To coincide with this year’s Tour de France cycle race, the THINK! Road Safety team have issued a timely reminder that it’s not just drivers who get distracted and cause crashes, people on bicycles do, too!
As a footnote: Congratulations to British rider Chris Froome for his fourth overall TdF victory today, and his third win in succession.
Undercover police officers in Birmingham, England, posing as cyclists, caught a trucker who has becomes one of first motorists in Britain to be prosecuted under a new law for driving too close to a bicycle.
In several American states, recent laws have mandated a minimum gap of just three feet when a motor vehicle is passing a person riding a bicycle but other countries have laws requiring a 1.5 metre gap — in other words 36 inches in the USA versus 59 inches in other countries… 62 percent more safety space.
Will having just three feet of space be acceptable? It is surely obvious that having a large vehicle, maybe even something as big as a semi-tractor-trailer whizzing past just three feet away will at the very least be unnerving, and given the buffeting of the air that can be created by a large vehicle, it’s not hard to conclude that it could be risky, too. And then there’s the question of what happens when a driver is incapable of accurately judging a gap of three feet. There is clearly and indeed most literally not much room for error.
And the second question is: How exactly is this law going to be actively enforced in the states in question? Or should the question be: IS this law going to be actively enforced in the states in question?
One thing is for certain, and that is that I am very curious about how the gap is going to be measured, from one state (or country) to another,
“Not too long ago, I was riding my bicycle near the corner of 9th and Carpenter behind a motor vehicle, which was behind another motor vehicle, which was behind a bus. No one was moving very fast, as is often the case on South Philadelphia’s narrow streets. But that didn’t matter to the middle-aged man in the pickup truck behind me. Flustered and in a red-faced rage, he incorrectly told me I was legally required to get out of his way. Ignoring him at first, I turned my head only when he threatened to violently run me over with his vehicle. I pointed to the car in front of me, and the one in front of that car. “No one’s going anywhere fast,” I said with a shrug. But that only made him angrier. “I don’t care,” he yelled out the driver’s side window. “I’ll run you down!” Sound familiar? If you’re a person who rides a bike, it probably does…”
“…[Bad] situations occur because people on bicycles and motor vehicle users are expected to share city streets. And while people on bicycles make mistakes, too, their mistakes don’t have the same potential to hurt other road users like that of a guy in a pick up truck who thinks he’d get to his endpoint two minutes faster if the bicyclist were out of the way…”
The safety tips from cars.com, shown in the article linked below and apparently based on NHTSA guidelines aren’t bad but aren’t complete, either, so here are some missing but important bits of advice:
While bicyclists and pedestrians are advised by cars.com to wear conspicuous clothing, motorcyclists are not…. But they should be! Riding with the headlight permanently on low beam, even in brilliant sunshine, is extremely helpful, too. (Auxiliary driving lights can be used instead but don’t buy any that are excessively bright. Bicyclists are also able to get flashing strobe lights and even the most powerful of those are literally painful to approaching drivers. Dazzling oncoming drivers in daylight is an effective way to get them to stare at you, but such staring is called “target fixation” for a reason. “Moths to a flame” and that sort of stuff!)
Another vital piece of advice for all two-wheel riders is that when not at a red light and making a left turn from a main road into a side street or driveway, and irrespective of whether you can keep moving or you have had to stop and wait, the very last thing you should do before starting the actual turn is a proper shoulder check, over your left shoulder. In Britain, where this technique has been taught for decades to very good effect, this crucial last look is known as the “lifesaver,” and it’s your own life that we are talking about. You are, of course, looking for a driver who is so unthinking that s/he hasn’t even noticed you and is either overtaking you at a highly inappropriate location or is heading for the same turn as you. It happens!!!
Now on to the subject of car, SUV and pick-up truck drivers, etc. The fact is simple: Far, far too many motorcyclists are killed when other vehicles pull out of a side street in front of them. Afterwards, the car drivers typically give the reason for the dead body nearby as either (a) “I just didn’t see him coming,” or (b) “He must have been coming really fast because when I first looked to that side [usually the left] he wasn’t even in sight!” Both of these excuses are empty and untrue, no matter what the driver thinks. The reality is that a narrow-profile vehicle such as a motorcycle does not trigger a driver’s senses the same as does a larger vehicle, and drivers often “Look but Do Not See!” (which is known to knowledgeable police officers, crash investigators, and paramedics as “LBDNS”). The moral for drivers is simple: You really MUST be particularly careful to look for approaching motorcycles at all intersections. The riders’ lives are in your hands and if you get it wrong you may become a killer, no matter what excuse is given to the police.
The following video clip is from 1970s Britain when this lethal aspect of driving was first being addressed with nationwide television adverts (so yes, it looks incredibly dated, but the message is still perfectly true).
In addition, for drivers it is far easier to ‘lose’ a passing motorcycle in your rear left and rear right blind spots as you are starting to make a turn or a lane-change. This is why it is crucial to make regular mirror checks every 4-8 seconds during all forward driving, AND to make a shoulder-check at the last moment before actually starting the turn or lane change. (Remember that in slow-moving urban traffic, such as during rush hours, bicycles and mopeds may pass you in the right, too.) This is one of the key reasons why NOT setting your door mirrors in the fashionable ‘wide’ position is best — ‘wide’ mirrors can easily cost a passing biker his/her life.
Here in the USA, it has become ‘fashionable’ but dangerously inadequate for states to introduce laws requiring drivers to leave only three feet of space when passing a bicyclist. However, there are many circumstances, typically involving speed and/or the size of the vehicle, when passing that closely would at the very least be frightening for the person on the bicycle and at worst be downright dangerous.
The first bit of advice and legislation needs to be: If it’s not safe to pass a bicyclist because you can’t leave enough space for genuine safety then be patient and wait behind until it is safe. Remember, a driver’s convenience and selfish desire not to be delayed must never take priority over other people’s safety, ever!
Secondly, as implied above, the minimum safe passing distance needs to be significantly more than a mere three feet. As an example, Britain is now formalizing its guidelines, which have always unofficially been around six feet, and is now saying that the absolute minimum gap should be 1.5 meters, but larger where safely possible.
Compare the recommended 36 inches in the USA to the 59 inches in the UK — effectively three feet versus five feet — and then compare the vast difference between actual road safety results between the two countries. Britain for at least 30 years has typically vied with Sweden each year for who would have the safest roads in any developed country. The U.S., on the other hand, has always been in the bottom three of the ~30 member nations of the OECD — the group of developed nations that are checked against this standard every year — and has a road death rate over four times greater than the UK and Sweden. So which countries’ example do you think it might be better to follow?