Spring is here in Ontario and this year we went from -7C one weekend to sunny and +20C the next weekend. As an avid cyclist and amateur racer, I’m extremely excited to be out on the bike without needing my winter gear.
It’s evident many other people share this excitement about the good weather as I’ve noticed a sharp increase in the number of bikes on the road. This is great! There are many positive things that happen when people choose to bike, but I won’t get into them because you already know them or you don’t care and I’m not interested in trying to persuade you.
I’m going to discuss safety and responsibility. Those two things go hand-in-hand. If you are a responsible road user, you will be a safe road user. And I use the term “road user” instead of driver on purpose. There are many types of vehicles that are legally allowed to be on the road. All of them have responsibilities and many of those responsibilities are similar (laws), but there are some key differences that I will mention.
You are the most vulnerable and most restricted road user. Your biggest interaction with the road comes at intersections. Your biggest responsibilities are to be predictable and try not to die.
I have a pet peeve and it’s partially due to a misunderstanding of the term “right of way.” When I met my wife, I had lived in Ayr for my whole life. It’s a small village without a single stop light and, if you go the right way, you can make it all the way through the town without hitting a stop sign. My wife (then girlfriend) was living in Mississauga. During any of the times we made it outside her parents’ house (wink, wink), I would be amazed at the cavalier way she would wander around the local streets and parking lots at malls and plazas. She would just start walking in the direction that she wanted to go. No shoulder check; no worries about what was happening around her; just walk. I confronted her about this and she told me that pedestrians had the “right of way.”
Mind blown. I had no idea of this concept. I always assumed that the only thing keeping me alive was the understanding that if I walked in front of a car, I would die. That’s it. I didn’t know there was this thing called “right of way.” Sorry, that should be capitalized for the magical essence it carries: “Right Of Way.”
And I discovered that this was an attitude that many people in Mississauga had. So, when I went back to Ayr I shared this information and was told that I was crazy. It turns out there is a distinct difference in attitudes between city-folk and country-folk. I’m not sure if it’s because of the difference between the speeds in the city verses the country or the amount of sidewalks or intersections or number of pedestrians or the lack of understanding of physics, but there is a difference. City people believe in the “Right Of Way” and country people lack faith.
The city people are right. At least in Ontario and many other places. At an intersection, as long as the light is lit for “walking,” you can cross with the knowledge that all other traffic must stop for you. What happens, though, is that people start to take this as a “right to invulnerability.” I see them crossing streets without looking, fully expecting any traffic to stop for them. Even if they do look, they expect that car to stop. This is a misunderstanding. Pedestrians have the right of way at intersections. That’s it. I know some of you will say that in a court of law, if a car hits a pedestrian then it’s the car’s fault, regardless of where the pedestrian was crossing the street. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it doesn’t really matter because…
Pedestrians should do their best not to die. Regardless of what the law says, you should try not to be directly in front of vehicles. The easiest way to do this is to follow all the laws and be predictable. You are the most agile road user and can change direction in an instant. Don’t do that. At least, not until you’ve established that it’s safe. If you change your direction too quickly, other road users can’t react in time to not make you die. When you’re crossing at an intersection, pause to check that no one is turning or running a light or whatever. They may be at fault, but you’re the one that’s going to die.
I know this sets up a precedence for cars to be bullies, but here’s how you counter that: Pause, make eye-contact and stick a leg out to test them. If they look like they will stop then you might be safe. If they ignore your “Right Of Way,” throw your water bottle (hamburger, rock, bike, dog, etc) at them. That way, you’re still establishing your “Right Of Way” and either winning the battle if they stop or not dying if they ignore you.
You are the least vulnerable road users and, therefore, carry the most responsibility. And in this game, the bigger you are, the more responsibility you have. This may not be spelled out in the law, but it’s true. The bigger you are, the more dangerous you are to more road users (With great power comes…).
Other than following the law, your biggest responsibility is to try not to kill other road users. That’s it. Very simple concept.
It’s tough, though. You have to follow all of your laws as well as keep in mind that some other road users have slightly different laws than you and behave very differently than you. You are in control of a very fast, heavy, large, poorly-responsive weapon that requires so little input that falling asleep is a very real danger to many drivers. It’s so easy that we actually have to create laws that say “Hey, DUMBASS! Stop eating/drinking/texting/watching tv while you drive! Look out your windshield!” The only thing easier is taking a bus or a train and many people do. The biggest thing stopping most people from using those options is that they have to put in work to get to/from the bus/train and that puts the overall workload of their trip above that of just driving their own vehicle.
When it comes down to it, just don’t kill other people. Keep your eye out for other road users, try to anticipate what they might do and react accordingly. This won’t solve every problem because freak accidents happen quickly and, like I said, cars are poorly-responsive and shit happens. This is why traffic is so heavily controlled. If we didn’t have lanes and other traffic features, it would be a shit-show like many of the places featured in the show “Don’t Drive Here.”
