“That could never be me,” you’re thinking. “I’m a good driver.” I know.
But for about 800 bicyclists every year in the US, and the 800 drivers who hit and killed them, it is them. Not to mention another roughly 5 times that many cyclists who are non-fatally, but sometimes life-changingly, injured each year in crashes with motor vehicles.
The tragic truth is that these accidents are usually preventable, and usually very one-sided. As a driver protected by your vehicle, you’ll probably be fine. As for the cyclist, well, it’s often game over.
The Challenge of Biking in the US
I’ve had my share of close calls while biking. I love the freedom of travel by bike, and I’ve pedaled highways and back roads in places like Southeast Asia and South America. But the place where I feared for my life the most? Cycling across America.
Nowhere else did I encounter so much traffic, such fast speeds, and such hostility from drivers as in the good old US of A. Drivers in most other countries accept that roads are to be shared with all sizes and speeds of transportation. Not here in America, where cars reign supreme.
Turns out I wasn’t overreacting. Compared to eight other developed nations, Americans bike less AND die more often doing it. Reasons are complicated but include infrastructure designed to favor cars, lack of a critical mass of bike commuters, and cultural attitudes.
It was during those long miles dodging traffic on busy American roads that I realized just how chillingly easy it is for motor vehicles to kill people riding bicycles.
You might want to think about it too, next time a bicycle-riding human appears near you on the street. Here are some tips for avoiding a mistake that you can never fix.
Several times I’ve had people open their car doors into my path without looking, and each time I’ve been lucky: I was able to slow or swerve. Others aren’t so lucky, and “dooring” – when an oblivious motorist opens their car door into a cyclist’s path – is unfortunately all too common.
Either the cyclist is forced to swerve into traffic, potentially being smushed by another vehicle, or they’ll take the lesser of the two perils and run smack into the door, usually causing injury. Not a good set of options.
To avoid dooring cyclists, get in the habit of opening your car door using the Dutch Reach, as they do (for real!) in the cycling-friendly Netherlands: reach around your body and pull the door handle with your right hand (assuming you’re the driver on the left side of the car). This will force you to turn enough to see cyclists approaching from behind.
Cyclists, here are tips on defending yourself.
Right and Left Hooks
These are the two most common ways cyclists are hit at intersections. In a right-drive country like the US, a right hook is when a driver turns right and hits a cyclist on the right of the road. A left hook is when the driver turns left across the intersection without yielding to a cyclist traveling the other direction.
These death traps are common because drivers often don’t take the time to look closely for cyclists before turning. A study using eye tracking technology in Toronto found that 58% of drivers failed to adequately scan for bicycles before making right turns. Yikes!
This one is easy to avoid. As a driver, turn your head to look before turning, and remind yourself to look for small vehicles (like… bicycles!) before committing to your turn. As a cyclist, be extra vigilant at intersections and ride like you expect this to happen.
That little swerve or moment of inattention when you look down to correct a botched auto-complete? Most of the time it’s no big deal. But if it happens at the wrong time, someone dies. I think this one is self-explanatory.
Driving Under the Influence
I think we all know that driving while intoxicated is a horrible, stupid, deadly thing to do. So it’s no surprise that alcohol (consumed by motorist) was a factor in 20% of bicycle fatalities in the US in 2017.
To be fair, the same statistics show alcohol consumed by the cyclist was a factor in a similar proportion of the deaths. So, everyone, please don’t drink and drive or cycle.
Small increase in speed = big difference in how likely a collision is to kill. A car hitting a pedestrian at 36 to 45 mph per hour is four times more likely to cause death than a vehicle traveling between 26 to 30 mph (source: Quartz).
Since 75% of cyclist deaths happen in urban areas, this is especially important for drivers in cities. We’re not talking about the freeway here, where I know you want to go fast. When you’re driving through a congested area with lots going on, please, please drive the speed limit. It gives you more time to react to the unexpected, and makes a crash less likely to kill if it does happen.
