[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: How to Pass a Cyclist
What a motorist should do when approaching a cyclist, the fear of being late, why cyclists don't get off the road, and how motorists are most likely to kill legal cyclists.

How can a motorist safely pass a cyclist? What should he do to get the cyclist out of his way? What is the motorist's legal obligation to the cyclist? Why is honking not helpful? Why won't adult cyclists swerve suddenly to the left? Will children swerve? How should a motorist pass a cyclist? How can the cyclist help when the motorist can't see ahead? Why don't cyclists always help? Why is slower passing safer? What preoccupation of the motorist is dangerous? What are the only times when a cyclist will slow a motorist for more than a few seconds? Why doesn't the cyclist get off of the road? What is wrong with maintaining the maximum speed while driving? What is a healthier attitude towards other road users?


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Advice to a Motorist: How to Pass a Cyclist

A motorist wrote: Look. 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: Okay, 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: How 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 all times.

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 haven't changed).

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 A personality.

Some motorists 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 downtown streets).

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.


Bicycling in America by Jobst Brand.  Describes some deliberately unsafe behavior on the part of some motorists.

Share the Road  Mainly advice to motorists about how to behave near bicycle traffic.

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