How Cars Can Be Nice to Cyclists

2012-01-16 by . 4 comments

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A message to drivers:

We know you don't all hate cyclists. Many of you--most of you?--probably like bicycles and have fond memories of riding one as a kid. Many of you may not understand why adults would ride a bike when they could be in a car, but hey! --live and let live. You yourself may even ride from time to time.

We know that you try to keep alert for cyclists and pedestrians. It's the occasional driver talking on a cell phone while giving themselves a pedicure that makes you all look bad.

Also, we're truly embarrassed by the stupid, suicidal riders you see on the roads. Those of us who know how to cycle in traffic see wrong-way cyclists (or worse, cyclists who ride on the goddamn sidewalk) as misguided at best, damn fools at worst. Yeah, they're our fellow cyclists (sorta), but every time we see a ninja cyclist at night dressed in black without even a reflector, let along lights, who's riding salmon-style on a divided highway... we shudder. These riders are road-pizza in the making.

We're trying to educate them, but a lack of cyclist education in driver's ed classes (coupled with all the misinformation that's out there) makes this a hard, uphill task. Some days, it makes us all seem like salmon swimming upriver.

(Personally, I'd love to see more cyclists get traffic citations. Sure, the bike advocacy organizations would howl about a "needless and vengeful crackdown on cyclists"--or something along those lines--but nothing makes people more law-abiding than the threat of a ticket.)

If you're one of these drivers who considers cyclists fellow road users, you may have wondered: How can drivers like you make cyclists' lives easier?

Intersections and Turns

Cars turning across a bike lane

When you have to turn across a bike lane, we'd appreciate it if you merged into the lane before making the turn; we'd rather you not turn in front of us. We have to slam on the brakes to avoid plowing into the side of your car, and we really hope we can stop fast enough in a situation like that. This is actually one of the biggest causes of crashes for cyclists, and, in some jurisdictions, it's legally required that you merge into the bike lane.

Bicycle in your way at a turn

Whenever approaching a place where a car might need to turn across the bike lane, smart cyclists will merge into the car lane so that a car turning across the bike lane can't try to squeeze around the cyclist leading to a crash. If there's room the cyclist should try to be far enough over that you can slow down and get by, but that's not always possible.

We're not blocking you to be annoying, we're blocking you to stay safe.

Right of way and the flow of traffic

The problem

Some drivers politely wave cyclists to go ahead of them, even when the driver has the right of way. This is very courteous and polite, and we thank you for the thought, but in most cases it's not necessary.

This thoughtful act can disrupt the normal flow of traffic, and cause drivers behind you to be delayed. We know we're slower than cars, and most of us are fine waiting a few extra seconds for an intersection to be clear.

What you can do

Cyclists are vehicles, not pedestrians. We'd prefer it if you treated us as fellow road users. If there are any other cars around, we don't know what they're going to do; it'd be safest all around to use the usual right-of-way rules.

In all but the most difficult situations--say, a five-way intersection, or an intersection with a difficult yield--it's probably best to just let the cyclist wait until they have right of way and can proceed safely.

Passing a cyclist: Give us room, please!

The problem

When drivers pass a bicycle too closely, they can put us in danger; sometimes the wind made by your passing can even shove us towards the curb.

Some drivers, who want to give us lots of room, will even pull all the way over into the next lane to pass a cyclist, often putting themselves at risk of a head-on collision.

Where's the happy medium? How much room should you leave?

What you can do

Many US states have passing laws, and it's fairy common for them to spell out that the motorist leave a distance of three feet; other locales' laws just say to use your judgment. To find out what your locale's laws say, it's the work of a few minutes to find them on the web.

When passing a bike, remember that a car is a large, heavy thing compared to a bicycle. The air displaced by your vehicle actually has enough force to blow the cyclist over towards the curb a little bit, particularly at highway speeds; so the faster you're going, the more room you need to leave.

Experienced cyclists know how to handle a closely passing car. If a cyclist looks wobbly or uncertain (or like a newbie rider), or if they look like they're unaware of traffic, consider leaving a little extra room.

Other situations

There are going to be some places where you can't pass us. If you see us taking the lane in such a way that you can't squeeze past, it may be intentional. Just wait a minute. Almost all of us will get over as soon as it's safe to pass.

Honking just makes us mad, or it makes us jump; leaning on the horn is unlikely to convince us to get over before it's safe to do so. (It might even make some of us a little less likely to do so, although I certainly wouldn't do such a thing.)

