Crazy car-passing antics

passing car

NO NO NO! A car should NOT be passing a bicyclist this closely.

This is why cyclists are advised to ride farther out in the lane; if a car does start its overtake this close to you, you have room to move to your right to give yourself a safer cushion. And in this photo, there’s a curb, such that under no circumstances can the cyclist move any farther over in case he might need to. Therefore, when there is a curb, a bicyclist should ALWAYS give himself more room than this guy in the photo has.

Motorists are actually supposed to give you at least three feet of clearance. Three feet is specified in 26 state laws, and four feet is specified in one (PA). It’s always amazing to see how close some cars think they can pass a cyclist, not fully realizing that they or the bicycle needs to move only a few inches for disaster to strike. If a motorist’s mother were on the bike, would he pass that closely?

Passing with three feet of clearance is also why a car usually needs to cross over the center line (on a two-lane road when the bike is in the lane) to be able to overtake safely. Which in turn is why a motorist cannot pass if there are cars approaching in that lane — or “potential” cars in the cases of a blind hill or curve ahead. Which in turn is why a motorist actually needs to slow down oftentimes to wait behind the bike until it is safe to pass. But how many motorists actually feel it’s their responsibility to slow down due to a bicycle? In my experience, maybe about one-third of them. The other two-thirds start to pass me as closely as in the photo above (before I swerve to the right), or they put everyone’s lives in danger by passing dangerously toward an oncoming car or at a blind hill/curve.

Taking the lane

I’ve mentioned several times in this blog the practice of riding near the middle of the lane. The law states that cyclists must ride as far to the right of the lane as is practical. But for the cyclist’s own safety, the farthest practical spot to the right is oftentimes nearer the middle of the lane. If you ride as far to the right as you possibly can in a typical lane (no extra room on the side of the road), you “invite” motorists to go ahead and pass you even when there is insufficient clearance, as in the photo above. By riding farther toward the lane’s center, motorists must contend with you in a more conscientious manner, and assess their ability to cross the center line to pass you.

Given that about 2/3 of motorists are hell-bent on NOT EVER slowing down on account of a bicycle, most will still pass you unsafely as I mentioned above. But at least you have room to move over to give yourself a safe clearance space. Note: You need a rear-view mirror to make these kinds of observations and decisions, so I am also a strong advocate of all cyclists using mirrors.

Many motorists will likely think you’re hogging the road and riding selfishly and illegally if you are not as far to the right as possible. One way to help overcome this misconception is to use hand signals and waves of thanks. Let me explain: If there is oncoming traffic when a vehicle is approaching to pass you, wave your left arm at a downward angle which tells the car behind that you know he’s there and you’re asking him to slow down. Many motorists will take this to mean you’re doing it for a reason, and when they actually think about it for a moment, they will likely understand the reason. And if you combine that with a wave of thanks when they finally pass you, the motorist will usually “get it” and appreciate not only you, but the concept of waiting behind a bike until it’s safe to pass.

An additional helpful gesture: The motorist will appreciate you and the waiting concept even more if, when it’s finally safe for him to pass you, you make a distinct move to the right and wave him around you. This further shows the driver passing you that you were riding in the lane for a specific reason and that you’re a nice guy, not a jerk. If he didn’t “get it” before, this gesture shows you had “method to your madness” and the motorist now realizes how to share the road safely.

Then again, I know from experience it doesn’t work 100% of the time. Once, on a two-lane road with no shoulder, 18-wheeler trucks were approaching just as a big truck came from behind. I moved to the center and did my arm waving, then when the coast was clear I moved to the right and waved him around. But this guy decided he was going to punish me for making him slow down. He had all the room in the world to pass me safely, but nearly pushed me off the road with only about 4 inches of clearance (which is precisely the unsafe clearance I was preventing by taking the lane). There were three men in the truck, and I guessed that the driver was wanting to impress his buddies by showing them how tough he was. Had he been alone in the truck, I’m doubting (hoping) he would not have done what he did.

Take the lane for these reasons too

Just a final mention of what I’ve stated in a previous blog: You also are safest if you take the lane to give yourself safe clearance from opening car doors, at a red light to prevent getting turned into, to help left turners see you so that they won’t turn into you, and when you cross over to the left to prepare for a left turn. In fact, when there is not a shoulder where you can ride, I believe it is in the best interests of everyone if cyclists always rode in the right third of the lane and never as far to the right as possible. We will be better seen and considered by motorists, overtaken more safely, and have room to our right if a vehicle does not pass us with safe clearance.


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