Fear of Traffic from the Rear
Often fear is a greater problem that what we're afraid of. Thoreau stated this somewhat cryptically by saying, "The greatest fear is fear," and Roosevelt restated it (and overstated it) by saying, "The only thing to fear is fear itself."
When cyclists have an exaggerated fear of motor vehicles striking them from the rear, they can adopt risky cycling behaviors. Such tactics as riding on sidewalks and on the wrong side of the road result in more fatalities and injuries than following the traffic laws. See "How to Ride in Traffic," "How to Avoid Traffic Accidents," and "Wrong Way Cycling."
While I was preparing this, Fred Oswald wrote to remind me that people who are fearful of a motor vehicle passing their bicycle from the rear with a few feet of clearance think nothing of oncoming vehicles missing their cars by less distance at a much greater difference of speed. I think automobiles give people a false sense of security, and this false sense sometimes encourages them to take unnecessary risks. A cyclist, on the other hand, is more sensitive to the risks and, with the proper tactics, is less likely to have an accident.
The Lane Position Method
Some cyclists have adopted the position that all a cyclist needs to do to travel safely in traffic is to have a good rear reflector and maintain a proper position within the traffic lane. To some, this behavior sounds suicidal, but many cyclists have spent a lifetime of cycling doing exactly that. They feel that if they maintain a consistent position on the road that the motorists will always slow or otherwise pass safely.
I both agree and disagree with this "lane position" method of riding. I know from many years of bicycling experience that motorists are not going to suddenly crash into me from behind under ordinary circumstances. I know that collisions between bikes and motor vehicles are rare. I also know that over 75% of collisions between bikes and motor vehicles involve turns and, that most of the time, the cyclist was at fault. However, even experienced cyclists do get killed from time to time, and many of them get struck from the rear. In my opinion, getting hit from the rear can be just as easily avoided as getting hit from the front, but the cyclist has to be a little more actively involved that to just be maintaining a good lane position.
Active Accident Avoidance Methods
Let's look at some situations that can happen and how the problem can be avoided, starting with the most trivial and finishing with the most dangerous.
Lack of Rear Vision
Situation #1: A cyclist riding on the roadway is unaware of traffic approaching from behind or is uncertain if the traffic is passing safely.
There are effective ways of detecting and observing traffic approaching from the rear. Many cyclists use rearview mirrors, and I especially recommend them for new and/or timid writers. Mirrors are sold that attach to the bike frame, the handlebars, the handlebar ends, the brake hoods, the bike helmet, and the eyeglasses. Why doesn't every cyclist use a mirror? Well, to use a mirror on a bike, it is necessary to move the head to just the right position, and most experienced cyclists find it simpler to just look back over the left shoulder. Again, too, mirrors will vibrate somewhat. However, looking over the shoulder tends to cause the cyclist to swerve to the left, so this behavior must be practiced at length before it is safe to use in traffic. The choice of whether to use a mirror or to look over the shoulder must be up to the cyclist, as neither method is right for everyone.
There are some other ways of knowing what's behind without looking back. I use my ears quite a bit. An over-dependency on hearing can be dangerous as a few vehicles are extremely quiet and the noise of a vehicle can be drowned out by nearby traffic. In addition, in descending a hill at high speeds, the rush of air past the ears can prevent hearing, and wintertime ear protection can do the same. On a rural road, though, I can hear vehicles long before I can see them. In addition, when a vehicle is passing me, I can use my stereophonic hearing to tell me its position. My ears can give me information about motor vehicle size, although vehicles with oversized tires and/or stripped mufflers sound larger than what they are. I can also sometimes hear the engine throttling back or accelerating. At night, I can indirectly see a car without looking back by watching it's headlights shining in front of me. If the vehicle is passing safely, the lights move to the left while my shadow moves to the right.
However, I must add two special cautions. First, whether looking or listening, it is often impossible to see a trailer or a vehicle following the passing vehicle. Thus, it is very important not to pull left just after a vehicle passes. Second, the greatest danger from a passing vehicle is not being hit but being clipped, often by the mirror, so I check out of the corner of my eye to see if the motorist is maintaining a safe distance.