It doesn’t take much. An unexpected pothole, an excitable dog, an unlucky flat tire, and we’re flying through the air. Even at a moderate riding pace, we can easily lose control and be flung into the traffic lane, even if we were safely tucked away in a wide shoulder or bike lane. Unless you’re paying attention and passing at a conservative speed and distance, you won’t be able to react in time.
I’ve been there. On a busy highway in Missouri, I picked my way along a dirt shoulder because the cars forced me off the road. I didn’t want to be there, but my preferred route was flooded by storms and so I was stuck.
My wheel slipped in some hardened tire ruts. I had no control as my body pitched toward the white line on my left. I watched it getting closer and closer, finally hitting the pavement just inches from it. The car beside me was going too fast to react in time and didn’t even slow down. It was so close, guys. So close.
Both of us made mistakes that day. I should have dismounted on that rough shoulder. The car coming up behind should have slowed (there was oncoming traffic so moving over wasn’t an option). We both got lucky.
As a motorist, remember, cyclists can make mistakes. Try not to kill us when we do. We’ll try to pay attention and deal with your mistakes too.
I want to be very clear: bicyclists share the responsibility of avoiding accidents. Personally, I ride like I don’t trust anyone, even myself. I know people make mistakes. I do everything I can to make sure another person’s mistake, or my own, doesn’t cost me my life.
I encourage everyone who rides a bike on roads to learn as much as they can about how to bicycle safely with traffic. No matter how aware and careful drivers are, cyclists are ultimately the ones who care most about our own safety.
If people on bikes and people in cars work together – in sharing awareness, in considering each others’ needs, and in watching out for deadly mistakes – I’m certain we would see fewer people killed on the road.
A Plea to Drivers
When we ride our bikes on the road, we’re not trying to make you late to work. We have a legal right to be there, but we still don’t like being in your way. We feel scared and sad when you pass us like you don’t care whether we live or die.
If we’re riding in the traffic lane, it’s probably because it’s the only place we can reasonably ride, due to factors you probably don’t notice because you’re in a car. We’re probably more stressed about it than you are.
We may seem faceless under our helmets, but we’re not so different from you. We have jobs, dreams, fears, and heartaches. We’re mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, friends, and coworkers. We’re humans.
We ride bicycles because we love it, because it helps us manage a health condition, because it keeps us fit, because our car is in the shop, because we don’t have a car.
Sure, a few of us are jerks, just like in any other group of people. But the rest of us, we’re trying. Some of us (*raises hand*) ride with two rear view mirrors. We pull off the road if we think we’re inconveniencing you too much or causing an unsafe traffic situation. Most of us follow traffic laws. All of us want to live through our next ride.
When you drive your car, you have power over whether people on bicycles (and in crosswalks, and in other cars, and in your own car) live or die. Use it benevolently. Be a protector of these fragile lives in your hands. Wouldn’t you want others to do the same for you?
Save a Human on a Bike
Let’s review. If you want to avoid killing a fellow human on your next commute, follow these tips:
- Open your car door using the Dutch Reach (or at least always look behind you).
- Look carefully before turning. Always. Swivel your head so you can actually see to the side of your vehicle before you turn.
- Don’t use your phone while driving (but you already knew that).
- Don’t drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs (you already knew that too).
- Drive the speed limit, especially in congested urban areas.
- Always pass cyclists safely: at a safe speed and at least 3 feet away. If there isn’t room to do so, wait until there is. It’s a small delay in the grand scheme of things.
- Expect the unexpected. Cyclists can fall, be startled, or swerve to avoid obstacles in the road that you can’t see. Pass carefully enough that you can react if they fall or swerve in front of you.
- Remember, people on bicycles are people too.
Thanks to Patrick Traughber for his tragic and thorough list of cyclists killed by cars in San Francisco, which I used to help compile this post.
You may also want to check out this quick post called Ten Things Cyclists Wish Drivers Knew, which makes some very good points.
If you’re feeling inspired to help make America’s roads safer for people on bikes, check out these advocacy organizations:
Share to Spread The Word
Simple awareness is a huge factor in bicyclist safety. The more drivers can be reached, the better. I encourage you to share this on your social media channels below so more people can learn about the issues facing cyclists and drivers.