Whenever any conflict arises between drivers and cyclists, who are supposed to be sharing the road, the subject of driver education comes up. As many people have observed, drivers don’t know how to share the road with bicycles.
For years, drivers education has focused on the idea of properly maneuvering a car and following the rules of the road. All of this is taught in the context of sharing the road with other cars. The assumption is that driving is an activity involving one car interacting with other cars on roads built for cars.
The rules of the road do take pedestrians into consideration, but only insofar as to warn drivers to yield to them when they’re traversing crosswalks. In other words, pedestrians are viewed as obstacles in the road.
Just as a driver wouldn’t drive his car through glass or a deep ditch, he shouldn’t drive over or through a pedestrian. In accordance with his training, a driver should either yield to or drive around obstacles in the road.
Bicycles fall into the same category as pedestrians. As something other than cars, they constitute another type of object, one which moves faster than a pedestrian, but slower than a car. Again, like their pedestrian counterparts, they exist on the road, in relation to drivers, as things to be avoided when driving. In essence, driving is broken down into three activities: moving, steering and avoiding obstacles.
Although this is the traditional method of teaching driving, it is wholly inadequate when it comes to sharing the road with bicycles. It’s not possible to interact with bicycles, in a mutually beneficial way, by simply avoiding them. To do so is nothing more than reducing them to impediments. It robs them of their status as vehicles and brands them with the mark of a moving target.
This arrangement is in large part responsible for the high number of close calls and unacceptably high number of collisions between cars and bicycles. The reason for this is that the cars are driving as if they were the only vehicles on the road. And driving in this manner does not allow for any interplay between bicycles and cars.
From the perspective of a cyclist, this appears to be little more than a cat and mouse game. The cyclist must constantly survey the road in an attempt to anticipate and avoid any cars which may interfere with his or her riding. Sometimes this routine becomes a guessing game because a cyclist can’t always know what a particular driver will do. Judging from the position and speed of the car, some educated guesses about the driver’s intentions can be made. But, ultimately, it comes down to the cyclist’s instinct and experience, and whether a particular scenario will unfold is merely a question of odds.
What this leads to is avoidable accidents followed by the blame game. Cyclists blame the drivers for their carelessness and drivers blame the cyclists for riding on roads where they don’t believe bicycles belong. In the end, most people agree that the accident could have been avoided. But how?
Education. Drivers must be educated. The problem is that the only form of commonly available driver education focuses on sharing the road, which is just another way of saying “don’t mow down bicycles.”
There is no emphasis on teaching drivers to understand how bicycles function or what it’s like to be a cyclist. In short, drivers know how to drive, yet they don’t know how to ride.
In order to educate them properly, the emphasis should be removed from simply using caution around bicycles and instead placed on understanding what goes into riding a bicycle. Whether they ever mount a bicycle or not, drivers should be taught the ins and outs of riding a bicycle in traffic.
Sharing the road means understanding traffic. And with increasing numbers of bicycles on the roads, bicycles are beginning to make up a significant percentage of all traffic. Factor in the rising popularity of bike share programs and bicycles emerge as a legitimate form of transportation, not too different from cars.
Whether or not they own a car, the vast majority of cyclists know how to drive. They know what it’s like to sit behind the wheel of a car. So they can imagine what the users of other vehicles, namely cars, are experiencing. And, that’s what this boils down to: experience.
To effectively share the road with bikes, drivers must share the experience of cycling. This entails knowledge of how fast a bicycle can travel — something drivers frequently under or over estimate. It also includes comprehension of maintaining momentum, the need to steer around debris, opening car doors, oil patches, leaves, and wet or damaged manhole covers.
Drainage grates with slots parallel to the road look harmless to drivers even though they can mean a nasty fall for a cyclist. Catching a front wheel between the slots can cause a cyclist to fly over the handlebars head first. Unless drivers know this, they won’t expect a bicycle to swerve at the last minute to avoid the grate.
Small amounts of snow and ice are no match for a car, still, they can easily cause a bike to slide out from under its rider, which can result in treacherous skidding. This can send a bicycle flying into the path of traffic. Knowing these things would give a driver insight into what’s necessary to safely share the road with cyclists. Rather than avoiding bicycles as obstacles, drivers could anticipate the movements of bicycles and coordinate their actions accordingly.
Making cycling a legitimate form of transportation isn’t just about providing cyclists with safe places to ride. It’s about making cycling an experience that all road users can understand.