The left cross is the crash type we bicyclists have most in common with motorcyclists. The techniques for preventing it are the same as those taught in motorcycle school. Of course, it’s much easier to learn in motorcycle school because there is no baggage of taboo or fear surrounding operating a motorcycle away from the curb. And our culture doesn’t build special motorcycle facilities that violate the principles of normal traffic movements. But we can overcome that.
An invitation to get hit
Passing a queue of cars on the right is a high risk activity, in most cases. The above photo is the scene every day on Edgewater Drive at lunchtime and rush hour (at lunchtime the parking spaces are full). My first response to this situation was, “Oh good! they’re stuck and I have a clear lane!” I was disabused of that notion by the front quarter panel of a Jeep Cherokee.
Between getting hit and other constant conflicts, I learned to ride slowly (6-8mph) when passing the queued cars, and to be prepared to stop any time there was a car-length gap between 2 cars. A gap often indicates a good-Samaritan is letting another driver turn left. Even so, the blocks between Yale and Vassar are so conflict-ridden, it’s easier and safer to wait in the queue than to try to pass it. Even when traffic is moving, I usually avoid the bike lane there.
Low light conditions are always going to be an issue for visibility and speed-assessment. For the most part, I find motorists are more cautious at night. twilight conditions present problems for the human eye, it’s a good idea to have bright lights. A blinking light at dawn and dusk will get attention, but it also sends a subliminal message “slow vehicle.” In the dark, a blinking light makes your speed and location very difficult to assess—front blinkies should not be used in full dark. We tell our students to look like a bicycle (slow) from the rear and a motorcycle (fast) from the front. It’s especially critical if you are riding fast. Ahem. It’s particularly silly to use tiny “be seen” LEDs while riding 24mph on the way to an early morning club ride. Really, that extra few grams for a good headlight will make you stronger anyway.
Light triangulation can also help motorists assess your speed in the dark. If you have one on your helmet and one on the handlebars, a motorist can better tell when you are getting close and going fast.
The left cross is not your fault, but it is in your interest to prevent it
Even left cross crashes that occur when passing stopped traffic on the right are the legal fault of the motorist. But they are completely avoidable. Moving screen left cross crashes are avoidable, too, by making yourself visible. High-speed, left cross crashes are mostly discouraged with good lane position, but a high-speed cyclist must always be on guard for this, like a motorcyclist. If you see someone preparing to make a left turn, try to get their attention, keep pedaling (without pressure on the pedals) so you don’t give them the wrong idea, and prepare for an emergency maneuver. That is why we teach emergency maneuvers!
Understanding what causes crashes is the first step to preventing them. The frightening, unpreventable acts of gross negligence are the ones we hear about because our culture is addicted to stories that make us feel horrified and helpless. But the truth is, the majority of car-v-bicycle crashes (and scary moments) are common, predictable and preventable… even when they are the motorist’s fault.
“I didn’t see you”
One of the primary factors in bicyclist left cross crashes really is a lack of visibility. Bicyclists have been taught, bullied or forced by law to operate on the margins of the road. A motorist’s focus area is on the center of the travel lane, where he expects a large, fast-moving vehicle (IOW, a threat to him) to be. Anything on the periphery (edge of the road, bike lane or sidewalk) is often not noticed. This is especially true if a motorist is shooting for a gap to turn left from a multi-lane road. I almost hit a sidewalk cyclist on Colonial once as I was making an unprotected left into a shopping center entrance. I waited and waited for there to be a big enough gap in all three lanes, then I hit the gas. I didn’t see the cyclist until I was almost across the road.
For the purpose of this post and the above animation, I’m focusing on roadway cyclists. Keep in mind that the center of the lane is the most-visible and risk-free place to be, anything father right adds risk, increasing with distance from the center. So the sidewalk is the least visible place to ride.
I’ve experienced a lot of left-cross conflicts in my years of riding. The most frightening have been when descending a hill (not in Florida). Those are the most similar to motorcycle crashes in that I’m totally visible in the center of the lane, but the motorist turns anyway. They see me, but discount my speed. This has happened to me on a flat road while hammering, too. They just don’t realize how fast we can ride. Downhills and tailwinds make all cyclists fast. I can effortlessly get close to 30mph with a strong tailwind.
Of course, I’ve also had a few that seemed less an innocent mistake than an act of complete disrespect. On Virgina, a driver turned his Mustang in front of me, then slowed to a near stop—blocking my lane—so he wouldn’t scrape his precious air dam on the gutter. It was one of those rare days I was in a hurry, and it’s slightly downhill, so I was moving fast. I was able to brake enough for the car behind him to clear, then go into the empty oncoming lane to pass him. I probably would not have had the room to do that had I not already been in the middle of the lane. I might have had enough room to do a quickstop, but I’m not sure.
A cyclist who is moving fast (for a cyclist, that’s ≥18mph) needs to ride farther out into the lane, no matter the lane width. This has nothing to do with your speed relative to overtaking traffic, it has to do with your ability to react to pavement obstructions or cars which might suddenly enter your path. With the exception of winding mountain descents, cyclists on an open road will usually be slower than motor traffic. That’s OK. It is the responsibility of overtaking traffic to yield (first come, first served) and pass safely. You have a responsibility to yourself to be visible, predictable and have room to maneuver.
The moving screen
Operating alongside the flow of traffic creates a perfect set-up for the left cross. The passing traffic screens the cyclist from left-turning motorists. If you are operating to the right of traffic (in a wide lane or bike lane) and are being passed by a line of cars, be aware of any gaps. When the last one passes you, any cars waiting to turn left will be ready to jump. This can happen at any intersection or driveway. I’ve experienced this more times than I can count on Edgewater Drive. It’s VERY common at the entrance to Publix in College Park.
The moving screen can be a problem in a narrow lane, too. If you stop on the right behind cars, you will be hidden. As the cars in front of you pull away, they’ll form a gap for a left-turning driver who cannot see you. When stopped at a traffic light, you should be positioned behind the left side of the car in front of you. Ride through the intersection on the left side of the lane so you can see, and are visible to, the driver of any car waiting to turn left. See Vantage in the Queue