Educating Motorists to Coexist with Cyclists

By Cory Bilton

Gallows 1

Bicycles are becoming more common on roadways in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.  It seems that almost every street I travel down, there is a mix of bicycles, motor vehicles, and pedestrians.  Brand new Capital Bikeshare stations seem to be cropping up on every street corner.  On my ride into work in the morning (from Ballston to Dupont Circle), I see numerous cyclists out for a morning spin, bicycle commuters with their panniers, and bikeshare riders on short trips (even the occasional man in a suit or woman with heels on).  The growth of bicycle use in the DC area is probably due to a combination of mind-numbing vehicle congestion, the difficulty and expense of parking, and the growing social acceptance of bicycles as a form of transportation.

Despite this, many drivers seem to think they always have the right-of-way, or are just oblivious to cyclists altogether.  Just this week, John was honked-at for taking a lane in the roadway.  At the next red light, he explained to the driver that he was permitted by law to take a lane while biking.  To this, the driver mouthed, “I don’t think so” (she refused to roll down her window, apparently afraid that the big, bad cyclist would eat her young).  In another example of bad behavior, last fall I witnessed a bicyclist in front of me get drilled by a car making an illegal right-on-red.  The cyclist, riding on the Custis Trail, had the “walk” sign at the intersection of Lee Highway and North Fort Meyer Drive and thus the right-of-way.  But the driver never bothered to look to the right, I assume because he was only concerned with vehicle traffic coming from the left.  The driver was oblivious to the fact that he was not only breaking the law, but also crossing a very busy bike and pedestrian trail.

With this growth in cyclists, the habits of local drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians must change.  A New York Times blog post last week repeated the oft-quoted finding that for cycling, there is safety in numbers:

“’A number of studies have looked at increased biking, and the result is that the more people bike in a community, the less likely they are to collide with motorists,’ said David Vlahov, the dean of nursing at the University of California, San Francisco. ‘It is likely due to motorists becoming more aware or expecting more to be riding bicycles.’”

From a legal point of view, this increased safety comes from a combination of specific legal protections (like “dooring” laws) as well as motorists changing the way they drive.  Changed circumstances, like having more bicycles on the roadways, changes the way a reasonable driver should behave.

There are things that bicyclists can do to speed these changes along.  Ride assertively.  All three local jurisdictions, DC, Maryland, and Virginia, provide that cyclists are permitted on the roadway and that cyclists have all the rights and duties that other vehicles do.  Be open and obvious about your intentions while riding (whether by signaling or following the flow of traffic, etc.).  Be courteous, but don’t behave as though your bike makes you a second-class vehicle on the road.

If you are hit by a vehicle while riding on a roadway, call the police.  If you are injured or your bike is damaged, the police should make an accident report.  If for some reason the police officer does not seem to be making a report, you should insist that they do (generally, officers are under a duty to file a report if someone was injured or there is property damage).  Some local officers also seem to view bicyclists as second-class vehicles (in the example above with the illegal right-on-red, the officer did not issue a citation to the driver, even though the officer witnessed the entire accident).  Again, be assertive and tell the officer what happened.  Although accident reports are not evidence of wrongdoing (unless you are lucky enough to have the reporting officer as a witness), it goes a long way in getting you reimbursed for your injuries or the damage to your bike.

Over time, motorists will learn to be more aware of bicyclists.  Every cyclist in the area has an opportunity to teach others how to safely ride on roadways with motor vehicle traffic.  Knowing your legal rights while riding your bike is a good first step to increasing your safety and teaching motorists to be more aware of cyclists.

Please review my disclaimer.