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.

Scofflaw bicyclists, or drivers?

I was walking around midtown this afternoon, and riding this evening, watching the behavior of bicyclists, and wishing it was better. I saw bicyclists running stop signs without looking, failing to yield to pedestrians crossing the street, and not taking turns at intersections. Yes, we’ve all seen it before. But what struck me is that almost all of these bicyclists are also car drivers, and they are exhibiting exactly the same behavior driving their bike and they do driving their car. These are all the same thing motor vehicle drivers do. The only real difference is that the car drivers  are almost all exceeding the speed limit, whereas the bicyclists are not.

Though there are some car-fee people living in midtown, and the number is growing, it is not large, and most of the people riding also drive. What they are showing is the same me-first attitude that shows up on the streets all the time, and it shows because these people are me-first whether they are riding their bike or driving their car. The problem is not bicyclists, it is attitude.

confronting the stop sign myth

this bicyclist rode through a stop sign, past a right-turning car, rude and dangerous
this bicyclist rode past a right-turning car on the right side, without letting the car driver go first

I often see or hear the statement “bicyclists run stop signs all the time.” The person making the statement is not just making an observation, but trying to justify some attitude or action on their part, such as “bicyclists shouldn’t be on the road,” “bicyclists should be on the sidewalk,” “bicyclists should be thrown in jail,” “it is OK to intimidate or run over bicyclists,” or “we should not be spending any of our transportation money on bicycle facilities.”

I think that it is time for all of us to confront that statement and end its use. Yes, it is true that some to many bicyclists run stop signs. It is also true some to many motor vehicle drivers run stop signs. To refer back to my earlier posts on stop signs, stop signs are installed largely to reduce vehicle speeds and to get drivers to take turns at intersections. Bicyclists are rarely exceeding the speed limit, so that function is not served by the stop sign, nor by a bicyclist stopping. In the case of taking turns, the issue is taking turns, not the act of stopping. If a bicyclist does not stop at a stop sign, but no other vehicles are present which should go first, then the function of the stop sign to get people to take turns is intact, it has not been violated.

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