BikeSplaining Road Safety for Drivers

September 13, 2015

I’ve noticed that car drivers on the internet often think they are qualified to lecture “cyclists” on how to be safe. This is ludicrous, given that the average driver is 10 to 20 times as likely to kill a pedestrian as the average cyclist, with a similar ratio for serious injury, and the cyclists are mostly car-owning licensed drivers anyway. “But cyclists break traffic laws”. Number one, they only do so about as often as drivers – people are people, we all make mistakes and take shortcuts, and we all also overlook the faults of our own tribe and are hypersensitive to those of “the other” – and number two, if you really think that cyclists DO break laws at some unusually high rate, then that means that laws have not much at all to do with true road safety. Recall that bikes are 10 to 20 times less likely to kill or seriously injure pedestrians than cars – that’s safety.

So, if cyclists don’t obey laws, what do they do that makes them so much safer? And wouldn’t it be great if drivers knew about this, so they could do these things too, and be much more socially responsible? I’m sure they’d really like to know, so I will BikeSplain safety for them:

  • around bikes and peds, 20mph is plenty. Not 21. 20. And in general, never build up speed you don’t need; if the light is red, why not coast as soon as you see the red, instead of going fast and then braking at the last moment. Speeding-then-braking is a waste of energy and poses unnecessary risk to others.
  • do not use a larger vehicle than necessary for the errand. 100lbs (a large cargo bike) is adequate for 3 kids, groceries, etc, if you’re only traveling a few miles. This holds true even when choosing one car over another, if you have a long or hilly errand, or if you are disabled in some way; an SUV is over 3 times more likely to kill someone else than a regular-sized car.
  • windows down, stereo off. You need to be able to hear what’s going on around you. With the window up and stereo on you’re effectively deaf, and you’re certainly less able to hear than a cyclist using earbuds (yes, someone has tested this).
  • if you’ve been drinking, it’s good to always pass a small challenge of coordination before embarking on a journey to be sure that you’re sober enough to drive a car. For example, if you cannot keep a bicycle upright for more than a block or two, you are surely too drunk to drive. So if you’ve been drinking, even a little, be sure to ride a bike first as a test to see if you’re sober enough to drive.

Almost every cyclist on the road obeys the rules above, and that’s the main reason why they’re so much safer than drivers. The one exception is people who are training to race – they often travel faster than 20mph and are less safe for pedestrians, but fortunately they are a small minority of urban cyclists.

Many cyclists follow additional safety rules to obtain even more safety. I use these rules myself, and I’ve seen other people do the same:

  • never use your horn or bell. Use your brakes instead. Think about all the stuff that has to go right for your horn to make things safer, versus the certainty that you see something going wrong and could start slowing down right away to either prevent it or mitigate it. With the windows down and stereo off, you might be able to even talk to the people around you.
  • if you can imagine a potential crash, act to reduce its risk and/or mitigate it if it occurs. No free pass just because you think the other guy is breaking a law. How sure are you about traffic laws? And so what if they are breaking the law, is dead an appropriate outcome? Is that guy with the leaf blower going to stumble backwards into the road? If you see a teenaged boy on a bicycle or driving a car, what are the odds he might do something irresponsible? Drive as if that might happen, and be prepared to keep it from causing a crash.
  • reduce speed limit by 5mph for each child/dog (up to 3) near your path, i.e., 15, 10, 5. It’s unlikely that you can keep track of 3 unpredictable moving objects at once, and even trying will distract you from everything else you should be watching. So slow down, to give yourself more time and to mitigate the harm of any crash that might occur.

In the spirit of “Same Roads, Same Rules”, I think these are good rules for everyone to follow, both in cars and on bikes.

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