How NOT to be nice to bicyclists

At intersections, some motor vehicle drivers offer to let bicyclists go first, even though it is not the bicyclist’s turn. To the driver, this may seem like a nice gesture, but it is often not taken that way by bicyclists.

Intersections are about taking turns, and about right-of-way rules. At a signalized intersection, the signal indicates whose turn it is and makes things simple, but at intersections with stop signs (two-way or four-way), or yield signs, or no signs, the driver (of the bicycle or motor vehicle) must use the rules and their eyes and their brain. These are the rules:

  1. First come, first served.
  2. First come, first served.
  3. First come, first served.
  4. If two vehicles (bicycles or motor vehicles) arrive at the intersection at the same time, at an angle, the one to the right goes first.
  5. If two vehicles (bicycles or motor vehicles) arrive at the intersection at the same time, facing each other, the one going straight goes before the one turning left.

Why did I repeat the first one three times, other than being funny? It is because too many people know the other two rules, and don’t seem to know the first.

When a motor vehicle driver yields to a bicyclist when it is the motor vehicle driver’s turn to go rather than the bicyclist’s turn, they are violating this most basic rule.

Why is this a big deal? When drivers do not take their correct turn, it leads to uncertainty for everyone, and uncertainty can lead to, at the least, frustration and anger, and quite possibly crashes.

As a bicyclist, I will not go when it is not my turn. If I did do that, I’d leave myself both physically and legally vulnerable. I have absolutely no guarantee of the behavior of other drivers who may be not polite, but taking their rightful turn, or who get impatient, or who push their way in, or even just are not paying attention.

So there is a stand-off. I shake my head no, and if that doesn’t work, I wave the driver whose turn it is to go. And then I wait. And sometimes wait, and wait, and wait. Meanwhile, I’m in a vulnerable position. Drivers behind me may get impatient and angry, not understanding why I’m not going. If I’m making a turn, I’m often stuck out in the intersection in a place that I don’t want to be hanging out, rather than having already safely completed my turn. This stand-off doesn’t increase the risk for people in motor vehicles significantly, but it very much does for bicyclists.

Motor vehicle drivers may say, “but most bicyclists don’t take their turn.” Yes, this is often true. I believe there are two things are work:

  • Many bicyclists ride just like they drive. They don’t take turns at intersections, pushing their way in before it is their turn. They don’t stop at stop signs, figuring if they never really stop, they have the right of way. Yep, the same thing motor vehicle drivers do. My anecdotal observation is that car-free bicyclists are much more likely to do the right thing at intersections than bicyclists who also drive motor vehicles. My data-based observation is that bicyclists and motor-vehicle drivers comply with stop signs at almost the exact same rate. Don’t believe me? Spend some time at an intersection and see how many drivers (of bicycles or motor vehicles) come to a full and complete stop, as the law requires. Not many.
  • Bicyclists have been trained by “polite” motor vehicle drivers that they don’t need to take their turn, and so they don’t. Every time a motor vehicle driver yields inappropriately to a bicyclist, it reinforces this behavior.

So, if you are one of those motor vehicle drivers, I ask you to stop yielding inappropriately.

“But, what about the bicyclist who doesn’t stop – I don’t want to run them over.” Or, “what about the bicyclist who doesn’t stop, I’m angry that they won’t follow the law and think themselves above it.” The answer is to be hyper-aware at every intersection. These are the places where most crashes occur, and so they are good places to pay extra attention, and use your brain rather than your emotions.

What everyone should be doing at every intersection (assuming no traffic signal) is:

  1. stop at the stop bar, or the edge of the crosswalk if there is no stop bar; if you can’t see from there, then creep forward until you can see, but only after having initially stopped
  2. look left, right, and left again before entering the intersection
  3. make eye contact with any person who may do something unexpected; this means other drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians, really, anyone else who is there
  4. yield to pedestrians
  5. continue looking left and right, as well as forward, going through the intersection; you can never be certain that someone else is not violating the law and endangering you

If you do this, then the “rogue” bicyclist who is not following the law and taking turns will not be a complete surprise to you. You will be able to respond appropriately, ensure that a crash does not occur, and go on your way. Everyone ends up safer, everyone ends up happier.

By the way, a bicyclist who does not stop when there is no one there to yield to or to take turns with is, yes, violating the law, but is not failing to practice safety. Bicyclists can see better and stop faster than any motor vehicle driver. So if you see a bicyclist at a distance, slowing and looking but not stopping when there is no one there to interact with, understand that they are acting in a completely safe manner. Take off your law enforcement vigilante hat, and smile.

2 thoughts on “How NOT to be nice to bicyclists

  1. Boy, is this right! M Street in Sacto is a nightmare for this, and many drivers won’t even respond to a wave indicating, “You go ahead.” so I just wait them out.


    • Yes, though M Street problems are somewhat related to two issues: 1) too many stop signs, and 2) the informal nature of the street as a bike boulevard, which causes both bicyclists and motor vehicle drivers to think of east-west traffic on M Street having some priority over north-south on other streets. I’ve written previously about stop signs.


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