Road users are confused. Rules are changing. Roads are changing. Everything seems so different and no one knows exactly what to do or what is allowed — or what one can get away with.
For decades, cars ruled the road. They didn’t have to share the road or worry about anything other than crazy drivers. Even pedestrians were off the radar because, as every driver knows, if you want to get away with killing someone, you should do it with your car.
Times changed. Owning a car became expensive; gas, insurance, maintenance, tolls, and parking added up. Driving also became a hassle. So some people began to question whether it was worth it in terms of cost and aggravation.
Many of these people turned to alternate forms of transportation. For some, public transportation replaced driving. But many people wanted the independence of traveling on their own schedule and to places where public transportation didn’t go. For this purpose, bicycles were a natural choice.
Bicycles entered, center stage, on the roads. Initially, they improvised. Each cyclist came up with a strategy for using roads designed for cars. But this led to chaos. And it angered drivers who complained vehemently to the authorities.
Despite the inconvenience to drivers, bicycles were considered to be vehicles under the law, so there was no way to kick them off of the roads. Instead, plans had to be made to accommodate them.
The approach to including bicycles on the roads was piecemeal. Cities and towns looked for low-cost solutions to splitting the roads into shared travel lanes. All sorts of lines and symbols were painted on the ground. None of these symbols had ever appeared in most towns, therefore, drivers were left to educate themselves about their meaning.
After a while — and after quite a bit of bickering — drivers and cyclists resigned themselves to sharing the road. Although they agreed on the idea of different vehicle types sharing the road, neither side liked the way the other was operating. What ensued was a litany of insults levied by one side to the other, with no end to the dispute in sight.
The source of this dispute was the way some cyclists rode their bikes on the roads. Disobeying the laws, either defiantly or because they thought that the laws shouldn’t pertain to their vehicle type, angered drivers. Part of the anger came from resentment. Cars had to stop at red lights and wait. Bicycles flew through the lights as if they weren’t there. This seemed unfair. And, it was also dangerous, as some drivers pointed out, so it caused a fair amount of consternation.
Drivers rarely saw their own part in this fray. Their driving left a lot to be desired. Recklessness and inattentiveness were the norm for many drivers. But they didn’t see this as a problem because they assumed that hitting another motor vehicle would only end in a fender-bender. Serious injuries weren’t expected. Such was their rationale for both poor and irresponsible driving.
When cyclists increased in numbers, this poor driving became deadly. For a vulnerable road user, there is no such thing as a fender-bender. Getting hit by a motorized, metal vehicle weighing a couple of tons would result in personal injury of a greater or lesser degree. The possibility of killing someone entered the picture. This upped the ante. For even the most obtuse driver can entertain the idea of a car killing a cyclist or a pedestrian.
In this context, my own rides changed. I began to notice drivers doing things I had never seen them do before the installation of sharrows and bike lanes.
The first thing I noticed was how uncertain drivers were about where and when to move into a bike lane to turn right. Some drivers sped up in order to put distance between a cyclist and themselves. Then, they jerked the car into the bike lane and floored the accelerator to start the turn before the cyclist arrived at the intersection.
Few of these drivers signaled their intentions. They just looked into their side view mirrors, tried (often unsuccessfully) to gauge the speed of the bicycle and cut into the bike lane. It was assumed that either the bicycle was traveling too slowly to catch up to them, or, it was assumed that the cyclist could slam on his or her brakes to stop in time. Both of these assumptions were faulty, but the drivers who made them believed they were sharing the road, so they never thought about it from the cyclist’s perspective.
Flash forward a few years. The tug-of-war between drivers and cyclists didn’t end; it created driving trends which didn’t exist on cars-only roads.
One of my favorite, and most baffling driving trends, was first observed when riding in a bike lane wedged between the traffic lane and the parking lane. On part of this route, few cars used the parking lane. It was mostly clear. So there was space on the right-hand side of the cyclist.
I never gave it any thought until one day when I was riding up a steep hill, in the bike lane, and I heard what sounded like a car driving directly behind me. At first I thought I was imagining things. However, a quick look over my left shoulder confirmed my suspicion. There was a car driving in the bike lane directly behind me.
This was perplexing because there was no traffic to my left. The car could have driven in the traffic lane where it belonged. Yet the driver felt it was necessary to drive up the back of a cyclist who was spinning rather slowly up a hill.
Instinct told me to hold my position. There was no way to know what this driver’s intentions were or which way he would go. I continued peddling, glancing over my shoulder from time to time.
Several minutes passed and the car was getting closer to me. I turned my head and called out: “What the hell are you doing? You’re driving in the bike lane.” My words did not deter him. I considered pulling into the traffic lane to get away from him, but before I could do anything, I felt the car swing to my right and pass me by driving in the parking lane. “What the hell,” I thought as I watched him in dismay.
Although he nearly caused me to lose my momentum, I felt relief when I saw him moving in front of me. I couldn’t imagine the purpose of his maneuver since we were not approaching an intersection. I watched him to see if he was going to pull into a driveway. He didn’t. He kept going straight.
Just when I thought that this bizarre experience was over, I felt another car approaching from the rear. “It can’t be possible,” I muttered under my breath. Two cars in a row can’t do this. But, sure enough, I felt a second car swing to my right and pass me on the right side. This was creative driving at its finest. No reason existed for these cars to pass me on the right.
I passed it off as a fluke. Then, about two weeks later, I was out riding in the early morning hours. Very few cars were on the road. It was one of those mornings where a cyclist had to decide between dismounting to push the crosswalk button to cross the road or going through a red light.
As I approached a familiar intersection, I saw a few cars coming on the cross street. I stopped to let them pass. I waited a couple of minutes to see if the light would turn green. Suddenly, I heard a car speeding towards me from behind, probably going 45 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone. I looked back as I started to roll forward to get out of the way of the speeding car.
At that moment, the light turned green. I stood up on my pedals to boost my speed when the car zoomed around me and passed me on the right. Yes, it happened again. There was absolutely no traffic on my left and this driver chose to pass on the right.
I know that some drivers don’t want bicycles on the road, but these surprise passes have got to stop. Cyclists expect drivers to pass them on the left. The law mandates that drivers pass vehicles on the left. Still, these drivers have decided to defy the law.
Continuing on my way, I started to think about this new trend. Was it the result of bicycles having the legal right to pass vehicles on the right-hand side? Did drivers feel cheated by this special right? Did they feel justified in doing it because other vehicles did it routinely? I guess we’ll never know.
In the meantime, cyclists should plan to stay alert for drivers passing on all sides. Such a trend could be temporary or it could be the result of road users feeling that if other road users can do something, they should be able to do it too. Whatever the cause, let’s hope that it happens infrequently because otherwise it could result in serious injury or death — and it makes no sense for the loss of a human life to be the sole reason drivers cease their reckless and irresponsible behavior.