Is it wrong or unduly fearful to pay attention to following vehicles? I don't think so. When driving a car, I pay just as much attention to the vehicle behind me as I do to the vehicle in front. By doing so, I have avoided a few collisions, although when driving a car, I have fewer options. On the bike, I am just a couple of feet from the edge of the roadway, and I can get off of the roadway very quickly without the risk that leaving the roadway would have in a car.
Does this mean that I dive or swerve off of the roadway with every possible threat? No, if I did that, I would be encouraging motorists to pass me when it wasn't safe, depending on me to bail out. Even when some motorists have tried to scare me off of the roadway, I have held my ground, including a few occasions when truckers locked their brakes. However, an imminent danger -- a situation where the vehicle can't stop in time -- requires immediate reaction. I also get off of the roadway to avoid some potential accidents, as I will explain later.
Situation #2: A cyclist riding on the roadway is being harassed by motorists. They are honking at the cyclist, flashing their lights, yelling out the window, or passing too closely.
Although this seems like a single problem, it actually has multiple causes, and the cyclist has to determine which one is happening.
First, the harassing motorist or motorists may be hostile to cycling or unaware that cyclists have the right to use the roadway. I have experienced both situations. When traveling through the Michigan/Indiana border area in 1998, I suddenly encountered motorists honking at me or yelling at me when I was doing nothing wrong. There are many cyclists in this area, but there are also many motorists hostile to them. In other areas, such as in Alabama where I live, due to lack of interest on the part of the state, motorists have no knowledge that cyclists have any legal rights to use the roadway. Sometimes, even police officers think the cyclist belongs on the sidewalk.
Second, I have observed fearful riders being harassed by motorists. A cyclist who hugs the curb or ditch, who wobbles while riding, and/or who seems to be ignoring the traffic is very likely to get honked at. Instead, ride in a straight line at a safe distance from the edge of the road. Even if the motorists don't particularly like your being on the roadway, almost all will leave you alone if you operate the bike as a vehicle, follow the laws, and are predictable in your actions. In fact, in most life situations, acting confidently as if you know exactly what you are doing earns respect while acting hesitantly and uncertainly gathers criticism, whether you know what you're doing or not.
Third, the motorists may actually be having trouble seeing the cyclist. This can be due to various causes, from their not paying any real attention to the roadway to various visibility problems (I will discuss visibility later). I highly recommend wearing bright clothes during the day and using front and rear lights, plus reflectors, at night. Bright colors and lights can alert someone who is driving on automatic.
Fourth, if you are traveling in a narrow lane, if you squeeze all the way to the curb or ditch, the motorists will see you as a hazard. If, under these conditions, if you feel it's OK for motorists to pass you, squeeze right and motion for them to pass. Your giving them a signal will improve their confidence about passing you. However, getting too close to the edge can be dangerous, so to avoid motorists passing too closely in a narrow lane and pushing you into the curb or ditch, ride in the center of the lane. Then the motorists, if they wish to pass you, will be forced to use another lane. You may think that this behavior would cause greater harassment, but in fact, it does not. When using the full lane, you should be sensitive to the traffic behind you under conditions when they are unable to use another lane in which to pass. Don't feel that you have to immediately get out of their way, but also don't continue indefinitely without giving them a chance to pass. I am particularly sensitive to trucks, as it is difficult for them to regain speed after nearly being stopped on a hill. Very often a motorist can't pass me only due to timidity as there is plenty of remaining clearance while the truck can't pass me because its width requires the entire lane.
Finally, remember it's not the end of the world to have some motorist honk at you. I notice that vehicles will honk when I pull a car into "their" lane well in front of them. Motorists are generally more aggressive towards motor vehicles than towards bicycles.
Forced into a Collision
Situation #3: A cyclist, while passing a parked vehicle (or some other obstruction), gets struck by a passing vehicle or gets forced into the obstruction or an opening car door.
