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Posted by on Jul 22, 2010 in Uncategorized | 4 comments

Trust and the “Substandard” Lane

I want to trust people. I really do. It would make everything so much easier.

The road in the photo above is Woodcock. I use it and Lawton all the time. The lanes are 13ft (measured from the center of the double-yellow line to the gutter seam). That makes them “substandard” for the purpose of FS316.2065(5)(a), therefore a cyclist is not required to ride as far right as practicable and may use any portion of the lane s/he sees fit to use.

I’d prefer to ride in a way that makes passing relatively easy. For the most part, I have found motorists to be courteous on this road. They move across the yellow line and give me plenty of space when I ride in the right tire track. So, that’s pretty much become my default position here.

However, because this lane is 13ft wide, the right tire track position does leave enough space in the lane for a car to do a squeeze pass. And that’s what happened to me today—twice! I only had a short errand—a half a mile to Target and back—but I got buzz passed once in each direction on Woodcock. The first one was speeding, and turned around about 80ft up the road and sped back in the other direction. I suspect he was late and lost and therefore believed himself entitled to be a self-centered idiot. The second buzz was even closer, If I’d had the bulging pannier on the left side of my bike, he might have actually snagged it. He simply couldn’t lighten up on the accelerator for one second to let the only oncoming car pass before passing me.

Trust breached, I did a shoulder-check and set up camp left of center.

It’s not deliberate, but that’s the problem

I don’t believe either of those passes were acts of incivility. They were textbook examples of the mindless close passes we teach bicycle drivers to discourage with assertive lane position. If we don’t force motorists to make a deliberate passing maneuver, we run the risk of being sideswiped.

The problem is, in lanes that are between 12 and 14ft wide, assertive lane position looks road-hoggish to the uninformed majority. I would prefer to just ride in the right half of the lane and trust people to make good decisions. Really, is it too much to ask our fellow citizens to extend a little consciousness, care and courtesy without us having to extract it?

The trust needed for control and release

In the interest of courtesy, I often practice what Mighk termed “Control & Release” on narrow 2-lane roads. This is something we teach in CyclingSavvy. But we also have to advise caution when using it. When you release a motorist, by moving right to facilitate a pass (allowing less deflection for a shorter maneuver), you give up your own safety-net—that buffer of pavement to your right.

Monday morning, I took Orlando Sentinel reporter Dan Tracy for a ride around Orlando. One of the things he was interested in was how a cyclist handles traffic on 2-lane roads so as to minimize delay. I explained Control and Release and designed the route so that he would have a chance to experience it. As it turns out, we got a demonstration in the pitfall of trusting drivers of unknown competence and judgment.

Shortly after turning onto Gatlin from South Orange Ave., a large commercial tree-trimmer truck came up behind us. His proximity felt a little aggressive to me, but when the oncoming lane was clear, we moved to the right to let him have more space to pass. He took the space we gave him and straddled the yellow line, but he cut back in too soon for the length of his rig. The truck was much bigger than I realized and it was pulling a trailer. It was an uncomfortable pass. It looks pretty close to 3ft of clearance on the video still, but it felt much closer at speed (I maintain, 3ft is a piss poor minimum).

After passing, he proceeded to drive the same speed we had been going. He turned left on Summerlin, with us right behind him. Then he had to go so slow through the curves that we coasted behind him. When he turned right at Sweetbriar, we had to stop and wait for him to inch around the corner. In the meantime, he had collected quite the line of traffic, which we then had to deal with.

Once again, the reality of delay exonerates the cyclists

In the choice between courtesy and safety, safety should always stand firm. Courtesy is mostly an illusion anyway. It would be really hard for a couple cyclists to cause as much delay as that truck did. Even then, the delay itself was pretty insignificant in terms of anyone’s trip time. The driver who wasn’t delayed at all was the one behind the wheel of the truck, yet he put the safety of 2 bicycle drivers and one oncoming car driver at risk because he couldn’t stand to go the exact same speed behind bicycles (actually, we would have dropped him like a hot rock on those curves).

4 Comments

  1. If you don’t use a mirror, you should. Once you know what’s behind you, you can behave appropriately: If someone is going to pass you and it looks close, just move to the right as they approach and give yourself a little room. If someone is going to pass you and it is not safe because of oncoming traffic, hold your left hand out and down, palm backward, to indicate SLOW! I’ve silenced revving engines with this gesture. Once the way is clear, squeeze right a little and maybe wave them around. And make sure to give them a Keri wave.

  2. I try to choose a position that allows me to pay the least amount of attention to what’s behind me. It’s really not appropriate to focus attention rearward when traveling in a straight line. Every aspect of our traffic system is designed for forward attention and >90% of crashes happen in front of us. I’d hate to get hit by a left-cross because I was concerned about whether or not some overtaking driver was going to pass me safely. The onus is on them to pass safely. If I can’t trust them to do that, I move left until I find the place the makes them wait.

    Obviously, control & release does require some rearward attention. However, I have found that I have as much awareness without a mirror as with one.

    I never would have thought that possible until I stopped using a mirror when I got the Surly. I had used a bar-end mirror for ~20 years, but the Surly had barcons. I felt disadvantaged for a few weeks, but once I got used to not having it, I actually developed a better head turn and a more acute sense of my surroundings.

    I still like a mirror for setting up a merge on a high speed road. And when I ride the one bike that still has a mirror, I do use it.

    The sneak attacks on Woodcock were disconcerting because I didn’t expect them to pass me that way. I knew they were there.

  3. I ride a 13 ft lane on a busy, hilly, and few traffic lights 5 lane road every day. It’s 13 but it looks like 15 ft because the gutter pan is paved over, but the now sunken 2 ft wide sewer grates remain. There are lots of buses. As you say, such a width is difficult to manage.

    For Catch and Release, a problem can be the vehicles behind the primary fish. And one should always assume that a passing vehicle may be 10 ft wide.

    I too gave up mirrors a long time ago. I ride so my left side is just right of center, and let motorists negotiate the passing.

    • I have a lot of cautionary caveats to control and release. One is that you don’t do it if there are a lot of cars back. Not only do you not know if there’s a large truck or trailer, the cars pick up speed as they pass. You go from tolerable, safe, slow passing with minimal clearance, to unsafe, fast passing with minimal clearance in a matter of 3 or 4 cars. I learned my lesson the hard way on that, too.