Road Debris and the Panic Factor

Road Debris

One problem with riding a bicycle on roads designed for cars is contending with debris carelessly strewn about. Too often, debris accumulates on the far right-hand side of the road, where cars infrequently travel, but where cyclists find a home. No matter how carefully a cyclist scans the road, debris isn’t always obvious; or, if it is, a car stands in the way of steering around it.

There is so much to watch for. Cars, buses, trains, and heedless cyclists detract from an otherwise danger-free roadway. Pedestrians are a source of consternation too. The last thing on a cyclist’s mind is road debris. That’s how split-second reaction time can be insufficient for avoiding disaster. What’s a cyclist to do?

Knowing what’s there is key to keeping your cool. You look ahead and the road appears clear. You listen to the cars passing on the left. They are too close, you think. It’s tempting to give them the finger. Who told them they owned the road?

You swerve to avoid a swinging car door. This time, you yell at the driver to look before opening the door. It helps to remind them, in a stern way, that they almost killed someone. Will this influence their future behavior? Probably not. But it will make you feel justified.

Approaching an intersection, no traffic is visible. It’s tempting to slow down and then blow through the intersection. Will anyone see you? Maybe, maybe not. You’re torn between fluid cycling and safety. You might receive a citation – just like a car. Remembering the car door, you consider how you will look to motorists whose attention is drawn to your neon clothes. Those colors were meant to keep you from getting mowed down, not busted for illegal activity. You stop.

As soon as the light turns green, you begin to move with the flow of traffic. Everything looks fine. You’re about to safely cross the intersection when a pedestrian, talking on a cell phone with one hand and drinking a cup of Starbucks coffee with the other, steps out in front of you. You squeeze your brakes while trying to steer around this oblivious creature. “Damn it!” you yell. “Watch where you’re going.” Your heart pounds as you recover from an adrenaline rush released by a close call.

Back on open road, you heave a sigh of relief. No cars in sight. You increase your speed: the worst part of town is behind you. A horn honks loudly, making you jump. An out-of-control driver is exercising his right to engage in road rage. No one did anything to him, other than not allowing him to have his way.

Just then, you notice the sun sinking in the sky. It hits your eyes at a blinding angle. Instinctively, you raise your left hand to shield your eyes. A car pulls out of a parking space, not noticing you. Anticipating this move was impossible with the sun rendering your vision next to useless. Fortunately, the driver sees you at the last minute and slams on his brakes.

You recover your composure. It’s getting darker. Shadows are everywhere, making the road appear uneven. It doesn’t matter: you’re almost home. Cars pass in single file to the left. You barely pay attention to them now that there’s a shoulder to ride along.

Abruptly, something appears in your path. What is it? Is it sharp? Can it be ridden through? You try to slow down, but there is traffic approaching. Only a few seconds to decide. Go straight, swerve right into gravel, swerve left directly into traffic?

Getting closer, the debris starts to look tire-piercing. It’s extending into the roadside. There’s no room to go around it on the right. Should you try to ride down the steep embankment, onto the grass, with your narrow tires? You’re bound to lose control. What to do: there’s no time to think. Just react and hope for the best. Swerving sharply to the left, you put yourself in the way of traffic. If only you’d had enough time to signal. Your muscles are poised for quick maneuvers.

Get back to the right before a car clips you, you tell yourself. You guide your bike back around the edge of the debris when, suddenly, the front wheel drops into an unforeseen chasm in the road. Pulling up on your handlebars with all your strength, you try to free the wheel from this hollow. Forward momentum spins you around. Your wheel is stuck. Your body begins to move away from the bike. You’re falling. Soon you’ll hit hard pavement, hoping to avoid a car’s course. You slide on your shoulder until friction brings you to rest.

Nothing has hit you. You’re OK. You look back at the debris and broken road behind you.

How could you not have seen it coming?

It’s the panic factor.

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4 Responses to Road Debris and the Panic Factor

  1. Rebecca says:

    Good God! What a way to cycle! I always look ahead & make my move well in advance so that I don’t have to swerve at the last moment. I move at about 10 to 12 mph which is not with the flow of traffic so I have plenty of time to react. If a pedestrian steps out in front of me, I’ll brake & say something because I’m irritated at them but my heart doesn’t pound because I’m just not gong that fast to begin with. As for nearly getting doored that just doesn’t happen to me because I ride outside the door zone (the five feet next to a car) which I admit is difficult to do since the bike lanes are all within the door zone! Ride outside the door zone & you don’t have to swerve! Although I ride all the time in Boston, I haven’t had an accident since 1979 & even that didn’t involve a car. Accidents while cycling for the most part are avoidable if you slow down, stay away from parked cars and be very focused on your surroundings.

    • Kim says:


      I think you missed the point: this is a fictional account of a cyclist’s experience. Many people are more fit than you and naturally ride faster. I ride between 12 and 15 mph and have had these experiences. In fact, I think the description is very realistic.

      You’re lucky if you rode in Boston and didn’t have an accident in 30 years. My roommate has never owned a car and she’s had several bike accidents. She was doored. A car squeezed her to the right into the door zone – in some places there’s not enough room to ride five feet away. She said she was trying to swerve away from the car door and didn’t have enough room so she hit the door and crashed. She was also hit by a car – when it ran a red light.

      I can relate to the part about reacting to debris. I was riding no more than 12 mph when I saw a large black trash bag in front of me. I went around it and saw some glass and broken car parts on the road. I got scared because a car was going fast near my left side and I didn’t want to ride through glass. I tried to steer around the debris but I touched a car piece and lost control. I fell in front of a car and it came very close to running me over. I also broke my wrist. You can ride carefully and obey all the traffic laws and still have accidents when you share the road with cars.

  2. Rebecca says:

    I may not be a high-speed cyclist but that doesn’t make me unfit. I can ride any distance comfortably. I could ride faster in the city -and occasionally I do when necessary- but I choose not to because riding slower gives me more time to react to obstacles.

  3. nancy says:

    there are definite advantages to being a “stationary” biker. I get to ride in the safety of my own home, watch the world reports, talk on the phone, or simply drift off into the nether world without any fear of falling off due to debris. the roads where I live are scarey – without side walks, one lane in each direction, many curves, and where cars travel at high speeds. most bikers ride around 6am to avoid being challenged by their environment… sad, sad, sad. I think I will watch a movie tomorrow when I ride.

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