Like them or loathe them, drivers and cyclists need to coexist. I happen to be both, and I – like many others – am guilty of a little self-righteousness, both in the car and on the bike. I see it from both sides, but consider me a driver first. I understand how frustrating it can be to get stuck behind somebody on a bike, though I also sympathise with those on two wheels who are simply trying to get somewhere without being run over.
So using my position as a diehard car-lover and an avid cyclist (and a motorcycle rider to boot) and the unique perspective on road safety and etiquette that affords me, here are eight simple steps for WhichCar readers to make life on the roads more tolerable for everybody, and hopefully offer some insight into what cyclists are thinking when they do what they do.
1. LEAVE SPACE
This should be obvious, right? Unfortunately it isn’t, as the Roads and Maritime Service in NSW has had to mandate a 1.5-metre gap for cars overtaking bikes at speeds above 60km/h. That’s a lot of room, probably more than is strictly necessary, but it illustrates the issue.
There are two extremes here, those drivers who seem to get a thrill out of all-but sideswiping riders and those who seem to be scared about cyclists somehow throwing themselves under their car wheels unless they move onto the wrong side of the road to overtake. Aggression and over-cautiousness can be as unpredictable and dangerous as each other, but the basic principle is the same – leave riders enough room to go about their business without scaring them and without putting yourself in danger. Take an extra moment to double-check the road ahead before making your move. Cyclists can be put off by erratic overtaking and they are always going to come off second best if something goes wrong.
It’s worth mentioning here that cyclists do sometimes need more room on the side of the road than a driver might think is necessary. Many drivers expect cyclists to ride in the gutter, but what is hard to see unless you’re on a bike is that most roads are bumpiest on their edges and far from spotless, and there are obvious problems with riding in glass or gravel which means cyclists will try to pick a clean line near the side of the road, but maybe not quite as far over as some drivers would like. The main thing here is to keep your cool. You won’t be stuck behind them forever. Wait for an appropriate gap in traffic, and make your move.
2. CHECK MIRRORS
If you’re driving on a road with a bike lane, it’s fair to assume there’s a higher likelihood of cyclists in the vicinity. Before setting off from a set of lights, look to the side, check your mirror and glance over your shoulder for a cyclist who may have rolled up to the front of the bike lane while you have been waiting for the lights to change. I have been squeezed up against gutters and almost pushed off my bike a number of times by drivers who have driven away from lights and cut across the bike lane on the other side of the intersection, simply because they didn’t know I was there.
This brings up another point: entitlement. In the eyes of the law, cars and bicycles are equally authorised to use (most of) the roads, and though our attitudes to each other are invariably different depending on our chosen mode of transport, everybody benefits from showing a bit of respect. Be prepared to make minor concessions for the other, whether you're a driver or a cyclist reading this. And if you're one of those drivers telling cyclists they should pay rego - I do. On a car and a motorcycle. So if I choose to cycle for the fitness benefits, that should be just fine.
One of the most dangerous (and annoying) things drivers can do around a cyclist is speed up to get past only to slow down and a turn into a driveway or side street. In our haste to get in front of somebody on a bicycle it can be easy to lose sight of where we are on our journey and find ourselves ‘needing’ to aggressively jump in front of a cyclist and subsequently cut them off. Where possible, if a turn is coming up, stay behind the cyclist until you reach the corner you need. Let the cyclist go on ahead before making your move. Over the course of a journey, hanging back at a lower speed for a few hundred metres will make next to no difference to the length of time it takes to get where you’re going, but it might save a rider from t-boning your car.
4. OPENING DOORS
In Holland there’s a thing called the ‘Dutch reach’. It’s a habit instilled in drivers to remind them to check for cyclists before opening their doors. In locations where parallel parks run side by side with a bike path, a quick peek in a side mirror is enough to make sure there’s nobody approaching in the cycleway who might get a nasty surprise from a door swinging out in front of them. Cyclists call this being ‘doored’. It has a name because it happens quite a lot, and it can cause serious injury to riders and big damage to car doors.
5. BE SMOOTH
Generally speaking, cyclists are very aware of their surroundings. They need to be in order to make safe choices. Safety should be the first thing in a rider’s mind, and sharp, unpredictable drivers are bad news. Yes, it can be infuriating to be in a position where a rider separates us from a clear road ahead for even a moment, but the main thing here is to keep a calm head. Again, these moments of inconvenience will barely impact on the overall time it takes to get to our destination, so it’s best to wait for a suitable gap, move out to a safe distance and get well and truly in front of the bicycle before moving back into the lane. Hesitating can be extremely off-putting and decisiveness is actually a good thing, provided it goes hand in hand with a bit of respect for the person on the bike.
As a rider I try my utmost to show respect to drivers by riding in single file, even though it is legal to ride two abreast, and, when there isn't a bike lane, by staying behind cars that have already stopped at traffic lights rather than rolling up to the front of the queue. I understand that not all cyclists do this, but unfortunately there are bad cyclists just like there are bad drivers. Try to avoid tarring every rider with the same brush.
This is something I hate as both a driver and a cyclist. Cars that stop or pull over in the middle of the road, without warning, are plain dangerous. I see it more when I’m on my bike, presumably because drivers don’t see a car behind them and assume the road is empty, so they pull over with no indication and it’s up to me to react quickly enough to avoid them. All it takes is a simple flick of a blinker to tell the world what you’re about to do. Make it a habit. Do it all the time, whether you think there’s somebody who needs to see it or not. Because there just might be. This is a general rule too – not just when there are cyclists about.
7. ASSUMING SPEED
You may not think it, but riders can reach speeds of 50km/h and above, especially on downhill sections. Of course, many riders are slower than this, but making an assumption about the speed of a cyclist is one of the more dangerous things a driver can do. Consider the scenario of a cyclist approaching from the opposite direction while you are waiting to make a right-hand turn across oncoming traffic. You see the cyclist and think the gap is big enough, but they’re travelling faster than you assumed. That gap might not be so big anymore. If you have any doubt, stop. Let the cyclist pass. If you collide, that rider is the one leaving in an ambulance even though it was you, the driver, who made the mistake.
Don’t get me started on this… Just don’t. Burying your head in a phone while behind the wheel is plain dumb.
At the end of the day all of us are simply trying to get somewhere, and though we protect the bitumen in front of us like it’s our own sacred territory, a little bit of acceptance will go a long way. Cyclists are extremely vulnerable, and though they might get in the way temporarily it’s worth remembering that each bike could be another car making the traffic jam worse.