Sunday, 29 May 2011

Right of Way and Driver Education

Last night we were returning home on our bikes. As we approached an intersection where we needed to make a left turn, we signaled and moved to the leftmost part of the lane. A motorist approaching the same intersection behind us began to honk. We turned around, confused. The light had just turned red and all three of us were stopped at the intersection. She continued to honk. We asked what the problem was. She rolled down her window, and the conversation went something like this:

Motorist:  What the hell are you doing?!
We:  What do you mean?
Motorist: You're not supposed to be in front of me like that, you're blocking the road!
We: We're using the road just like you. Why are you honking?
Motorist: What the hell am I supposed to do when you're blocking my way?!
We: You're supposed to wait for us to turn.
Motorist: But you're not supposed to be there if I need to get by. You don't have the right of way!
We: What? Of course we have the right of way, we were here first.
Motorist: Unless you're in the bike lane, you do not have the right of way! You're supposed to let me get by!
We: Bicycles have the right of way just like any other vehicle.
Motorist: Not if you're not in the bike lane!
We: Yes. Check your facts.
Motorist: No! You check your facts!

I don't know how things would have gone had the light not turned green at that point, but it did. The motorist floored the gas pedal and veered around us in order to proceed straight as we made our left turn.

It's not so much the motorist's rudeness that I found alarming  (she was screaming at us), but the fact that she genuinely believed that cyclists did not have the right of way unless they were in the bike lane. In other words, she thought that if a cyclist needed to make a left turn, they must stand aside and wait for all the cars behind them to pass before they were allowed to proceed. This is blatantly incorrect, but that doesn't help any in situations like this.

In my view, lack of drivers' awareness about bicycling laws is largely responsible for cyclist-motorist confrontations. When I first began riding a bike in Boston, drivers would occasionally scold me for "breaking the law" (i.e. cycling on the road). Now that bicycles have become more common this seldom happens, but yesterday's encounter shows that misunderstanding of road rules still exists. I've read that in areas where this is especially bad, cyclists have taken to carrying copies of local bicycle laws and handing them out to motorists who harass them. That is further than I personally would want to go. But it seems to me that some driver's ed initiative is in order - especially if a city is actively striving to be more "bicycle friendly."


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