behavior in a safety article. But let’s not confuse this with being aggressive. We’re not talking about running red lights, cutting corners into the oncoming lane, or zooming past other cyclists with half an inch between your elbow and theirs. Being assertive is about being predictable by operating according to the rules of the road. It is also about self-respect: the feeling that you have rights as well as responsibilities as a good citizen on the roads. Almost always, this kind of assertiveness will make you a safer cyclist. The key is using good judgment on when, and how, to stand your ground. Here are some tips, inspired by John Allen’s Street Smarts (www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts) and John Forester’s Effective Cycling (MIT Press).

Believe in your Right to the Roadway: In Massachusetts, as elsewhere, the basic traffic laws apply equally to motorists and bicyclists (Chapter 85, Section 11B, http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/85-11b.htm). To cycle effectively, it is important to internalize this. Many beginning cyclists believe the popular prejudice that motorists have a greater right to use the roads. This can lead to behavior that increases danger by making the cyclist less visible and less predictable, including sidewalk and wrong-way riding, and keeping too far to the right.

Using the Roadway: The roadway available for cycling includes the travel lanes, not just the shoulder or bike lane. Some (motorists and cyclists alike) think that the shoulder or bike lane is the only appropriate place for a cyclist. Often the shoulder or bike lane is a perfectly good place to ride (e.g., when wide and smooth, free of debris and other obstacles, and there are few intersections and driveways), but there are other times when you are safer in the travel lane. Ride out in the travel lane when:

• Avoiding debris, broken pavement, obstacles, sand, or other hazards on the right side of the roadway. These are major causes of cyclist injuries.
• Passing parked cars. Allow at least three feet clearance to avoid the “door zone”, unless you are passing a single parked car and can clearly see that it is unoccupied.
• Riding at the speed of traffic (e.g., when descending or in congested traffic). Riding in the middle of the lane in these circumstances discourages motorists from driving alongside you when they can’t pass. During high-speed descents you need extra clearance from defects at the edge of the road.
• It’s otherwise unsafe for motorists to pass. A common example is cycling on a narrow road with either insufficient sight distance (approaching a blind curve or the crest of a hill) or oncoming traffic.
• Going straight through intersections. Getting out into the travel lane makes you more visible and discourages motorists from pulling alongside you and then turning right across your path. Move back to the right once you’ve passed the intersection.
• Preparing for a left turn or U-turn. Well before you get to the intersection, look behind and merge to the center line, or the left-turn-only lane, as traffic permits. If a left-turn-only lane is wide enough for a motorist to pull alongside safely, stay on the right side of the lane; otherwise stay in the middle.

Impatient Motorists: The driver (whether cyclist or motorist) who is on the road first has the right to proceed safely; the driver who wishes to overtake may only do so when it is safe, otherwise they must slow and wait for a change in road or traffic conditions. If a motorist following you gets impatient when you are intentionally occupying your lane, using a “slow” hand signal (extend your arm down at about 45 degrees with your palm facing back) effectively communicates that you know they are behind you and that there is a reason you are making them wait. As a courtesy, you may wish to pull over in a safe place if a line of traffic forms behind you.

When a Motorist Threatens to pull Out: You’re riding down the road. A motorist ahead of you is preparing to pull out from a side street, a parking lot, or a driveway. You can tell what they’re thinking. They’re asking themselves a question: “Do I feel lucky?” wondering if they have time to pull out without cutting you off too badly. Don’t inadvertently give them an invitation. Make eye contact, slow only enough to stop if you have to, and keep turning your crank, even if just to soft pedal (rotating while applying almost no pressure). This sends the message: “I’m not stopping—you need to wait”. There may be times when you choose to yield your right of way as a courtesy to a motorist, but it is your decision when to do this—not theirs—and you should indicate your willingness to yield with a clear wave. Don’t, however, wave motorists out when riding in a group. Your cycling companions may not see your gesture, and may ride into harm’s way.

Horn Blowers and Shouters: We’ve all been there. Don’t let angry motorists intimidate you into doing something that isn’t safe. If you’re faced with a serious case of road rage, it may be best to pull off the roadway and let the motorist by if and when you can do so safely. Use your judgment to make the best of a bad situation. But don’t exacerbate the situation by yelling back or using obnoxious hand gestures. Find a safer and more appropriate way to vent your frustration. Don’t stoop to their level!

If you’re Threatened: If a motorist seriously threatens (through either actions or words) you or your riding companions, do your best to get to a safe place. Avoid eye contact and don’t speak. To the extent that you can, note the vehicle make/model/color, the driver, the plate number (and state), time, and location—writing it down as soon as possible—and report it to the police. You owe it to yourself and your fellow cyclists to help keep these nutcases in check.

Most motorists will respect you for standing your ground as part of safe and lawful riding practices. Just remember to be courteous, and allow waiting motorists to pass when it’s safe to do so.

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


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