Thursday, August 20, 2009

Before Being Overtaken By Events...

This is the blog post that was forming in my head before all the excitement the other night. I was going to say-

Something very unusual happened on my ride today. It was really no big deal, but for the rarity of it.

I had a string of cars pile up behind me, waiting to pass! Yes, really!

Some say that as a courtesy and as a gesture of goodwill, cyclists ought to move aside from a primary lane position to facilitate faster traffic getting by them. If it is safe to do so, they often add. But how many automobiles in queue does it take to evoke the "courtesy doctrine"? There is some dispute over this.

Many cite Pennsylvania and California statutes that mandate operators of slow vehicles yield when five or more drivers of faster vehicles pile up behind them. I guess those laws are saying that one's Right-Of-Way (ROW) is equal to 20% of everyone else's Right-To-Proceed-At-Or-Above-The-Posted-Speed-Limit. (RTPAOATPSL) When enough driver's RTPAOATPSL of .2, taken together, exceeds your ROW of 1, your ROW disappears and you are now violating the ROW of overtaking motorists!

Why five? Is three slowed vehicles too burdensome because it would force too frequent pull-offs? Is five delayed drivers suffer-able while six delayed drivers is a tragedy? I think such laws are preposterous. They are the result of political compromises and then the one size fits all mandate is forced onto the public.

In places that such laws exist, it is no longer a matter of courtesy, but a matter rights under the law. It is not a courtesy to pull aside, but an obligation. Such is the effect of laws. Law, being such a blunt force, is a poor guide when seeking enlightenment on matters of courtesy, don't you think.

Perhaps a better guide as to when pulling aside is a courteous thing to do is the amount of time a vehicle must wait behind you.

I suppose, if it were a hill crest ahead causing the motorist to be unable to pass you in a safe manner, there would be no need to pull aside, as our progress to passing lanes can be clearly seen and accessed. The trauma for the motorist by such a delay would be milder than if heavy opposing traffic were keeping them from passing you.

But if opposing traffic were steady enough that it were unlikely that a motorist's RTPAOATPSL could be resumed within 30 seconds, pulling aside might be in order. Keep in mind that this arbitrary span of time is less than most signal light cycles, which is a common, acceptable, and expected delay performed at a complete stand-still!

I do not think I have ever caused any vehicle a 20 second delay, let alone a half minute. The actual necessity to pull aside may come up from time to time for a cyclist who exercises lane control, but it is a rare and unusual situation.

In April of this year, there was some discussion of being "cautious" even though the law is clear that I am not compelled to do so. The imaginary example of impeding traffic for endless miles was usually trotted forward. So I began to take a more careful observation of just how many automobile drivers queue up behind me.

From then until the other eventful day, the highest number was two. The unusually long string of cars that momentous day was three! [Gasp!] The huge traffic pile up managed to dissipate in about 20 seconds.

In my experience, cycling on narrow roads impedes other road users, but less than the impedances caused by non-bicycle traffic. The worries people have of interfering with traffic flow when cyclists take their rightful place on the public by-ways is unfounded.


  1. Another slightly related situation: when going up/down windy mountain roads in a car, usually the common courtesy is no more than 3 cars behind before you pull over or find a spot to nudge to the side.

    I have no experience cycling up/down mountain roads. So this is only slightly relevant.

  2. You are, of course, correct when it comes to the delay cyclists cause. Pull over laws weren't written with them in mind. Coming back to Everett from skiing at Stevens Pass, delays due to motorhomes can be a half hour or more. With 20 cars stacked up, you can see that pulling over isn't unreasonable in such cases.

    I've NEVER seen such delays by any action a cyclist might make other than getting squished by having done something really dumb which is a whole different situation.

  3. Orlando has a lot of narrow 2-lane roads with high density of traffic. I pull over a few times a year. I have a lower tolerance than you for having traffic behind me. 30 seconds feels like a long time to me.

    Eliot, I've done a lot of mountain cycling. Most of my cycling vacations involve mountains. It is easier than you think to pass a climbing cyclist (well, especially me... maybe not Lance). At 5-7mph I'm almost like a stationary object, so it requires a lot less distance and time in the opposing lane.

    I've had more issues on the downhill. If the grade is sufficiently steep and there are curves, I can go faster than cars. This becomes annoying in tourist areas. I've had many hard-earned descents ruined by motorists in my way. It's a real buzz-kill. If the grade is less steep and the curves are sweeping, the cars can go faster than me. But it takes more time and distance to pass a 30mph cyclist than a 5mph cyclist. Inevitably, they end up getting in my way again when the grade steepens.

  4. But is a 30 second delay a long time to wait at a traffic signal? Much of the grief cyclists receive is a emotional response from motorists whose RTPAOATPSL is being thwarted. Put into the context of other common, and normal travel delays shows the irrationality of the motorist's distress.

  5. I totally agree. Traffic lights are sometimes well over a minute. Freight trains, school buses, garbage trucks all cause far longer delays than cyclists. Not to mention traffic jams caused by other motorists.

    Their response toward cyclists is about selfish bias, not delay.

  6. the captcha on my last comment was "piggerie"

  7. I get self-conscious if more than 2 cars pile up behinds me, and usually move over to let them pass.

    I have noticed that in nice areas of the city (where cars are used to cyclists), they are much more patient with me on hills, and yield to me more on hills at intersections. It must be because they actually realise that it will be more difficult for me to restart once I lose my momentum.

  8. I've been worried that ChipSeal hasn't posted in over two weeks, so I emailed him. I got this reply:

    First my inter-net provider will no longer provide me service. The peril of living in a rural area. The cost per customer wasn't worth it, it seems.

    But no sooner did that happen and my lap-top has a "failure-to-boot" crash- not yet resolved.

    I am at Hastings in Waxahachie using a friends laptop to keep up. As soon as I manage to get re-connected to the inter-net on my desktop I shall whine about it all on my blog.

    I sure miss the banter.

    So ChipSeal is fine; it's just technical difficulties.