Don't Take the Bait - declining unsolicited favors

Safety Corner logoby John S. Allen
from the June 2007 WheelPeople

Picture this: you are waiting in a left-turn lane on a four-lane street, and a tall vehicle (a van or SUV) coming toward you from the opposite direction stops to let you make your left turn. Isn’t it nice when someone does you a favor, and shows respect for you as a bicyclist?

Maybe so, but it’s not always a good idea to accept a favor. As golden as the driver’s intentions may be, accepting this favor could get you into a heap of trouble.

Why?

Another motorist, or for that matter, a bicyclist, could be passing the stopped vehicle on its right. There’s a moving blindspot behind the stopped vehicle. It hides the moving vehicle from you, and for the driver of the moving vehicle, you are hidden the same way. You and the other driver may each have each seen every square inch of the street in front of you — but not all at the same time. You never saw the moving vehicle, and its driver never saw you. You could turn left past the front of the stopped vehicle and end up on the hood of the moving vehicle.

This happened once to a friend of mine. Her helmet left a big spider web dent in a car’s windshield, and she smashed up one of my bicycles. Very fortunately, she was not seriously injured.

This incident and others like it point out the importance of thinking about traffic situations like a square dance, like choreography, rather than emotional interaction.

The square dance and traffic both have clear rules and patterns, so people move around and past each other without slamming into each other. Granted, a square dance offers more room for nuanced social interaction than traffic. But, just for that reason, you may be caught off guard when someone in traffic tries to be especially nice to you.

In traffic, in every situation, the rules of the road prescribe clearly which driver may proceed, and which driver must yield right of way. According to these rules, the driver turning left must yield to all other traffic, unless a special traffic signal indicates otherwise. It is often legal to pass on the right, and whether it is legal or not, a driver who is passing on the right may not expect conflicting left-turning traffic.

Unsolicited favors have become more common with the increasing use of “Yield to Pedestrian” pylons in the middle of the street. Now more motorists will stop when a pedestrian is waiting to cross. But also increasingly, motorists are treating bicyclists like pedestrians. If I am waiting on my bicycle to make a left turn, a driver may think of me as a stranded pedestrian, rather than as another driver. Often if I am only waiting near a street, a car will stop. Then others don’t stop, or I can’t see past the stopped vehicle, and I can’t safely go. I even find some drivers who will stop when I have a stop sign and they don’t.

Maybe motorists increasingly respect bicyclists because of the environmental benefits of bicycling. Or a motorist may be a bicyclist or have bicyclist friends. Who knows? The bottom line in a traffic situation is whether you have evaluated it for potential hazards, and ruled them out.

Pedestrians can grant unwanted favors, too. One pedestrian waits at the curb, concealing another who then steps out. Don’t take the bait this kind of situation is a stalemate. A person who encourages me to take the right of way illegally can lure me into a crash and then also make it harder to collect on insurance, because I was breaking the law all with the best of intentions.

What is one to do in these situations? Generally, don’t go if the law says that you should yield the right of way. Stop, or stay stopped. If riding alone, you may wave the motorist by. (It’s generally risky to wave motorists by when riding with others. Your companions may not see your gesture, and could ride into harm’s way.)

Occasionally, you may accept a favor if you won’t be breaking the law, and if you can see for sure that there is nobody else you might collide with. Bicyclists have an advantage in being able to see over the tops of passenger cars. I’m not going to be dogmatic in my advice. I’m just asking you to be mindful in each situation you encounter.

After all, as we say at the end of each of these articles, safety is about choices. What choice will you make?


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