Have you ever noticed that motorists tend to copy the behavior of the driver in front of them? We humans are designed to emulate the behavior we see because doing so tends to keep us safer and make us more likely to survive.
As car drivers and cyclists, we can use that copycat tendency to our advantage. By modeling safe driving behavior around cyclists, other drivers are more likely to drive safely as well. The primary ways we can be good driver models are by looking carefully for cyclists and by passing cyclists on roads legally and carefully.
Two-wheeled road travelers, whether on bicycles or motorcycles, have long known that they are nearly invisible in traffic. As drivers, our eyes are conditioned to look for other cars or larger vehicles and we tend to not register bikes as part of the traffic flow. This habit makes it especially important to make a point of looking for two-wheeled traffic.
When approaching an intersection with a bike path or sidewalk, stop (or at least slow way down) and look both ways down the path until you are sure a cyclist is not going to pull out in front of you. Doing so may mean that you have to stop again at the main intersection, but itís worth the extra time if you save even one life. Once youíre at the main intersection, pay attention to the traffic. Be sure youíre not distracted by your cell phone, fast food or passenger. At any intersection, if you do see a cyclist, donít pull out until youíre sure they see you. (Hey, isnít this the same thing we tell cyclists to do when approaching an intersection? Itís good advice for everyone!)
Always remember that cyclists riding on a road or street have the same rights and responsibilities as any other vehicle. For a motorist, that means that if you are at an intersection where other traffic has the right-of-way, so does a bicycle rolling down the street. Before you pull out in front of cyclist, be sure you have enough time to get through the intersection without impeding the cyclistís progress or causing an accident.
In addition to looking for cyclists approaching from other directions at an intersection, be sure as well to check for cyclists riding along the right-hand curb who may be going straight through an intersection. You donít want to turn in front of them and cause an accident.
Perhaps the best way to get other drivers to emulate your good behavior is by passing cyclists with great courtesy and safety. This can be done by giving the cyclist wide berth and/or slowing down as you go around.
As of early 2010, 15 states had passed laws specifying minimum distances a vehicle must stay away from a bicycle when passing. It was determined that adequate safety could be assured if a car stayed at least 3 feet away from a bicycle when passing. The states with current 3 foot laws are: Arkansas, Florida, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Illinois, Tennessee, Minnesota, Utah, Wisconsin, Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland and Maine. There is a movement to make this a nationwide standard. More information on the nationwide movement can be found at www.completestreets.org.
Even if you arenít in a state with a 3 foot law, be a responsible driver and follow this minimum standard. If possible, give even more room to the cyclist youíre passing.
Remember that bicycles are to be treated as any other vehicle on the road: be sure not to pass one if you canít do it safely or if youíre in a no passing zone. If you have to speed up to get around a bicycle before meeting an oncoming car, itís not safe to pass. Many, but not all, states have laws that allow you to go around an impediment to traffic in a no passing zone. Some states call out bicycles specifically. In all cases, however, you can only go around the impediment if it is safe to do so. Cutting close to the cyclist or racing to beat oncoming traffic is not safe.
Even if youíre able to give a cyclist ample room when passing, itís also safer and more courteous to also slow down a bit. The draft created by a vehicle, especially a large van, RV or truck, can be enough to buffet a cyclist around or even blow them off the road.
It all boils down to being an observant and courteous driver. Watch for cyclists, be patient and give them plenty of room.
Have fun and ride (and drive) safe!