This is were things get fuzzy. Bicycles are the “mules” of the traffic world. You have many of the same laws as cars, but are more like pedestrians when it comes to behaviour, size and responsibilities. Because of this, everyone is confused about what the laws and responsibilities of cyclists are and everyone hates them. Drivers hate them for being on the road and pedestrians hate them for being on the sidewalks. There’s so much confusion about their status that even cyclists don’t know what’s going on because different states/provinces can have very different laws; even down to the region/municipality/city. I’ve heard that Burlington allows bicycles on their sidewalks, but I don’t follow that exception due to safety concerns. Also, I don’t know if Oakville allows it and that’s half my commute.
One thing that seems fairly universal is the fact that bikes are legally allowed on the road (if not required to be there due to being banned from sidewalks).
As a cyclist, your main responsibilities are to be predictable and try not to die. Sound familiar? It’s the same as being a pedestrian. This comes with a caveat: you are “bigger” than pedestrians and much faster, so your “power” goes up and so does your responsibility. You have an added responsibility of not killing “smaller” road users. In many places, this means that you can’t use the sidewalk because you are too dangerous to pedestrians. On the road you are considered a “vehicle,” but you only have the relative power of a pedestrian. Isn’t cycling appealing?
This power differential in both worlds puts you in “no man’s land.” You can’t be on the sidewalk and drivers don’t want you on the road.
“What about the bike lane?” you ask. Good question. Where are they? On my route to work, I have “bike lanes” that consist of anything from symbols painted on an otherwise regular street or lines painted at the side of the road giving a meter or less, to fully separated “recreational paths.”
Just this morning, some asshole (hey, did I mention that there may be strong language in this post?) blasted his horn at me as he passed my bike. I caught him at a light and he rolled down his window to give me shit for being on the road instead of the “bike lane.” The bike lane to which he was referring had a km or two of safe travel and then it crossed a residential area where it cut across many small roads and a bazillion driveways. This is simply not safe. No one looks for bikes when they pull in/out of their driveways or use the small streets. Everyone pulls out to the edge of the road and stops. This is natural as there isn’t any danger to them before that. “What about pedestrians? I always look out for pedestrians and they aren’t dangerous to me!” you say. Yep, and they’re slow and very close to you as you pull up to the edge of the road. If you didn’t see them, you shouldn’t be driving.
The problem drivers have with bikes is that they’re super-fast compared to pedestrians and about the same visual weight. That’s why they’re hard to see and that’s why I will never use a “bike path” that is poorly implemented. I use the road because it’s safer than bike paths and the sidewalk when I’m travelling at 30km/h.
“Why don’t you just slow down?” you say. Fuck You. That’s why. Also, I’m allowed on the road and it’s much safer. But “Fuck You” has a better ring to it. I want to keep commuting to work and 25km is a long way, especially if I have to slow down in order to use a poorly constructed bike path just because drivers are too irrational to “put up with” cyclists.
Also, the bike paths in my area are sporadic at best. On one section of my commute, there is a bike path that leads all the way up to the highway overpass, ends at the beginning of the overpass, then starts up again on the other side. I guess I’m just supposed to teleport past the area in which a bike lane would actually be the most useful. Urban planning at its best! I just need to find the teleportation button…
Bikes are vulnerable. In fact, in many areas they’re more vulnerable than pedestrians because of poorly constructed infrastructure and negative attitudes. They are fast and no one wants them in “their” space. If you stick to your responsibilities as a cyclist you have a chance at survival, but you’re still at the mercy of motor vehicles. Even if you use the bike lane, have all your lights, move predictably, obey the laws and watch out for pedestrians, you can still easily be schmucked by some dumbass who isn’t looking out his windshield (John, may he rest in peace — he didn’t die, but we’ve got a race coming up and he needs to recover from being schmucked by some dumbass who wasn’t looking out his windshield).
Most cyclists are well aware of the danger that lurks inches away from them and they do their best to “not die.” One of the problems is that there aren’t enough cyclists on the road in my area because it’s too dangerous because there aren’t enough cyclists teaching drivers how to negotiate around cyclists. My safest choice is to be visible and ride well inside the driving lane. This makes me more visible to drivers already on the roadway or entering/exiting the roadway and forces them to react to my presence instead of just ignoring me and squeezing past me without crossing the centre line while oncoming traffic abounds.
But What About Motorcycles?
You are the impossible creature that would result if a mule fucked a horse. You are bicycles on steroids. You are faster and carry more power than bikes, but are still quite invisible to drivers. Your responsibilities are similar to cyclists, but you are more like cars.
Just two days before my buddy got schmucked by a car while riding his bike in the bike lane, there was a tragic accident at the top of my street. The driver of an SUV turned left and a motorcycle with two occupants slammed into the SUV. It was totally the SUV driver’s fault, but it wasn’t at the same time. He missed his main responsibility as a driver because he didn’t see/look for the motorcycle and that’s his fault. At the same time, the motorcyclist was speeding (according to the reports) and that puts him at greater risk because he became less visible due to being small and outside the range of speed at which drivers are expecting traffic to proceed.
When it comes down to it, if we all stick to our own business, including our responsibilities, there’s no reason we can’t coexist. If everyone looks out for themselves and anyone smaller than them, then we should be covered. Try not to be killed by bigger things and try not to kill smaller things.
And put your fucking cell phone down. You aren’t a good enough driver for that. Yes, I mean you. And even you, too.