Drivers make mistakes, too

By From page A8 | October 17, 2013

By John Whitehead

Jane Dyer makes excellent points about cars and bicycles sharing the road, including an acknowledgment that people make mistakes when using either mode of transportation (Enterprise letters, Oct. 7). Her list of errors made by bicycle riders suggests that we also should consider common behaviors by car drivers that reduce the ease of road sharing. Incongruously, public officials discuss bicycle safety without mentioning any need to improve motor vehicle operation in the presence of bicycles. Lauren Keene’s Oct. 10 article offers an example.

It is often said that drivers have to guess what bicycles are going to do next. Cars are similarly unpredictable due to inconsistent usage of turn signals, but complaints are rare and the law is not enforced for this common sloppy neglect.

Some vehicles don’t move over when passing, effectively treating bicycles with the same respect given to orange plastic cones. People die “accidentally,” just like orange cones sometimes get knocked over. It is hard to fathom why anyone would put a higher priority on avoiding yellow paint than on safe passing. I assume they just don’t understand, or may not be confident in their own driving skills to move over briefly. Hopefully, it will help that Gov. Brown recently signed a new law to require at least three feet of clearance.

Vehicles very often pass bicycles just prior to making a right turn. At least in Davis, drivers then stop and wait for the bicycle to continue forward, but sometimes a car turns right into a bicycle’s path. Strangely, very few people know that the law specifies moving to the right edge of the roadway before turning right.

Recently I was riding my bicycle westbound on Eighth Street, and stopped for a red light at Anderson Road. While waiting by the curb after pushing the button to obtain a green light, I was delighted to see that a car blinking a right turn signal had stopped behind me, also close to the curb. I moved to the left, to let the car turn right on red. As the young woman continued on her way, we smiled and waved. If a less-experienced driver can do this correctly, why do most people illegally turn right from what amounts to the middle of the road?

A related note is that automatic signal lights often don’t sense bicycles arriving at intersections, which may force riders to incorrectly position themselves in a right turn lane, just to reach a button. When stranded in a left turn lane that fails to provide a green arrow, riders might need to dismount and use a crosswalk to escape. It would be a win-win for frustrated drivers to recognize such problems and ask public officials for better sensors.

Wide turns are necessary for long vehicles, especially articulated trucks, but the law is not explicit about road sharing in this situation. My own interpretation is that a turning truck should wait farther back when a bicycle approaches an intersection first. Similarly, a bicycle should never be ridden up next to a right-turning truck if the truck arrives first. Obviously, the correct usage of turn signals should be taken very seriously.

Occasionally, drivers pull over and block the bike lane to answer a cell phone, exchanging one illegal act for another. Where parking is permitted to the right of a bike lane, drivers sometimes cross the bike lane without looking. As a parent arriving at school long ago, I noticed that other parents may be unaware that they routinely drive across or block a bike lane in the drop-off zone.

Vehicles driven above the speed limit endanger bicycle riders who need to change lanes or cross a road at unsignaled intersections. Inexplicably, many of us learned in driver education and even in traffic school that it is OK to exceed speed limits by 5 to 10 miles per hour. High school physics equations tell us that driving at 30 mph in a 25 mph zone increases the stopping distance by a greater amount than the total stopping distance at 15 mph. Nevertheless, it is widely thought that exceeding speed limits is less illegal than slowly and safely rolling past a stop sign.

While Dyer is to be credited for appreciating both points of view, her use of the word “traffic” leans toward the car-culture vernacular (motor vehicles), while the legal definition includes all road users. To clarify another slightly erroneous suggestion in her letter, there is no requirement to use separated bicycle paths, which are often horribly bumpy. Along similar lines, people might think that a road shoulder is a bike lane. The law does not require bicycle riding on shoulders, although it is sometimes convenient to do so for safety and courtesy.

While I completely agree that many bicycle riders make mistakes and that some are habitually discourteous, my goal here is to balance some biased views of road sharing that seem to exist. After 30-plus years using both modes of transportation on a regular basis, I currently drive my car 200 miles per week and ride bicycles 100 miles per week.

In addition, I have read the Rules of the Road, Division 11 of the California Vehicle Code. My hope is that people who never ride bicycles would both ride and read to expand their perspective, especially if they feel self-righteous toward scofflaw bicycle riders.

— John Whitehead is a Davis resident.

Special to The Enterprise

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