The Driver Experience Gap: Riding Bikes Helped Me Be A Better Driver
I confess that at times I have been a bad driver in that I haven’t always followed traffic laws as dutifully as I should have. I haven’t been in many accidents, and the ones I have were not my fault. I’ve only ever been ticketed once (a rolling stop through a neighborhood stop sign when I was 16), but I have gone faster than the speed limit, I have looked at my phone while driving, I have rolled through stop signs in neighborhoods, and I have sped past cyclists and pedestrians on city roads. Usually, these instances would occur when I was in a rush and so they would seem like rational decisions to make given the circumstances. And anyway, I’d watched drivers around me since I got my license, behave in a similar and sometimes worse fashion. However, it wasn’t until I started road cycling that I understood how participating in bad driving behavior was contributing to the problem of cars and bicycles sharing the road.
Once I started road cycling I began to fully understand the ways that my bad driving was hurting other road users, specifically bicyclists. What previously seemed rather innocuous, like rolling through a stop sign, I now realize is dangerously unpredictable for bicyclists and pedestrians on the road. It only takes one instance of bad luck and poor judgment to inadvertently collide with an innocent bystander.
Having my own experience of nearly being hit by a car while the driver rolled through a stop sign looking the other way, I am reminded of that when I approach a four-way stop. I remember the look of fear and panic in the driver’s face as he slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting me and I remember the sharp pain in the pit of my stomach when I thought I would be street meat. Luckily no other cars were on the road so I could swerve into the street away from him, but the rest of the ride I thought about what would have happened if I was killed and the car drove away. Who would find me and how long would it take? The stress was almost enough to convince me to stop cycling, but what good would that do? I love riding my bike, in fact, it’s the mode in which I work through any feelings of sadness or stress.
In getting a front row view to the ways in which bad drivers drive, I made a conscious effort to be a better driver, and to be more alert and aware while behind the wheel. It is not possible to be a perfect driver, and in certain situations, it may seem that breaking traffic laws/norms is worth the trouble. But to be a safe road user it takes a conscious effort every day to make that promise to yourself and your community.
1. Stop Signs Are Not Suggestions
It wasn’t until I started cycling that I really understood the trouble with rolling stops and the danger it poses to cyclists. I’ve gotten a front-row seat to the unnerving hypocrisy that some drivers have when they shout at cyclists who ride through stop signs when I often see more cars rolling stops in my neighborhood on a daily basis. Now when I approach stop signs while driving, I take the opportunity to fully stop behind the line and look to my surroundings for signs of pedestrians or cyclists. While it’s obvious that you must stop when a car approaches the intersection before you do, it can be harder to tell if a cyclist or pedestrian is crossing the if you’re not stopped. I’ve also realized how important it is to stop behind the line, especially when merging onto a one-way street. I often see drivers looking for oncoming cars while rolling over the line, simultaneously a bicyclist is riding on the sidewalk to the drivers right. There are many close calls when a driver could roll right into a bicyclist by not looking in both directions.
2. Distracted Driving is Not an Option
On the bike you can get a front seat to all the bad behaviors that drivers engage in, especially if you’re riding road. While cycling I can predict with near accuracy which drivers are texting while driving by watching their cars in prime-time traffic. The ones who are engaged in their phones are usually swerving into other lanes at varying degrees. This poses a great risk to bicyclist and pedestrians for obvious reasons. A distracted river ahead of bicyclists on the road could come to an abrupt stop and create a dangerous situation. Or they might not even realize their swerving into the bike lane, for instance. There’s almost no excuse to text while driving, given all the apps and smart car connectivity in most modern vehicles, and even the new addition of “Driving Mode” on iPhone iOS (which sends automatic text responses stating you are driving.) But if that doesn’t do it for me, I will put my phone in the far corner of the back seat. Don’t underestimate the temptation to text back.
3. Be Cautious Before Turning Right on a Red at an Intersection
Similarly to stop signs, it’s tempting to inch forward at a stop light when preparing to turn right at an intersection. If traffic is heavy as I approach a right turn, I make it a point to assume that a pedestrian or bicyclist is crossing the street ahead of me. Rolling over the line at a red light while a pedestrian or bicyclist is crossing, could turn into a disaster, especially when you can’t see the victim and the victim can’t see you. Consider this before you release the brakes and glide into that right turn on a red light.
4. Turn Signals Are Helpful For Everyone
Part of what’s so scary about being with cars on the road is how unpredictable drivers can be. On the road, you notice when drivers unexpectedly diverge into another lane causing surprise to the road users around, despite the convenience of having a signal to indicate your direction. The benefits of hand signals while cycling is similar to the benefits of applying turn signals while driving. For road cyclists, hand signals are common practice on a busy road so that other road users can anticipate your next moves. This is most important, particularly at a four-way stop. Just as it is beneficial for cyclists ahead of the pack to indicate when they will be turning, it is beneficial for drivers to use their turn signals when preparing to divert course. This is especially important if a bicyclist is not far behind you so they can slow down to prepare for your turn. Sometimes the smallest effort can make the biggest impact.
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