Tuesday, October 20

God Bless Potholes

ChipSeal, no doubt prompted by something he’s planning, inquired about cyclists getting run down from behind. He was particularly interested about cyclists operating in an assertive, vehicular mode. Entirely by coincidence, Richard, over at Suburban Assault has an excellent series going here, and he mentioned that the traffic on some of those busy suburban roads understandably creeps him out.

I have considered the possibility of getting run down from behind, and here are circumstances I think where it's plausible when I operate MY bike. Obviously, where & how you ride is important, so your risk profile will differ. This is NOT a study with subjects and such, nor do I attempt to project if the risk is large or small. It should be apparent that if the risk were large, I would probably not be writing this, as I'm closing in on 5000 commute miles this year. Particularly on the first item, you'll note many similarities with a simple pass on a two-lane road. The example I chose has an increased chance of the cyclist being hit from behind rather than from the side. Most important, here’s what I do to defend against each risk. Anyone with added ways I can protect myself – PLEASE chime in:

• Motorist on fast, multilane road begins a late lane change to pass me, then suddenly realizes there’s another car in the LH lane, and instinctively swerves back to avoid the car, momentarily forgetting why he/she began the lane change in the first place. This is why I don’t like getting overtaken by a fast-moving “wave” of cars in a multilane road. Defenses are threefold. First; riding further left provides a potential “swerve to the right escape route.” Second; careful traffic observation helps keep me in the lulls between waves. This, by the way, is important in making really nasty suburban streets much less stressful. Third; early signaling when I am going to be making a turn tends to calm the NASCAR pack approaching from behind. This is a situation I practice on my commute.

• Impaired motorist is drawn to my blinking rear light like a moth to a flame, or just zones out completely. One often hears of a motorist running clear off the road and impacting an active emergency vehicle, or simply driving right underneath the rear bumper of a moving 18 wheeler. I run with one rear light in steady mode and the other in blink. CPSC data suggests that recognition is better for blink, but distance and position judgment is better for steady. I also stay in the “straight ahead attention focus zone” so as to get the driver to make a maneuver early in some direction OTHER than toward me. This is doubly important in the dark when peripheral vision is impaired for all of us. Finally, I don’t ride (or drive) around on roads after the bars close.

• Motorist assault. This may resemble a shark attack, with no advance warning, and no defense other than luck. Such situations are rare, especially if potential witnesses are in the vicinity. As I recall, a doctor is on trial in California, though he committed his vehicular assault differently. A milder version of this is someone throws an object at a cyclist. I simply try to know where police and fire stations are along my route.

The first circumstance could easily occur. I see lots of cars, every day, with crunched side bodywork. On a bike, I have the disadvantage of not having my own side metal to crumple. On the other hand, I have the advantage of having empty lane space to my right. This has occurred to me several times. Fortunately, I’ve never been hit. In each case, I was operating a motor vehicle, but the principle is the same. In my personal opinion, a cyclist operating in an assertive, vehicular manner, is more vulnerable to this than a gutter bunny would be. He’s simply in the wrong spot when the motorist panics, and he helped create the cause of the panic. It’s the tradeoff for having avoided the ways a less assertive rider can get into trouble. It's a tradeoff I make every day so there should be no doubt in the reader's mind which risk I think is greater.

The second circumstance is less common. I find it creepy to have car headlights coming up behind, and always breathe a little better when they either stop getting closer, or a safe lane change begins behind me. I can see those headlights long before the motorist gets close, so it gives me time to ponder the overtaking vehicle for a while. It’s my least favorite part of riding in the dark. The closest feeling when I’m driving, is sitting at a light, looking in my rear view mirror, wondering if that guy coming up behind is actually going to stop. I was hit from behind in an Alfa Romeo, in daylight, sitting at a traffic light behind a line of stopped cars. A lady behind me got confused about the brake versus accelerator pedal. I watched her approach for nearly half a block before she hit me. Airbags and sheet metal definitely reduce the “creepy” feeling.

The third circumstance is simply violent crime. If police or prosecutors suspect this, I believe they take it VERY seriously, despite what you may read in cycling propaganda.