Bike lanes: When will we use them, and how?

The problem

Vehicular cyclists (our word for cyclists who obey traffic rules and cycle like, well, a vehicle) want to be predictable road users. Bike lanes exist so that we know where to ride, and so that you know where we'll be riding. Bike lanes are great when they work well, but there are a few times when we won't be able to use them. What are those times?

The answer

Glad you asked!

Obstructions in the bike lane

When the bike lanes are blocked, we'll need to go around the obstruction. Cars parked in the bike lanes, construction, taxicabs, buses, and sometimes wrong-way cyclists.

The door zone

When a bike lane is in what we call the "door zone", we're going to stay away from those potentially-opening doors of death. Getting hit by an opening car door is common enough that we have a name for it: Getting "doored". We've seen bike lanes that are narrow and badly placed, enough that we had to ride in traffic to avoid the door zone.

When you see a bike riding in traffic, purposefully not using a perfectly good bike lane, look for parked cars. We may be thinking: Sorry, cars-that-are-honking-at-me, but I really don't want to get hit by a car door today.

(We'd also appreciate it if you look in your rear-view mirror before opening any driver’s side door, to make sure you don't door us. We've got good reflexes, but we do get a little testy when we have to use them too much.)

Turns not from the bike lane (by bikes)

When we're making a turn where we have to be on the other side of the road. ("Left turn" in the US.)


There are a few questions on the main site about signaling, but here's the basic idea.

Cyclist Signals:

  • Turns--hand out straight in the direction of turn. Possibly pointing. Some cyclists will point to the destination lane for a merge.
  • Alternate Turn--hand away from the turn straight up. Sometimes pointing up.
  • Stop (or slow)--hand straight down with palm flat.

(Adapted from this answer on U.S. signals. There's a U.K. version that's more or less the same thing.)

These may vary a bit, and your jurisdiction may have slight differences.

The problem here is that many people don't know what a hand signal even means. We try to be clear, but it's difficult when many driver's ed programs don't even mention cycling at all. (Or if they do, people don't pay attention.)

Sometimes, We Can't Signal

Another problem is that cyclists are using their hands to signal and to steer, so if conditions are tricky, they may only be able to flash a signal momentarily before performing the maneuver. If the road surface is rough (potholes or cobblestones) it may simply be impossible for us to signal. We're probably frustrated about not being able to signal, too.

Car Signals

It's almost no effort to signal in a car, so please do it. Drivers not signaling their intent makes things dangerous for cyclists. Signaling all turns/merges helps greatly, even if you're behind the cyclist. (We look behind us, and often have mirrors.)


Sorry if this article had a slightly exasperated tone, but we get frustrated sometimes. We'd like it if all road users could just plain get along and follow road rules.

(Hey, we can dream, can't we? )

Have we missed any common situations here? Please leave your additions in the comments!

The original idea for this article came from freiheit, in this thread on meta. He contributed a lot of text and polish to the final post.

This article has generated a bit of a discussion on the Stack Exchange Google Plus page.

Creative Commons photos in this article are by Tirzah, Steve Easterbrook, and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Filed under Traffic


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  • Kibbee says:

    I think what was left out was the part about being careful to look behind you when you open your door. Although you mentioned a whole lot about getting doored, you didn’t mention a simple thing drivers could do to prevent this from happening. When opening any driver’s side door, always look back to ensure there aren’t any cyclists coming toward the door zone.

  • Paul Morriss says:

    Cars sometimes assume that all bikes go slowly, so pull out of a side turning in front of a cyclist, causing them to brake sharply. Please check the speed of a cyclist, just as you would a motor vehicle, before working out if you have time to pull out before they reach you.

    • neilfein says:

      I agree completely. In general, I think many drivers simply see us as nearly stationary obstacles, similar to pedestrians.

      On several occasions, I’ve been on the receiving end of the right-hook maneuver you describe. The most recent was this past Thursday, when a driver turned in front of me to go to a bank’s drive-through window. I saw she’d be waiting in line, so I followed her and I politely tapped on her window and explained the problem. She was apologetic. I smiled and told her, “no harm was done. Have a good day!”

      I like to think that the problem is mostly one of education. Will this woman keep a closer eye out for cyclists in the future? I don’t know, but if I had been angry and confronted her, this would have been a more unpleasant story.

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