The problem here is that neither the motorist nor the cyclist is thinking ahead when both should be doing so. Whenever passing a parked vehicle with occupants, the cyclist must assume that the door might be thrown open at any time. With any obstruction in the road, it is important for the cyclist to take enough enough room to safely avoid it. If you suddenly discover an obstruction and the following vehicle is close behind, it makes better sense to see if the following vehicle will slow for you or for you to come to a complete stop than for you to unexpectedly swerve left. I would strongly argue against a third solution, going ahead and hitting the obstruction, say an object in the roadway or a hole. There is always the possibility that it could cause you to crash and be thrown into the car. However, if you are watching ahead, you can more gradually move to the left to avoid the obstacle, thus warning the following motorist that he must slow down or move left also. So, as you ride, scan for road hazards ahead.
Struck from the Rear Due to Poor Visibility
Situation #4: A cyclist is struck from the rear by a motorist who claims he could not see the cyclist or could not see him in time.
Rather than just assuming the motorist is lying or was not paying attention to the road, let's look at some of the factors that tend to make the cyclist hard to see.
First, darkness can make spotting a cyclist difficult from a motor vehicle. Riley Geary reports that 56% of adult fatalities among cyclists occur at night. Nonetheless, I commonly see bicycles without lights and reflectors being ridden at night. It's not that the motorist can't see a cyclist who's traveling without lights and reflectors, it's that he doesn't see him soon enough to be able to stop in time. A cyclist is not very visible from a distance in front of the headlights, especially with competing headlights from the front and glare from the rear. State and federal laws require all cyclists to have rear reflectors on their bikes. This is a great idea with two big holes in it: 1) The standard CPSC rear reflector is too small to be very visible, and the its red color does not help. A larger, yellow SAE reflector would be a vast improvement. 2) A reflector works only when a motor vehicle's headlights are shining on it. Thus a bicycle with just a rear reflector is not very visible from a turning vehicle, a vehicle with dirty or misaligned headlights, a vehicle without its headlights on or with a burned-out headlight, or a vehicle traveling through a dip in the road. While these conditions do not occur often, they do occur. So, I strongly recommend a rear light. The rear light on the bike will not, under usual conditions, be as visible as a good rear reflector, so both are needed.
Second, when the sun is low and at twilight, a cyclist may be difficult to spot. Besides directly blinding the motorist, the sun produces glare off of the windshield and any eyeglasses the motorist may be wearing. This glare can sometimes make the whole road invisible. At twilight, a cyclist is hard to see, and reflectors and lights don't help. Under these conditions, use extreme caution. It's better to lose a few minutes by pulling off of the road than to assume a motorist can still see you. I carefully watch for signs of the approaching vehicle slowing down or moving over, and if I see no such indication, I pull over. I also try to plan my trip and breaks so I'm not on the road near sunset and twilight.
Third, weather conditions can make visibility poor, especially for a motorist who must view the road through a windshield. Rain, fog, and snow all limit visibility, especially at night, when they interfere with the beams from the headlights. In addition, the headlights and windshield can become coated with water, dirt, and/or ice on the outside and/or get fogged over on the inside. Finally, under these conditions, the distance necessary to stop the motor vehicle will increase due to the decreased traction of the tires on the road. I sometimes travel by bike in heavy fog, rain, and snow, but I do not trust letting motor vehicles pass me under these conditions. A vehicle traveling at 60 mph needs nearly 300 feet in which to stop on a dry road, and I doubt that the motorists can even see me from 300 feet away under those conditions, so I get off of the road whenever rapidly moving vehicles approach from the rear.
Fourth, curves, dips, hills, other vehicles on the road, and objects near the roadway, such as parked cars, can block the motorist's view of the cyclist ahead. Careful drivers will recognize that their vision is partially blocked and will slow down and be more cautious as a result, but younger, rasher drivers will assume an empty roadway ahead, following the old dictum, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Whenever I travel around a sharp curve, over a hill, or around a vehicle parked on the edge of the roadway, I stay on special alert for some fool to appear from behind. This situation can suddenly develop on a four-lane road without a shoulder: the following motorist can pull into the next lane to pass the cyclist while the over-eager, speeding motorist behind him suddenly pops into the cyclist's lane to pass on the wrong side. As I know no way of predicting or avoiding this problem, I dislike travel on rural four-lane roads and avoid them as much as possible.
