Advice to a Motorist: How to Pass a Cyclist
A motorist wrote:
I'm cruising in my car at about 50. The road is gently winding, up
and down hills and around curves, gentle ones for the most part.
The line of sight can be pretty far or it can be rather short, but nothing
to stop me from safely doing the speed limit. I come upon a long
uphill and see a bicycle way ahead of me huffing and puffing slowly up
the hill. I suppose that a driver is supposed to *know* that the
rider is aware of him coming up the hill at 50 mph. If I assume you
know I'm behind you, why are you staying in the middle of the lane?
How close behind you do I need to get before you will move right, even
just a bit? I've already taken my foot off the gas.
First of all, it
is not the responsibility of the cyclist to avoid getting hit by you, it
is your responsibility to avoid hitting him. I don't know why he
doesn't move over. Maybe he is a deaf cyclist and hasn't heard you.
Maybe there are road hazards near the edge of the road. Maybe he
feels you have plenty of room to pass. None of these things matter.
Even if he has a big sign on his back saying, "%$#@! ALL MOTORISTS!" or is in some way deliberately disobeying the law, you have the legal obligation not to endanger him.
Taking your foot
off the gas is good for a beginning; a lot of motorists don't do even that!
The motorist continues:
so I don't think you know I'm back there because you've done nothing but
continue to ride. So I give a 'toot' on my horn a couple of hundred
feet behind you to let you know I'm coming on. And, you're all telling
me that's rude and dangerous? What else would you suggest?
Some states say
you should toot, but us cyclists find it irritating and unnecessary.
Unlike motorists, we can hear very clearly unless we have a lot of wind
in our ears (descending a hill at high speeds, for example). Honking
should be saved for some special reason. I wouldn't call it dangerous
except for the person who blasts the horn from a couple of feet away.
That behavior is similar to the passenger's slapping the car door.
If I was driving
the car approaching a cyclist, I would just continue to slow down.
The motorist continues:
do I know what's on the road ahead of you that might cause you to swerve
into traffic? Let me know that you know I'm back there.
No adult cyclist is going
to suddenly swerve to the left; that is death, and we know it. Children
might; I've watched them do it, so they should be given a wide berth at
When driving a
car and about to pass a cyclist, I always slow down enough that I can stop
if necessary, or I pass wide if I can see clearly ahead.
When riding a bike,
I do signal for motorists to pass when I can see ahead, but otherwise,
I do nothing. There's really no signal to give. Besides, we
are being passed a dozen times a mile or more. A cyclist that wasn't
aware of the traffic would be heavily intoxicated or something.
Look, the problem
is this: motorists think no one can hear them because they can't hear anyone
else. But I can tell what kind of vehicle you're driving without
turning my head, unless you've added oversized tires or modified the muffler.
The state laws sometimes say you should honk because the state laws were
written by motorists. I think cyclists are better off if they don't
get angry about such behavior because the people doing it are doing it
with good intent. But the horn should be saved for emergencies.
But you don't have
to believe what I'm saying. Get out on a country road and enjoy a
real ride on your bike. You'll find such a ride a lot more pleasurable
than the bike paths! You'll also have to put up with an occasional
car honking at you for no earthly reason.
The policy in the
handbooks should be this: When approaching a cyclist in a car from behind,
unless you have an entire clear, empty lane in which to pass, slow down
as you approach. If there is no room to pass, slow to the speed of
the bicycle until there is room. If the lane is wide enough, you
can pass the bicycle while traffic is coming the other way. Hug the
yellow line and pass the cyclist at a speed not greater that 15 mph greater
than his speed. If no one is coming from the other way, you can pass
the cyclist somewhat faster by moving halfway into that lane. However,
in all cases (except when you are already moving slowly), reduce your speed
to reduce the danger to the cyclist.
By the way, even
when I am driving a motor vehicle, I slow to pass slower cars and trucks,
never passing them at more than 15 mph more than their speed. I have
avoided a lot of accidents that way. If an oncoming car suddenly
appears, I can hit the brake and pull behind the vehicle I'm passing very
quickly. One day I passed 15 cars in a row (the first car was holding
everyone up) on a winding and hilly road in a Volkswagen, never reaching
a high rate of speed or endangering anyone, but then I learned to drive
in Western North Carolina!
Thirty years ago, driving at the speeds I do now, I used to pass everyone
on the road; now, passing anyone is a rare experience (the speed limits
One issue that
greatly concerns motorists is that of speed. I sometimes get the
feeling that every motorist out there forgot to use the bathroom before leaving
the house and has
now gotten pretty desperate. For instance, I will be less that 50
feet from a red light, and some motorist will nearly hit me to beat me
to it. Yet I can usually get through the intersection faster than
he can, and otherwise, I will move over a couple of feet and motion for
him to pass. Of course, a lot of this behavior is just acting up
and saying "I'm better than you"; motorists treat each other the same way
all the time.
Motorists, if forced
to wait a couple of seconds, start to get panicky, and start thinking about
doing something rash. Automobiles have been designed so that a speed
of 25 mph, which is actually moving pretty fast, looks like a very slow
crawl. Plus, motorists have gotten conditioned by horn blasts and
tailgaters to be afraid of traveling under the speed limit. On many
occasions, I have had motorists tell me that driving slow is dangerous,
a judgment that flatly contradicts the physics books.
This fear of being
slow or late is an older and more dangerous problem than it seems.
