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Dealing with Drivers’ False Expectations

Safety Corner logoby John S. Allen

With few exceptions, traffic moves most smoothly and safely if bicyclists and motorists follow the same set of rules. That approach puts you where other people are looking for traffic, makes you predictable, and avoids a lot of waiting. We teach that, as does the League of American Bicyclists Bike-Ed course, because it works best.

But you still must be prepared to deal with drivers who have false expectations of you. Let me give an example.

The other evening, I was riding around 20 mph slightly downhill in a short block without parking. Of course, I had lights and reflectors. My side of the street had a through lane and a left turn lane. The light at the intersection ahead was green. I intended to turn left, and I had already merged to the right side of the left-turn lane. I hadn’t given a hand signal, because no vehicle behind needed to yield to me.

But then, glancing into my helmet mirror, I noticed a car half a block back – merging to go to my left. I made a left turn signal (using an Adidas reflectorized bicycle glove – good stuff!) When I looked in the mirror again, the car had abandoned efforts to pass and merged back to the right to go straight.

Clearly, the driver had expected that motorists do, or should, always pass a bicyclist on the left. I corrected that with my signaling, avoiding a potentially nasty encounter. In the case I’ve described, I was headed for the right side of a left-turn lane, but I’ve even had drivers cross a double yellow line to pass me on the left, when I was waiting just to the right of that double yellow line to prepare a left turn. This illegal conduct by a driver could cause a crash, and it’s much better to forestall the problem, by making your intentions clear with a signal. In case the driver doesn’t get the message, a quick glance to the rear before initiating the turn is a good precaution.

Here are three other situations in which driver’s inaccurate expectations can lead to problems, and my favored answers:
• You are waiting to make a left turn just to the right of the centerline, on a street without a left-turn lane. There is oncoming traffic; nobody is going to pass you on the left. But a driver could pull up on your right side to turn left. Make a slow signal with your right hand, don’t let the car get next to you. If it does, slow or stop and let it go. Slow signals, not only turn signals, are legal with the right hand in Massachusetts.
• You are on a narrow, curvy road. A driver might think “bicycles are slow” and try to pass you where there isn’t a safe passing distance. Control the situation by taking the lane space you need, making yourself visible from farther back, and, again, make a slow signal – with your right hand if you are near the middle of the road.
• A driver, also assuming that you are traveling slowly, is inching forward, threatening to cross in front of you from a side street. So, make it clear how fast you are going and that you don’t intend to stop. Keep pedaling. Check for traffic behind (there usually isn’t any, or the driver wouldn’t try to cross). Merge farther from the edge of the road. As you are not heading as nearly straight toward the driver, your angle will change faster. If the driver still pulls out, you have more room to prepare a quick turn into the side street.

I think it’s a good choice to learn the techniques I’ve described.

Safety is about choices; what choice will you make?

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