Leg Work: Motorists want cyclists to wear bright clothes, follow traffic rules, pay attention
Twice in the past year, Patrick Moody says he came inches away from hitting cyclists who were biking at night in dark clothes. Once, Moody was turning onto Portland’s Forest Avenue when a cyclist on the wrong side of the road headed straight at him, weaving from the bike lane into traffic.
“He looked like he was not with it,” said Moody, who is manager of public affairs for AAA Northern New England. Moody had only a split-second to react. “That scared the hell out of me,” he said.
Cyclists who startle drivers and risk their own safety by darting in and out of traffic, riding in the wrong direction and otherwise acting unpredictably were a major concern expressed in my recent, informal survey about bicyclist-motorist interactions. About 40 people throughout Maine responded to the survey. Most drive a car and ride a bike, so they see roadway issues from both perspectives.
“It seems like some bicyclists have taken on the attitude that they have more rights to the road than those in cars,” Leslie Ohmart III of Brewer wrote. “They ride on sidewalks, ignore stop signs, run red lights, cross lanes with little or no signal and generally act like traffic laws do not apply to them.”
Another major concern expressed in the survey was that cyclists antagonize drivers by taking over the whole roadway, forcing motorists to wait patiently in order to pass. Such behavior contributes to the image of cyclists as arrogant jerks, says Brian Edwards of Raymond.
In my last column, I passed on advice for motorists about how to improve safety. Here is advice for cyclists from those who responded to the survey:
Know bicycling laws and follow them. Ride with traffic rather than against it, and go the correct way on a one-way street. Obey traffic signals.
Be consistent and predictable. “Don’t weave through traffic, on and off sidewalks,” Bob O’Brien of Portland said. “Ride confidently, and in a straight line.”
Communicate with drivers by signaling, making eye contact and/or waving. “Don’t assume that motorists see you,” Rick Harbison of Portland said, “or know what your intentions are.”
Ride without distractions. That means no earphones or texting while biking.
Be visible, especially at night. Wear bright clothing (ideally, fluorescent colors) and use lights. Scott Vlaun of Norway is a bicycle-pedestrian advocate with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine’s Community Spokes program. He says cyclists in rural areas should be visible from at least a half-mile away.
Even if you’ve been biking since childhood, consider taking a course such as those offered by CyclingSavvy to become a more confident cyclist.
Those responding to the survey stressed the importance of cyclists acting politely on the roads, both as a basic courtesy and as a way to improve relations with motorists.
“I always wave thanks when a driver waits at an intersection for me to ride by or waits until an open and clear section of road to safely pass me,” Andy Mazer of Yarmouth said. “By being friendly, riding mindfully and showing consideration for motorists, cyclists can defuse some of the tension found on today’s roads.”
Most of those surveyed also recommended being judicious about taking over the main travel lane, even when cyclists have a legal right to do so.
“At one point in my life, I frequently found myself in one of those masses of spandex-clad ‘sport’ cyclists,” Nathan Miller of Portland said. From inside the group, he said, it makes sense to do things like get all riders through an intersection at once. But Miller added, “I can see how infuriating it could be for a driver to be stuck behind a self-righteous group out on a back country road, wondering why they won’t just get out of the way.”
Vlaun, the Norway bicycle advocate, says his rule of thumb is to “never ‘take the lane’ unless it is necessary for safety.”
When cyclists experience problems with motorists, Jim Tassé, assistant director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, says cyclists should do “all they can to protect their safety and rights,” including filing a report with authorities. But he cautions against doing anything in the moment that will escalate tension.
“When in doubt, back off,” agreed Peter Hall, a Falmouth cyclist. “You cannot win a confrontation with a car, even if you were in the right.”
Shoshana Hoose is a freelance writer who walks and bicycles in Greater Portland and beyond. Contact her at email@example.com