Fifth, some cyclists who are fearful of motor vehicles ride on the shoulder as far from the traffic as possible and cease to think about them. Because they are so far from the traffic lane, they are less likely to be noticed. This position, then, actually makes them more vulnerable to being hit by vehicles turning or pulling onto the shoulder. When I ride on a shoulder, I stay closer to the traffic lane, and I pay attention to the traffic.
Victim of an Assault
Situation #5: The motorist decides to deliberately assault the cyclist with the motor vehicle from the rear.
Cyclists take extreme positions on this issue, some claiming the situation frequently happens and others claiming that it never happens. Some state that if a motorist decides to assault a cyclist, the cyclist has no chance of escape.
None of these positions are supported by my experience. The number of assaults I have had to endure while riding a bike are few, but they did happen; however, they were much less dangerous than other kinds of near collisions because I had a little warning. An attack from the rear is most likely to be ineffectual.
The likelihood of being assaulted by a motorist is small. To the rare psychopathic motorist, a cyclist is an insufficient, low-status irritant, and any attack will be observed from other vehicles. In addition, the motorist will have only brief contact with the cyclist. Thus, the motorist will have much less time than a minute in which to build up a road rage and to plan and launch an attack.
Also, the assailant has only three ways of attacking from the rear, each of which is ineffectual. First, the motorist can make a right turn while passing the cyclist. This is a frequent problem with any passing motorist near an intersection, as they often seem to forget the cyclist the moment they have passed. I have even had friends play this trick on me, unaware of what they were doing. The solution is to be prepared to hit the brakes or to turn whenever any motor vehicle passes. Second, the motorist can pull alongside the cyclist and then swerve to the edge of the roadway. The motorist can't take the chance of running off of the road, so the cyclist has two options: a) hit the brakes and allow the vehicle to pull ahead or b) pull off onto the shoulder. I keep my hands on the brakes as a motorist passes on a narrow road anyway, because the sudden appearance of an approaching vehicle can cause the motorist to jerk to the right, with no thought of my location. Third, the motorist can try to ram the bike from the rear. This last task is not as easy as it may seem. In order to hit a cyclist riding near the edge of the road, the motorist must hug the edge first. An attentive cyclist will notice that the vehicle is not approaching from the left side but is directly behind. Whenever a motorist places the vehicle in that position, I immediately pull off of the road, as I consider it a threat. Sometimes, no threat was intended, but I can't take that chance (one car full of people was making home movies).
Vehicles Passing too Close at Too Great a Speed
Situation #6: The cyclist feels harassed by motor vehicles that are passing too close at high speeds.
The problem here is that the motorists are confident that they can pass the cyclist safely without slowing down, while the cyclist is less confident. Cyclists and motorists who live in areas with a lot of cyclists may readily get accustomed to high-speed passes within the same lane; cyclists with less experience or who are used to less experienced motorists are likely to be terrified. There are two solutions to this problem: the first is to take a quieter road with slower traffic or a lower volume of traffic to travel to your destination. If the traffic volume is not a major concern, the second is to move a little more towards the center of the lane. This behavior almost always results in the approaching traffic slowing down or moving over. I have even deliberately wobbled under some conditions to get people to slow.
Heavy Traffic with no Room
Situation #7: The cyclist encounters a highway with narrow lanes, no shoulders, and heavy, high-speed traffic in both directions.
When I discover these conditions, I take another road whenever possible. While I recognize that I have the legal right to travel on all roads except freeways, I also recognize a moral duty to not create an indirect danger to others. When no such option exists, I stay on high alert, use extreme care, and put safety above convenience. When traveling into Pennsylvania on highway 40 in 1988, I encountered these conditions, so I bicycled down hill and walked uphill, walking a total of ten miles that day out of the total 70 miles. Since then, the same road has acquired a paved shoulder.
I think that riding a bike is much safer than driving a car, but part of the reason why the bike is safer is that I have more ways of avoiding collisions on the bike than I do in the car. I stay alert while cycling and use my skill with the bike, my observation of my surroundings, and my understanding of human nature to give me an edge in any traffic situation.