Thursday, March 10

Different Danger

Occasionally, the Danger DOES Come from Behind, Prompted By Something Ahead
In this blog, I've often noted "the danger comes from ahead." Mostly, that is true. Cyclists are rarely hit directly from behind in an urban or suburban environment. Even most news articles that so claim fail to note that the cyclist "hit from behind" was actually sideswiped by a motorist that didn't notice the cyclist off to the far right side of the road. This morning, however, I was reminded that danger can come from behind, and I was reminded that such danger can be more visceral than other dangers simply because the cyclist has no good way to know what is coming next.

I’ve been fortunate in my commutes, because they have generally avoided locales where I had to ride east, directly into the sunrise on westbound roads with heavy, high speed traffic or into the sunset in the same kind of traffic. I was reminded this morning just how fortunate I’ve been, when unusual circumstances led me to ride into the sunrise on eastbound Trinity Boulevard in east Fort Worth.

Motor traffic travels about 50mph along Trinity. It’s a four lane road with no shoulder or bike lane. It is the type of road I ride frequently with no problems whatsoever. What made it scary this morning; was many motorists did not slow down appreciably when the morning sun reduced their ability to distinguish objects (such as cyclists) up ahead. Thrust into this situation, I felt very vulnerable indeed, because my margin of safety was reduced – and by an unknown amount. Sure, I was able to see well enough to avoid any obstacles up ahead, but it was not clear that one of "those motorists back there" might not get blinded by the sun. As it turned out, this morning, everyone was watching well enough that things did not get ugly and there were no close calls or hard braking, but I have to say I breathed a sigh of relief when I made my left turn and headed north. The motorists were scary because they were unpredictable, or so it seemed to me. While they were every bit as courteous as MY motorists and drove well and politely, they were not MY motorists. They were dangerous. I could FEEL it.

I like roads and conditions where motorists see and notice me a mile or two before they need to pass. Such roads and conditions almost universally apply in North Texas, and in most urban areas where motorists can actually drive at high speeds. Even if a motorist is distracted or impaired, distance, and a cyclist riding where the motorist is going to LOOK gives the motorist lots of time to react without any drama or fuss. My riding lane position contributes to early motorist recognition and reaction. During the entire time of “the honk project,” I was never honked at due to a motorist being surprised by my presence. Honking was invariably due to misguided irritation at my mere presence, or due to a misguided attempt to let me know someone was going to go by. Knowing what my motorists behind are going to do allows me to focus most of my attention on the principal danger – hazards ahead of me.

Thinking back upon my misspent youth, four motoring circumstances where a properly and legally operating cyclist ahead of my car might have been most at risk included:
  • When it was foggy – driving too fast for conditions
  • When the windshield was partly obscured by frost or rain – driving too fast for conditions
  • When sun obscured my vision – driving too fast for conditions (and this most recently occurred last week, though I was driving less than 10mph at the time. If you can't see, you CAN'T see)
  • On twisty roads where a cyclist up ahead might be obscured – driving FAR too fast for conditions
None of these circumstances depended on my absolute speed; merely that the conditions mismatched the speed at which I was travelling. In all honesty, my conduct did not endanger cyclists any more than other road users; I was fortunate that no one happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

As a cyclist, I’d rather NOT need to be lucky. I cycle defensively and conservatively; albeit assertively. Route planning and knowing local conditions, like weather and light, help me avoid many sticky situations. Experience and training help a lot, as do modern satellite maps. Viewed rationally, the situation this morning was not risky enough that I felt it necessary to simply get off the bike and walk. It was, however, stressful enough that I didn’t feel my fellow road users were MY motorists. Instead, I was sharing the road with a scary truck operator I wasn't confident could clearly see what’s straight ahead. It was a reminder of what many people riding bikes experience on a daily basis. They are out amongst road users they see as dangers rather than simply fellow road users trying to get from point to point safely. I would not ride in such circumstances unless I had no other choice. This morning was a good reminder. I’ll try not to repeat it any time soon. It has increased my sympathy for people unused to cycling on regular streets with no special cycling infrastructure. Feeling secure, even if such a feeling is illusory, makes a real difference.

5 comments:

PaddyAnne said...

What I find also scary are thick leafy tree lined streets on bright sunny days - when you are in the sun you can wear dark clothes and be seen very well; light coloured clothes sometimes not. When you are in the shade you can wear light coloured clothes and be seen very well; dark coloured clothes sometimes not. As you ride down the street, in and out of the shade a number of times in any given stretch, the ONLY way to combat this is to wear both light and dark clothes so that you can be easily visible no matter if you are in the sun or in the shade.

Steve A said...

This street had the PaddyAnne problem of shade/sun as well, which makes the sun even more blinding.

Of less concern was the possibility of an alligator encounter which actually happened where I made my left turn. I think the gators stay in the swamp during morning rush hour. The story of the gator is at http://www.myfoxdfw.com/dpp/news/Gator_Snagged_in_Fort_Worth

Chandra said...

This was the kinda event that killed Mr. Anthony on Araphaho a couple of years ago. Couple of my buddies from DORBA and I put up a Ghost Bike in his honor.

What a thought provoking post!

Peace :)

Trevor Woodford said...

Some very good points and observations made here..

-Trevor

Khal said...

Here comes the sun...
http://labikes.blogspot.com/2011/02/situational-awareness-vs-right-turning.html

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