How to Safely Pass a Cyclist

The first draft of this was a little too much of a critical mass, Portlandia, cyclists rule the world type rant.  If you are not familiar with this attitude, allow Fred Armisen to demonstrate:

I am likely preaching to the choir here, so maybe a cyclist's rant is appropriate. Is any non-cyclist going to read an article about passing a cyclist safely from a blog titled Uncle Dan’s Bike Ride? Perhaps I should consider some alternative blog names to draw in the target audience: Uncle Dan’s Monster Truck Rally Through Residential Neighborhoods, or Uncle Dan’s Fast and Furious Adventures Down Quiet Country Roads. In hopes of a non-cyclist reading this, I'll start more tactfully and try to build some common ground.

Cyclists and cars go together as well as cyclists and pedestrians.  They don't. In both situations one is moving 3-10x the speed of the other, which leads to frustration and/or discomfort for all when sharing a lane. The difference is the stakes are proportionately higher with a 4,000 lb metal object moving at 30-80 mph. Pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in the U.S. is improving by way of popular demand and rational thought, but there is a long way to go. Until we all have our own lanes, let's not kill each other.

I've been surprised by friends expressing anxiety and concern about how to pass cyclists while driving. I didn't think it was complicated, but as an occasional driver myself, I can understand the pressure of split second decisions and the difficulty in resisting momentum.  Here is how to make the pass safely:
1. See the cyclist.  You can't pass a cyclist safely if you aren't watching. Watch the road. Keep your phone in the trunk. There is no other way to resist.

2. Slow down, even if you aren’t speeding. (Are we ever not speeding?) Slowing down decreases the chances of an accident and the sound of a slowing vehicle let’s the cyclist know you see him/her.

3. Stay behind the cyclist until it is safe to pass, just like you would another slower moving vehicle.

4. Keep a minimum distance of 3 feet, when passing, which is the most common minimum passing distance law in the United States. Five feet is better. To see what the law is in your state: http://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/safely-passing-bicyclists.aspx.

Step 3 seems to be the hardest part.  Most of us, cyclists and drivers, don’t like slowing or waiting.  When we are on the move we don't like things, or people, in our way.  About 30% of drivers that pass me show no hesitation to veer into the oncoming lane around a blind corner.  Sometimes an oncoming car appears around that corner.  I see the look of terror in the oncoming driver’s face, and after the accident is avoided (so far), a glare of anger and distress. The offending driver long gone, we are left to sort the situation out in a brief moment of eye contact.

Inside a car we somehow forget we are risking injury or death to someone's friend, sister, mother, brother, father, daughter, son, aunt, uncle, fellow human being for what might save a few seconds, or nothing if the cyclist rolls up behind the car at the next stoplight.

A math problem to consider: If a car would otherwise be moving at 45 mph and slowed to 15 mph for a tenth of a mile to pass a cyclist safely, how much time would the car need to wait? I calculate just over 15 seconds. (Check my math, please.) There are 86,400 seconds in a day. That’s .01736% of your day.  What could you be on your way to do that could justify risking someone's life for 15 seconds?

Other considerations for passing safe:
  • A cyclist's speed varies dramatically depending with terrain. Going downhill, speeds over 30 mph, even over 50 mph, are easy to reach. Don’t try to pass a cyclist if they are already going the speed limit.
  • Do not pass a cyclist going into an intersection. Intersections are usually complicated and dangerous enough.
  • Cyclists have responsibilities too. Cyclists should be visible, using lights when dark, and wearing high visibility clothing.
  • Cyclists should stay to the far right when it is safe for a car to pass. However, a cyclist should NOT stay as far right as possible when not safe to pass. This tempts drivers to pass in dangerous situations. The cyclist should take the lane to communicate to drivers it is not safe to pass, but don't assume they aren't going to try.
  • Cyclists crawling up a long hill with no shoulder and no safe place to pass should be courteous. Pull off the road to let cars pass if there is a safe place to do so. If the stream of traffic is endless, keep pedaling.  There isn't much you can do except find an alternative route next time.

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