Effective Driving

March 2, 2011

Decades ago, a method for cycling with/in traffic called Effective Cycling was developed by John Forester. For individuals who can convince themselves to ride in traffic it works, but unfortunately, most people cannot convince themselves to ride in traffic, so as a guide to public policy it fails utterly (almost nobody here rides bikes; we’ve had decades for it to work, and it has not).

As safety advice Effective Cycling grates because it internalizes blame-the-victim; in any bicycle-car collision, it is the presence of the car that contributes most of the lethality, yet the recommended burden of change is on the cyclist.

I modestly propose here rules for Effective Driving that will make automobiles safer for cyclists (and for everyone else). As a general rule it helps to remember that a car driver is sitting in an armored climate-controlled comfy chair with a sound system; what’s the rush?

Rules for effective driving:

  1. Obey all applicable traffic laws. Don’t speed, even by a little. Stop, really stop, for stop signs, and for red lights, stay stopped there. In both cases stop AT the stop line, not past it or slopped on top of it. Stopping too far into the intersection can impair your view of side pedestrian traffic. Stop before turning right on red, too. DON’T dance your car forward by itty-bitty steps while waiting for the light to turn, either. That confuses (and sometimes threatens) pedestrian and bicycle cross traffic; around a piece of heavy machinery, confusion is not good.
  2. Assume nothing. If you can’t see because you are sunblinded, or in fog, or because a truck is blocking your view, it would sure be irresponsible to drive blind, wouldn’t it? So don’t. Don’t be the guy who hit an elephant. Don’t be the guy who hit a six-foot-tall cyclist in an orange bunny suit driving a pedicab. Don’t be the guy who ran down this little girl’s parents. If you can’t see, reduce speed, even to the point of stopping. And don’t just look — take care to see what is there.
  3. Turn your lights on before sunset, keep them on after sunrise. In low-light situations everyone’s vision is impaired more than they perceive; lights are easy to see, and also can paint reflectors and brighten them up, even while the sun is up, but low in the sky.
  4. If an accident, any accident, can be avoided with your brakes, you should not use your horn. Your horn is a safety device, useful if your brakes fail or if someone is about to back into you while stopped. “I’m impatient” is not a safety issue. In some jurisdictions this is even the law, though it is rarely enforced.
  5. In non-highway traffic it’s wise to drive with your windows partly down and the music not too loud. Otherwise you impair your hearing and become less aware of what’s going on around you.
  6. Give pedestrians the benefit of a doubt; if you see someone standing at the edge of a crosswalk yet not aggressively crossing, perhaps they are just especially intimidated by traffic. Try stopping for a moment to see if this is the case. If you think you see someone who wants to use a crosswalk, slow down a lot as soon as you see them so that they know that you see them and intend to stop; otherwise, they must wait till they are sure that you will stop.
  7. If you are passing a pedestrian or cyclist and oncoming traffic (for whatever reasons) suddenly does not allow room, swerving into the unarmored human is not an option. Slowing/stopping to reduce the impact and relying on your car, seatbelt, and airbags to protect you, is. You’ll probably walk away; if you swerve into someone who isn’t protected by a car, they probably won’t.
  8. Clean all your windows; clean your headlights and signal lights, especially when it has snowed. You should drive extra-carefully if your vision is impaired, and your lights should all be visible to other people.
  9. At night or in rain or snow, drive more slowly and more carefully. There’s no exceptions for ninjas at night in crosswalks; even if they’re hard to see, you still have to stop for them. So, treat crosswalks as if a ninja might be stepping into them, because they have that right.
  10. Be considerate; if passing bikes or pedestrians, NEVER zoom through a puddle in a way that will splash them. Always pass at a moderate speed with enough clearance (3 feet is the law in many jurisdictions).
  11. When children, dogs, or people working are near the road, be extra careful, because you never know what they might do. Remember — a moving car is what’s dangerous, not a dog, or a child, or someone working near the road.
  12. Don’t tailgate. If you find yourself adjusting your speed often with your brakes, you are probably tailgating.
  13. For most distractions (GPS, music player, phone, etc) consider whether you would let yourself be distracted like that while handling a pot of boiling oil or operating a circular saw. If you wouldn’t, maybe you should pull over or let a passenger deal with it.
  14. If you ever catch yourself wondering about whether someone else (pedestrian, bike, horse, whatever) has a right to the road, consider the signs on interstate entrance ramps. Only cars, trucks, and motorcycles have a right to be on the interstate highways; it says so, right there on the sign. Do you see those signs on roads that are not interstates? If not, then everyone has a right to use those roads.

Other suggestions are welcome.

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