The Coffin Corner
by John S. Allen
Cycling isn't just about riding with friends on scenic country roads. Nationwide, in city after city, bicycling is up by double-digit percentages.
Urban cycling can be safe—your author has covered well over 50,000 urban miles without colliding once with a motor vehicle. But safe urban riding requires an awareness of hazards and how to avoid them.
One of these hazards is the so-called "coffin corner"—scary expression! It is also a term of derision, because it is so easy to avoid. Yet, cyclists ride right into this trap.
The "coffin corner" is slang for the space at the right edge of the street, immediately before an intersection. The two most frequent car-bike collisions occur when a cyclist rides into the "coffin corner."
One of these is the "left cross": a motorist crossing from left to right, or coming from ahead and turning left, strikes a bicyclist who is entering an intersection. Often, the bicyclist was overtaking on the right of a stopped vehicle, and was hidden by that vehicle. Massachusetts drivers' bad habits—speeding up on a yellow light; cutting a left turn as soon as the light changes, ahead of oncoming traffic—increase the risk of the "left cross."
The other "coffin corner" crash is the "right hook", which can happen in either of two ways.
- The bicyclist tries to overtake a motor vehicle that turns right, or
- A motorist overtakes a bicyclist and turns right
How to avoid all of these hazards? Simple.
When traffic is stopped, don't overtake—or ride up next to—the first vehicle waiting at an intersection. Wait behind the first vehicle, or a later one, where you are in full view of the driver of the next vehicle back. The first vehicle could right-hook you just as you are passing. The next one can't because it isn't at the intersection yet. And, you won't get left crossed either, if you don't cruise out into the intersection ahead of everyone else. That first vehicle is stopped for a reason, and the same reason applies to you!
As you approach an intersection in moving traffic, merge into the lane position that suits your destination. Move away from the right side of the road so that right-turning vehicles overtake you on the right, or slow and follow you before turning. For a left turn, move to the same lane motorists use to turn left, unless you are going to stop at the far right corner to make a two-point turn. (This isn't only for novices and children—it lets you turn left legally where motorists can't).
Sometimes in congested urban traffic, you might slowly and cautiously filter forward on the right of stopped motor vehicles. That can avoid your having to wait through additional signal cycles—but be wary of pedestrians who might jaywalk between vehicles, or of a vehicle that might turn right into a driveway or parking space. Check the right front wheel of each car you are about to pass. If it's turned in your direction, beware. Check any gap between vehicles before moving into it, especially if you are passing a van or other vehicle whose cab blocks your view. Don't pass a long truck or bus on the right: it could merge toward you before you have gotten past it. If the traffic starts to move, slow down and pull into line behind a vehicle.
A bike lane may make it easier to move forward past stopped motor vehicles. But, the same cautions still apply, and a bike lane extending up to the intersection is inviting you to enter the "coffin corner". Taking this one step further is the "bike box", which invites you to overtake the first vehicle waiting at a red light and swerve left in front of it. This is Russian roulette if you don't know when the signal is going to change. Some European traffic signals do provide a warning, but such signals are rare in the USA—and will continue to be, because dividing up the signal cycle into more pieces increases delays.
Generally, riding safely and according to the rules of the road allows you to be assertive in traffic, so you get where you are going very nearly as quickly as the scofflaw. When you approach intersections as described in this article, you are establishing communication that makes it easier for motorists, and for you.
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