Thursday, January 4, 2001

The Music In The Dance

I was riding in the car with a friend of mine recently, when we came upon a cyclist on a two lane road. My friend slowed a little bit, merged into the oncoming lane to overtake the cyclist and then we resumed cruising speed.

A voice from the back seat said; “That biker was lucky there was no traffic coming the other way, or who knows what would’ve happened!” (His soon to be driving daughter was watching her father drive with a new critical eye.)

This is actually an interesting question as we think through the interplay of the traffic principles and human behavior.

This post is mostly an answer to drummergeek who wonders aloud for our benefit how I could drive my bicycle in the lane on a 65 MPH road.

The Three Parts

It occurred to me, as I thought about this post, that there are three main notions that prepare the way for one’s entrance into The Dance, [a] as Keri calls it. 1) Knowledge of the law and our rights, 2) Understanding traffic movements and principles, and 3) The human factors, or attitude.

I have rearranged a lot of electrons on the first two, but not so much on this last one. How do motorists react to bicycle drivers, and why? Or to put it another way, what would have happened had there been opposing traffic?

The Choices, Choose One

Traveling down a signed 55 MPH two lane shoulderless road, a motorist comes upon a slow moving vehicle in the lane –a cyclist- and there is a long string of opposing traffic in the oncoming lane. What are the choices available for the motorist to overtake this cyclist?

1) He can straddle the lanes, hoping oncoming traffic makes room for him.
2) He can pull off the road to the right and hope he can maintain control while passing and during the transition back onto the roadway.
3) He can run the cyclist down.
4) He can slow down and wait for a sufficient gap in the opposing traffic to pass the cyclist in a safe manner and with due care.

As silly as they sound, those are really all the choices they have. We will look at each one in turn.

Choice (1) through (3) fly in the face of the first primary directive which is, Thou Shall Not Hit Anything With Your Car. This is the first rule pointed out by the parent who taught you to drive, and this prime directive has been reinforced on every excursion since. It is reinforced every time you park, back up and maneuver in tight places. It is ingrained into your SOUL! It is now an immutable instinct.

Choice (1) would mean that you would tempt fate and a head-on collision with about a one hundred mile an hour closing speed. And you would have to overcome your prime directive instinct as well. Not very likely. (Most motorists need a blind curve or a hill crest to hide opposing traffic from them in order to do this one!)

Choice (2) is fraught with unknown hazards for the automobile driver. One motorist attempted this maneuver with me once. She abandoned the attempt when an unnoticed mailbox banged off her hood.

The likelihood of gravel and hidden junk in the weeds flying up to scratch and damage one’s paint job is usually enough to discourage those who can overcome the prime directive to seriously consider doing this.

Choice (3) is the one people wonder about.

I have witnessed motorists swerve over three lanes of traffic to avoid hitting a plastic shopping bag sailing across the road on the wind. I think chances are high that you have seen something akin to this yourself.

Try out this as a thought experiment: Place a large recognizable object in the middle of a high speed travel lane, like a grandfather clock -something obviously stationary- and how long would it take before it was hit by a motorist? Hmmm? [1] And when it was finally hit, do suppose it would be by mistake from someone attempting to avoid it, or the deliberate and a conscience act to run it down?

Not only would the motorist have to overcome the prime directive in order to deliberately run down a cyclist, they would have to overcome our natural aversion to killing someone. In other words, only a sociopath would be able to do it. Sociopaths are culled from the herd rather quickly in our society, though, and because of that, they are exceedingly rare. It is a waste of energy to worry about this happening to you. [2]

The fourth choice is the one chosen most often. The motorist hits the brakes, honks his horn and fantasizes about choosing (1) through (3). (And lately, they have also been calling 911.)

The Human Factor

Even though the average motorist is completely ignorant about the fundamental traffic principles,[b] the slow moving vehicle laws and bicyclist’s rights to the public road, he is, on a primal fundamental level, unwilling to hit a cyclist.

The key is to alert him at the earliest possible moment that he will have to do something to avoid you. And nothing sends that message better than being smack in the middle of the lane he is using.

The further away he is from you when he decides he has to do something to avoid you, the more time he has to survey the current situation and prepare to overtake you. On a four-lane, like Hwy 287, it is only the distracted drivers that get caught behind you.

On a four lane road (Two lanes for each direction.) the operators of faster traffic need not be concerned with opposing traffic, their concern is only in executing a safe merge into the passing lane. A far simpler thing than overtaking on a two lane.

With the long sight lines afforded by such roads, they can understand the need to change lanes from a half mile or more away. They merge early and never need to even let up on the gas. It is seamless and elegant, and the early merge reveals me to the sleepy-head behind him sooner.

It is the distracted drivers that do not perceive me until they have narrowed options. They are the ones that match my speed while they wait for a gap in the passing lane. They are the ones that, in frustration, pass on the shoulder. (Sorry to interrupt your text based conversation there, sweetie! Here’s an idea! Call the police!)

It is my presence that forces the motorist to follow the principles of the slow moving vehicle statutes, whether they know about them or not.


Understanding your rights when operating on the public way as slow moving vehicle, and knowing the traffic laws of your state, as well as how traffic works is enough to embolden the cyclist to take his rightful place in The Dance.

Understanding the human factors will give you the confidence to focus forward to the real hazards facing you, rather than being concerned about what the motorists behind you are doing. To enjoy the music played during The Dance, so to speak.

Baby Steps

It is hard to see in one’s mind’s eye how a cyclist traveling at 15 miles an hour could survive on a 65 MPH road. It is admittedly something you have to work up to. Just like a 25 mile ride.

If you go to the fastest road you are comfortable riding on, and observe the traffic on it from the sidewalk, does it look like a safe place for a bicycle? Not from the sidewalk, and not from the windshield either.

But you have done it.

For me, it was narrow right lanes on 30 to 45 MPH four lane artirials. (This is Dallas Texas. Were they driving at the speed limit?) When I drove centered in the lane, it was like I had my own ten foot wide bike lane. The posted speed limit had no effect on overtaking traffic conflicts- there simply weren’t any. Ever.

The same dynamics were at play on country two lanes, only the speeds were faster. Signed 55 MPH would often mean overtaking at 65 MPH in the next lane. In practice, it was no big deal. They would slow and pass in a gap in opposing traffic, if it existed, and warp speed if there were no traffic in sight.

After those kinds of two lanes, how bad could a four lane with good sight lines be? It is no different than an arterial except for the addition of an improved shoulder and fewer intersections.

None of the above roads look safe from the sidewalk for a cyclist.

I say those looks are deceiving. Come, join in The Dance!

[1] It would be unmarred until dark.

[2] Impaired operators, either under the influence of drugs or having a medical crisis, fit in this category as well. There is no real defense for these people other than staying off the public road itself. They are becoming more rare, happily, and a successful “Do Care” campaign would go a long way to make this problem even more rare.

[a] Keri, the dance
[b] Steps of the Dance