Thoreau chided people for their constant anxiety over 50 years before the
automobile was invented and called it a nearly incurable disease.
Sometimes, it seems that we are suffocating or about to have a heart attack
because we are so anxious, and doctors do tell us that this type A behavior
can be a direct cause of death. It is much wiser and healthier to
get off the treadmill and to relax and enjoy life. As Simon and Garfunkle
sung, "Slow down, you're going too fast, / Got to make the moment last
. . ."
The only times
when a cyclist is going to necessarily slow a motorist are 1) when the
road is narrow and there is an on-coming vehicle and 2) when the motorist
can't see ahead to pass, almost always caused by being near the very top
of a dip or hill. In both cases, the problem is remedied in just
a few seconds: as soon as the on-coming vehicle has passed and as soon
as the top of the hill is reached, passing becomes easy again. The
delay is only a few seconds, although it seems like an eternity to a type
have asked me why a cyclist doesn't get off of the road each time a car
approaches from the rear. Very simply, because traveling by bicycle
would be impossible under those conditions; even on back roads, I have
cars passing me nearly every minute. And anyway, it would slow the
motorist down even more for me to slow and exit the road safely.
In addition, under almost all conditions, there is room enough for the
automobile to pass safely anyway. Even on narrow nine-foot wide roads,
there is ample room for the car to pass the bike in the same lane, if the
motorist slows down enough. In fact, for a year I used such a narrow
road with a 25 mph speed limit, and motorists passed me without difficulty
while cars were coming the other way; if they had been traveling 50 mph,
they wouldn't have been able to do so safely. On the other
hand, I do get off the road when a large truck can't get by. There's
much fewer of them, they are too wide to be able to pass safely, and accelerating
after slowing down is much more difficult for a heavily loaded vehicle.
Nonetheless, most truck drivers pass me with less difficulty than most
motorists, probably due to having greater skill in using their vehicles.
There's a major
problem in the way that many motorists drive that causes many cycling deaths
and the deaths of many more motorists. The problem was hidden in
the third sentence that the motorist wrote: The line of sight can be
pretty far or it can be rather short, but nothing to stop me from safely
doing the speed limit.I beg to differ, and to differ rather
strongly. Many motorist now have the feeling that if the speed limit
is 55, they have an obligation to maintain that speed under all circumstances.
However, that limit was intended to be a maximum speed limit, not
a minimum speed limit. All the driving handbooks state the
necessity for driving slower when conditions warrant. Those conditions
include 1) people and/or animals on or near the roadway, 2) poor road bed
conditions caused by rain, snow, cold temperatures, loose gravel or sand,
or holes in the pavement, 3) impediments to clear vision, such as foggy
windshields, glare from the sun, rain, snow, fog, and night, and 4) inability
to see the road ahead, due to curves, hills, and other obstruction, especially
at night when vision is restricted to the narrow beam of the headlights.
So, hills and curves alone are sufficient reason to slow down. For
instance, when traveling 70 mph, it takes 387 feet to stop under the best
conditions; yet you can't see that far ahead when going over a hill or
around some curves, especially at night. At 50 mph, stopping still
takes 200 feet. Many motorists drive around curves and over hills
at full speed without a thought as to who or what could be on the other
side of the hill. Thus a fallen tree, a stalled car, children crossing
the road, or a cyclist could cause a fatal accident, an accident easily
avoiding by reducing speed. One simple concept, mentioned in some
driver's handbooks, is to retain the ability to stop the car at all times.
Thus, in going over a hill, for instance, the driver should drive at a
speed that allows him to stop for anything that should happen to be out
of sight in the road. At night, the speed on curves and hills must
also allow time for the headlights to shine on the road ahead and for the
motorist to recognize the object in the roadway. However, drivers
sometimes face a danger in slowing to a safe speed, as the motorist behind
is not as willing to slow down. When I am driving a motor vehicle
around a bend or over a hill and some traffic hog is behind me, I slow
down even more and even earlier because the last accident I want to be
in is sandwiched between him and whatever I hit in front. So his
desire to "push" me has the opposite effect. However, many people
die each year from blindly plunging into deep fog at full speed or from
being blindly struck in the rear.
When I was trying
to catalog the different kinds of dangerous drivers that I encountered,
many years ago, I decided that the two most dangerous were "Rocket Man"
and "Admiral Farragut." The first is pretty obvious: a Rocket Man
courts death by taking unnecessary chances. The second name comes
from Admiral Farragut's order at the battle of Mobile Bay: "Damn the torpedoes,
full speed ahead!" An Admiral Farragut driver refuses to slow down,
no matter what is happening in the roadway. His (or her) motto is
"55 or die!" and a lot of them do.
For a long time,
in the event of an accident, the person who did not get out of the way
fast enough got blamed. For example, here in Alabama, a truck driver
who killed the driver of a motor bike gave as his sole defense, "He slowed
down." However, the tide seems to be slowing changing. This
week (late November, 1998) in Alabama, a police officer was found guilty
of homicide by vehicle. When the accident occurred, he was speeding
towards a crime with his bubble gum flasher lit up and his siren on at
least some of the time. The jury felt that he had not exercised due
care and was traveling at excessive speed, given the circumstances (crowded
The truth is that we are our brother's keeper. It's up to us
to exercise due care at all times. As cyclists and as motorists,
we have an obligation to take care of each other.