07
Jul
09

If you can’t see the car, the car can’t see you.

Some of my most valuable lessons about biking safety have been learned as a driver, not at a biker. Here are two lessons learned:

The first happened on 123rd South in Draper, Utah before I got into triathlon. Draper is a very biker-friendly city in that there are wide shoulders and painted bike lanes all over the place. I was driving west on 123rd, right by the McDonald’s on 3rd East. I was preparing the turn right onto 3rd East, but the cars in front of me were going straight. So I pulled over into the bike lane so that I could pull forward and turn. However, there was a car that was too close to the bike lane and so my car couldn’t fit through. So as I waited for the light to turn green, I was sitting in the bike lane, blocking most of it. All of a sudden there was a bang on the side of my car, someone yelled “Bike lane!!!” and then two bikers road past my on the right, essentially riding in the gutter since I was blocking the whole bike lane.

Not only did I learn as a driver to not block the bike lane, but I realized that I hadn’t checked to see if any bikers were coming, and I could easily have pulled into that bike lane just as the bikers were coming along and I could have hit one or both of them or had them fly up the back of my car. Later, when I started biking, I remembered this incident and realized how ignorant drivers are of bike lanes and bikers in general. Just because you see the car, doesn’t mean the car sees you, especially if you’re behind the car.

A more recent incident happened near where I live. I was in my car ready to make a left turn onto Highland Ave. A car on Highland was approaching on my right so that they could make a left turn in front of me. As they started to slow down I looked behind them and saw that there were no cars behind them for a ways. I looked to the left and everything was clear. Since I already knew there were no cars behind the car preparing to make a turn in front of me, that meant that as soon as the car complete the turn, I could go. I was still looking to the left, and I turned my head only slightly to the right until the car came into view, and then I followed it as it turned left in front of me, and then I started to go. All of a sudden I realized there was a female biker in front of me, also turning left just like the car. I slammed on my brakes, soon enough to not hit her but not soon enough to avoid scaring her and forcing her to swerve. Where had she come from?!

I quickly realized that she had been behind the car that was turning. Not behind it as in right behind it, but on the right side of the car and a little ways behind. In other words, the entire time the car was approaching to make its turn, she was on the other side of it, and since the car was behind her and me, I couldn’t see her. But as the car turned she slowed down to come into the turn lane behind it. But I had already turned my head to the left and had “verified” nothing was behind the car turning in front of me. But there she was, and we’re both lucky it was nothing more than a mildly scary moment. The last thing I need is to hit a biker, and the last thing a biker needs is for me to hit them.

Once again, I learned two lessons. First, sometimes bikers hide behind cars, so I really, really need to make sure the coast is clear before I pull out. Second, if I’m a biker and I don’t have a clear view of a car, they probably haven’t noticed me at all.

In the first story I was completely at fault. The bikers weren’t even there when I pulled into that bike lane. In the second story it was a combination of errors on my part as well as that of the biker. But guess what? Who’s at fault only matters to the police and insurance companies. If you’re a biker and you get hit by a car, you lose whether you’re at fault or not. We can educate drivers all we want to, but if you’re going to be safe on your bike you have to assume drivers don’t have a clue, because most of them don’t. This generally holds true even if the driver happens to be a biker.