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Car Back - Riding Side By Side

Safety Corner logoby John S. Allen


Among club cyclists, riding side by side is one thorny issue. Riding side by side has many advantages for cyclists. But it also can annoy the heck out of motorists.

The CRW asks club-ride participants to ride single file unless on quiet roads when there is no traffic approaching, and to never ride more than two abreast.

But Massachusetts is one of the few states—7 at last count—that prohibit riding side by side entirely: “The operator shall ride single file on any way except when passing.”

Most other states allow cyclists to ride two abreast when they don’t impede other traffic. Two can ride side by side, and a third row of cyclists can still overtake in the same lane. If there is an open lane to the left, motorists can overtake, too. The shorter group of cyclists riding double file may even be easier to overtake, under some conditions.

What is the attraction of riding side by side for cyclists? It is by far the most practical way for cyclists to share information with one another, beyond the very limited communication possible with hand signals. Mostly, people do this just to be sociable, but riding side by side is essential to give safety advice or directions. I frequently must give instruction to students in my Bicycle Driver Training classes while riding next to them. Without side-by-side riding, a group bicycle ride degrades from a sociable event to a silent procession or a shouting match.

A side-by-side law also can result in legal complications. If a motorist collides with bicyclists who are riding side by side, a presumption of negligence is shifted to the bicyclists - to both or all of them, even though only one of them may have been overtaking, and even though overtaking is, last I heard, legal!

Now, the other side of this issue. Safety when riding side by side requires that motorists’ view of you from behind not be blocked by a hill crest or blind curve. Put yourself in the place of a motorist beyond that most recent curve or hill crest. Could the motorist see you in time to merge left and overtake in the next lane? Next, think common courtesy: could the motorist overtake you easily and safely if you singled up? CRW advises singling up at the first sign of motor traffic.

CRW riders are fairly good about following these guidelines. Cyclists at the rear of a riding group call out “car back” and a rider who will not “single up” gets a lot of flak from companions. But, on the other hand, it only takes one person who rides out to the left of the group to delay a motorist - and all too often there is one. You know who they are, it’s painfully obvious! Or maybe, you know who you are...

Bicyclists who use a rear-view mirror can easily check for traffic approaching from the rear. Simply merge back into a single line when one sees traffic approaching. Bicyclists who don’t use a mirror can’t be as free about riding side by side unless they are very skilled at (and very vigilant about) looking behind them.

Riding side by side is sometimes abused even by bicycle club members, yes, even in our own generally courteous and law-abiding club. To summarize, I advocate repeal of laws against side-by-side riding, enforcement against cyclists who unnecessarily impede traffic, instruction of adults in safe and courteous riding, and discouragement of side-by-side riding by children.

If you do ride side by side at times, please be extra-courteous and cautious about it. Safety is about choices - what choices will you make?

(The writer is an expert witness on bicycle safety matters, and is adding a personal note. A Bicycle Safety Bill, is currently working its way through the legislature, and will allow bicyclists to ride two abreast when not impeding overtaking traffic, as in neighboring states. He asks for your support on this bill.!)

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