Share the road: safe cycling, driving

Posted: Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Spring in Juneau is a marvelous time. There is no finer setting in which to live, work and relax. As the weather warms, more and more pedestrians and cyclists are enjoying the wonderful setting. One of my motorist friends mentioned that springtime is a time to be alert because so many pedestrians and cyclists require motorists to share the road. My friend also reminded me that cyclists can increase safety by following the basic rules of the road.

Cycling is a wonderful form of recreation and transportation, but many people are unaware that when riding on a roadway the rules for cyclists are very similar to rules for automobiles. Cyclists should be riding on the right, with the flow of traffic. This is different for pedestrians, who should be walking facing traffic in areas without sidewalks. This practice makes sense for bicycles on roads. Most cyclists are moving at speeds between 10 and 25 mph, much faster than the speed of a pedestrian. Riding on the wrong side of the road is one of the three leading causes of accidents for bicycles as neither the motorist nor cyclist approaching each other has enough reaction time.

Cyclists need to follow traffic laws just like any other vehicle on the road. The most common accident spot for bicyclists is entering a roadway. Cyclists need to follow stop signs, stoplights, and traffic direction. A cyclist running a red light is as dangerous - at least for the cyclist - as a motorist. When making a left turn, cyclists need to cross the traffic lane and make a left turn from the left side of a lane, much like a car. Most experienced cyclists follow these laws, but there is a need for all cyclists to be as safe as possible.

Cyclists, according to law, should remain as far to the right as "practical." This is often misunderstood by motorists who do not realize the hazards of riding too close to the edge of the road for cyclists. The shoulder of the road often is a collecting ground for gravel, glass, and other hazards which are insignificant to a motorized-vehicle tire, but represent a major hazard to a narrow bicycle tire. When roads are not well-swept, including the shoulder, or when broken bottles and glass occupy a shoulder, the safest place for the cyclists is in the traffic. This is particularly true out Glacier Highway where the lack of shoulders and deteriorating pavement make riding close to the edge of the highway particularly dangerous. Cyclists generally try riding as far to the right or on the shoulder whenever possible because it is safer, but they also depend on motorists to respect their right to share the road when needed. All people in Juneau can help keep the shoulders of our roads clean and safe for all users.

Cyclists can also increase safety by wearing bright, visible clothing while riding. There is a reason for those loud, brightly colored jerseys beyond sponsor advertising. Cyclists have a responsibility to wear reflective clothing and to ride with lights on during the dusk and dawn hours when lighting is particularly dangerous. Finally, while a helmet will not make cyclists follow the rules of the road, it will protect them from the unexpected. Accidents do happen. Every year there are examples of riders who are saved from serious injury by wearing a helmet.

Automobile drivers have a responsibility as well. If a cyclist is riding on the right side of the road, there is almost always room for a car traveling at reasonable speed to go around safely. Giving cyclists room is common courtesy and avoids unexpected accidents. Motorists need to treat cyclists in the road as vehicles, sometimes moving faster than slow-moving cars through certain areas. Fast moving cyclists can pass through an intersection more quickly than expected and cars need to yield right of way to a bicycle just as they would any other vehicle. This is particularly important when a car passes a cyclist riding on the shoulder. Before turning right, motorists must make sure they are not cutting in front of the fast-moving cyclist.

Cars rarely hit cyclists from behind, and most often such accidents are the result of unexpected actions: Either a cyclist is startled by an unnecessary honking horn or the cyclist swerves to avoid glass, debris or broken pavement. In my 16 years of cycling in Alaska, and 8 years in Juneau, my experience has been that the vast majority of motorists are very polite. However, the most dangerous motorist practice is honking a horn directly behind a cyclist. Such unexpected noise can lead to startled cyclists swerving, actually increasing the danger of car/cyclist accident. Most cyclists can hear vehicles approaching and are aware of traffic. Cyclists do not desire to take over the road, only to safely share the road.

As summer approaches, outdoor exercise allows us many pleasant opportunities for recreation. Cycling safely, driving safely, we can all share our wonderful city together.

Dave Ringle and Kevin Henderson are active in Juneau Freewheelers, the local bicycling club.

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