Share the Road: Why Bicyclists Deserve Drivers’ Respect
In cities and towns all over the country, more and more people are using bicycles to get around. If you think about it, this should come as no surprise: they’re lightweight, portable, and inexpensive—and to use them, you don’t need to have an insurance policy or buy gas all the time, either! But though bicycles promote fitness and have a low impact on the environment, some drivers still believe that bicyclists don’t belong on the road.
One thing we need to clear up right away: across the U.S., bicyclists are allowed to use most of the same roads as car and truck drivers (though bikes are generally not allowed on freeways and interstates). In every state, the law specifies that bicycle riders have the same rights and responsibilities that drivers do. This means that bicyclists must obey STOP signs and red lights (except in some states), pay attention and signal their intentions to turn, and never ride while intoxicated. It also means that drivers must be prepared to yield to a bicyclist in any situation they’d yield to a driver.
Now let’s address some other misconceptions about bikes:
- The sidewalk is usually not the best place for bicyclists (other than children and the elderly). On sidewalks, bikes are much more disruptive and threaten pedestrians far more than they put cars at risk on the road.
- Bicyclists should not be kept off the road just because they don’t have licenses or because they don’t pay fuel taxes. These factors have no impact on who may use the road. Because bikes cause less damage to other drivers, to the roads, and to the environment, state governments choose to exempt them from these requirements.
- Bicyclists do not cause as many traffic delays as you might think. After all, traffic congestion is usually worse on freeways, where bikes are prohibited. No one can use the roads without occasionally delaying someone, and most delays caused by bicyclists could be solved simply by widening narrow roads by a few feet.
- Bicyclists should not be judged by a few scofflaws. Sure, some bicyclists may run red lights illegally or ride unsafely, but that doesn’t mean they all should be banned from the road—after all, if we applied the same logic to cars, no one could drive! Think about it this way: if you had to share the road with a discourteous person, would you feel safer if they were driving a car or riding a bike?
Nothing about a bicycle makes it intrinsically more likely to cause problems on the road than a car. The truth is that bicyclists kill far fewer people, cause fewer delays, and break the law no more regularly than the drivers of cars and trucks. As long as a person obeys the law and remembers their responsibilities to others on the road, what difference should it make what kind of vehicle they use?
How to Share the Road with Bicyclists
If you need any more evidence that bicyclists are some of the safest road users out there, consider this: for the past decade, the number of bicyclists killed each year has consistently been between 600 and 800 people, even while the number of people using bikes to commute has increased by over 60% nationwide!
Nevertheless, it’s our responsibility as drivers to help get these numbers even lower. Remember, a car weighs about 200 times as much as a bike, so if you hit one, it’s the rider who’s likely to be seriously injured. Bicyclists and cars are most likely to collide when the driver is passing or turning. To do your part to share the road safely, you should:
- Leave Three Feet for Safety: When passing a bicyclist, make sure there’s three feet between the side of your car and the position of the bicyclist. If there’s not enough room, slow down and only pass when it’s safe. Because a wind draft can pull a bike towards a car, a driver who’s too close can endanger a bicyclist even if they don’t hit them. That’s why this rule is a law in many states.
- Look Before Opening Your Door: Bicyclists are required to ride along the right side of the roadway except when turning or avoiding an obstacle. This creates the potential for conflict with cars parked at the curb. If you swing your door open when a bicyclist is approaching, they may not be able to stop in time to avoid a crash.
- Watch for Bike Lanes and Potential Hazards to Bicyclists: As a driver, the more you can predict, the safer you can keep yourself. By looking for areas of the road where bikes are more likely to appear and for obstacles that may require cyclists to swerve suddenly, you can protect yourself from potential conflict. And keep in mind that for cyclists, potholes, sewer grates, and even fast food wrappers can represent danger on the road.
- Be Careful at Intersections: In 2013, over a third of collisions with cyclists occurred at intersections. Commonly, drivers turning right will fail to notice bikes on the side of the road approaching from behind, while drivers turning left may not see an approaching cyclist entering the intersection from the other side. Before beginning your maneuver, be sure to scan the intersection thoroughly and yield to oncoming bicyclists.
- Pay Attention: We can’t stress enough the importance of attention when you’re behind the wheel. Because of their narrow size, bicycles can be especially easy to miss if you’re distracted by a text message or don’t actively check your blind spots. At traffic lights and STOP signs, always make sure it’s safe before you proceed; otherwise you may run into a cyclist—or a driver—who didn’t.
As drivers, we’re more used to sharing the road with cars and trucks and may naturally find it easier to be tolerant of mistakes when it’s another driver, rather than a cyclist, who makes them. But even when a cyclist is riding unsafely and slowing down traffic, we have a responsibility to share the road patiently. A calm and courteous attitude will help you avoid a collision that could cost you your license—or that could cost someone their life.