You’ll note I didn’t include someone just running me over. That’s because motorists encounter situations, EVERY TIME THEY DRIVE, where they avoid hitting stuff in the road right in front of them. It’s one big reason I DO ride “right in front.” They see me without having to think, and thus avoid running into me. Some are not pleased with me being there, but they’re trained. And it works for all except for those in panic mode, zombies, and felons. As ChipSeal noted, he sees motorists swerving to miss an empty plastic bag that floats in front of their car. I often see the same. I recall my own driver training, when my dad yelled at me for inadvertently running over a board in the road. Such daily conditioning runs deep. Thank God for potholes. Smooth pavement is nice, but getting home is more important. You doubt it? Go for a drive and watch people routinely avoid even trivial obstacles. Even potholes serve a purpose. Try to remember that if you have to change a tire in the dark after a nasty one gives you a pinch flat. Say a prayer of thanks that the vigilance of the pothole's relatives and friends keep you safe and alive. Besides, you need to get better at avoiding those things! They may be there to train the motorists, but they also are there to make cyclists nimbler. Be safe, and play a Star Wars tune once in a while when you ride...


RANTWICK said...

What about the pothole that forces you to 1) damage your bike or 2) swerve in a potentially unsafe way? Known routes don't suffer much from this kind of thing, but on an unfamiliar road...

Steve A said...

That pothole is like the training droid in Star Wars. FEEL the FORCE, Rantwick! Let it flow through you. Those potholes will make you stronger and better.

Just keep saying that to yourself long enough and it'll give the morning commute a little different twist. And watch out for Bruce...

ChipSeal said...

What a good post, Steve.

The last one, an encounter with a sociopath, is one that there is no defense for. It's also the least likely to happen. Sociopaths are culled rather quickly from the herd, and so it extremely rare cross paths with one on the public street.

I am skeptical of the moth effect. There are an awful lot of flashing red lights around at night. Regardless, every form of impaired driving, whether DUI, sudden medical crisis, drowsiness or distracted driving is a public menace, and there is little a cyclist can do other than be too big of a obstacle to ignore.

The first one happened to me once. A fella towing a boat waited to change lanes, began his maneuver before noticing a motorcycle in the lane next to him. He locked up his brakes to avoid hitting me. I didn't see it coming, but I cringed at the noise and put the puzzle together after they both safely passed me. The driver had not made enough allowance for the load he was hauling. (He turned off the road into a residential street about a quarter mile on!)

I suppose the best way to avoid this is to only ride on narrow two-lane roads! <--- not a serious comment.

Humans seem to be poor at assessing risks. Each of these scenarios are possible, but they are not probable. In fact, they are vanishingly rare. Just by reading this blog we have spent more time on it than it deserves. I don't worry about it, just as I don't worry about being struck by a meteor.

In all of these scenarios, I don't see the value of a mirror. By the time a cyclist could comprehend the danger, it would often be too late to maneuver out of the way. Secondly, these are such rare events, it seems that it would squander loads of energy. The fella with the boat, for example, is one encounter of these types in over 10,000 miles and thousands of hours of exposure. That would've been an awful lot of energy spent peering into a mirror. Even if I had seen the situation developing, I am not sure if I would've reacted soon enough to take proper evasive action. And in the end, no action other than proceeding as before was sufficient, as there was no collision.

The perils and hazards facing cyclists are to the front of them, and that is where one's attention should be focused.

Steve A said...

I agree the scenarios are not probable, but they're the most likely I was able to come up with. The first two have actually happened to me (when in a car) and I was worried about the third on three occasions (2 when on a bike). I guess that's part of why cycling is fun AND safe. It can, however, be a little scary.

I admit I was reluctant today to launch a RT onto Precinct Line, knowing a line of 12 cars were just waiting for their green light behind me. I elected to wait for them to go, and then I had a relaxing stretch after my RT, before my planned left turn.

I really WANTED to get that "early signal in a crowd" data for Keri, but I'm also a little ahead of schedule in honk collection.

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