The description “invisible drivers” can mean many things. If you’re a driver, it can refer to a car in your blind spot or a car entering the road out of nowhere without stopping to look for traffic. If you’re a cyclist, invisible drivers are the ones who come up on your left very quickly and then swerve in front of you to make a right-hand turn. Unless you heard them coming, and were quick enough to realize that they intended to pass you and turn in front of you, they were essentially invisible.
But there’s another type of invisible driver who doesn’t readily come to mind. When this driver is coming your way, their car appears empty. You do a double-take because the car seems to be driving itself. It’s hard not to watch such a car, even when you should be looking at the road. As you get closer, you notice the top of a head with a chin tilted upward trying to peer over the dashboard. You can’t help but wonder why anyone would think that holding one’s chin up would significantly improve visibility.
This posture represents a unique breed of invisible driver — the elderly driver who is sitting too low to see what’s going on around him or her. I’ve always thought that someone ought to offer these people a booster seat to improve their driving. Even if it doesn’t improve their reflexes, at least they’ll be able to see what’s coming.
On this lovely Labor Day weekend, as we mark the official end of the summer (although not weatherwise), I encountered an aged invisible driver on a busy road. I was approaching an intersection where I didn’t have a stop sign. As I looked to the left, I saw a car cautiously inching up to the main road. I stared straight at the driver’s side of the car only to see the top of a head and no eyes.
Judging from the hairstyle and forehead, which was all I could see, I imagined this person to be in her late 80’s, if not early 90’s. With the front of her car poised on the edge of the main road, she sat frozen in time as if mummified by fear.
I watched her intently. My gut feeling was that she would not notice a bicycle. From her vantage point, she would be lucky to catch a glimpse of a truck. A bicycle would not even register as a blip on her radar.
Part of me wanted to call out to her to draw her attention in my direction. However, I didn’t want to startle her by doing something unexpected. So, instead, I readied one foot to prevent me from crashing in the event I had to make an emergency stop to avoid her.
I was directly in front of her and she hadn’t moved an inch. I thought I was home free. Unfortunately, just as I rode in front of her car, she decided to cross the intersection. By the way she was driving, I could tell that she didn’t see me at all.
She wasn’t going too fast, but she wasn’t braking either. As that sinking feeling of waiting to be hit by a car settled in, I decided to call our to her, to see what would happen.
“Hey lady!” I yelled to get her attention. “There’s a bicycle in front of you. What are you doing?” She didn’t look up — or maybe she did. It was impossible to tell from her sunken position in the car.
I tried to ride away from her to buy some time. I also tried calling out something friendly like “hello, hello.” Still she looked straight ahead and continued to drive right at me.
At the 11th hour, she leaned forward and suddenly realized that something was in her path. An agonizing moment passed as I waited for her to take action. In a decelerated time sort of way, she hit the brake hard enough to throw her backwards against the car seat.
I saw her head jerk back in a whiplash motion and then jut forward like one of those dolls with a bobbing head. I hesitated for a moment, not quite sure what she would do next. I couldn’t tell whether she intended to turn left or go straight. Whatever she chose, I hoped she wouldn’t drive directly into me.
She seemed drained by her emergency stop and stayed on the spot where the car landed, so I managed to accelerate out of her range, without coming to any harm. With all the emphasis on kids texting while driving, which causes them to take their eyes off the road, we lose sight of less obvious problems like elderly drivers sitting too low in a car to be adequately aware of what’s going on on the road around them.
Drivers engage in many reckless and dangerous behaviors; these behaviors result in many injuries and deaths. But so do non-aggressive behaviors such as driving a car without being able to see over the steering wheel.
When drivers are invisible, cyclists can’t make eye contact with them. Knowing whether it’s safe to proceed is nearly impossible in these situations. The only thing a cyclist can do is practice extreme caution and make a concerted effort to get out of the invisible driver’s way.
Along with all of the other safety advice given to drivers, especially on public service announcements, there should be information on driving safety for the elderly. In particular, the elderly should be reminded that we all lose height as we age. So, periodically, seniors should check to see whether the car seat is high enough for them to see above the steering wheel and over the dashboard. If modifications to the car are necessary, then so be it. Addressing seat position problems beforehand is better than wishing you had done it after-the-fact.
As more baby boomers move into their 60’s and 70’s we’ll have a significant increase in older drivers on the road. Hopefully, they’ll take safety seriously and will pose one less problem for cyclists. In the meantime, cyclists should make a mental note about invisible drivers and plan to react quickly in cases where cars seem to be driving themselves.