Imagine this: you’re driving your car home from work, approaching a busy intersection in the right lane of a four-lane street. You see the “Don’t Walk” signal flashing, so you speed up a little, wanting to make it through the intersection before the light changes. Suddenly, without warning, the car about ten feet ahead of you in the lane to your left, swerves over and takes a right turn at the intersection. If you’re lucky, you are able to stop in time and the only injury you suffer is a quickening of your heart rate. If you’re unlucky, there is a fender bender. If you’re really unlucky, there’s a major accident in which people are injured.
Welcome to the world of bike commuting, the only difference being that there’s a much smaller margin for error between the “close call, heart rate up” outcome and the “biker dies” outcome (see here and here for high profile examples in the past two weeks of how easily bike crashes can be fatal). If you’ve been a bike commuter in a city before, I would guess that this “surprise right turn” has happened to you.
In the two years that I have been biking to work consistently, I have gotten into situations like the one described above multiple times, though luckily only two of those resulted in actual contact between me and the car, and neither of those times resulted in an injury. The frustrating thing about both of these incidents, and almost all of the close calls, is how easily they could have been avoided. Every time this happens, I think to myself “Gosh, if only there were a way for cars to signal to me that they were about to turn, I would be able to slow down/speed up and avoid them!”
I know that despite the fact that bikers in San Francisco (where I live) are all over the place, cars just don’t think to look for them. That’s too bad, but manageable. For one thing, this Australian study found that this will change as more people bike and cars get used to having bikes on the road. As cars get used to bikes on the road, biking gets safer; as biking gets safer, more people feel comfortable biking, cars get used to more bikes on the road, etc . . . it’s a positive feedback loop.
This positive feedback loop bodes well for bikers of the future, but what about bikers now? For now, my approach is to bike as if every driver on the road (including those who have just parked and are getting out of my car) is totally unaware of my presence on the road unless I am directly in front of them. And as the one who will almost certainly lose in a collision between the two of us, I’m willing to take whatever steps I have to make sure that collision doesn’t happen. That’s where turn signals come in. If you don’t know that I’m there, but I know what you’re going to do, I can plan accordingly (slow down, speed up, go around, etc.). I’m willing to take on most of the responsibility, all you have to do is be predictable. Personally, I don’t think that’s much to ask: a simple flick of your wrist that could mean the difference between life and death for me. Not to mention that it’s the law anyway.
This isn’t just a problem for drivers though, it requires cooperation on the part of bikers as well. There are a lot of bikers (in San Francisco at least, I can’t speak to biker behavior in other cities) who totally ignore traffic laws, blowing through intersections and cutting off cars. Bikers should obey traffic laws like any other vehicle, but more importantly, bikers should also be predictable, just like drivers. Bike as if your life depends on not surprising the cars around you . . . because it might.