Thursday May 16, 2013

Audrey Pietrucha

As the weather warms, drivers and bicyclists find themselves competing for their share of the local roads. Drivers are unnerved by these slow-moving and sometimes unpredictable vehicles while cyclists realize their rights to use the roads will do them little good should they get into a fight with a car.

Let’s just establish at the outset that both cars and bikes have, per Vermont law, the right to use the roadways. Public roads are funded with public money and all members of a community are allowed access to them, whether they are on two or four wheels. That being said, just because you have the right to use something does not mean you can or should use it without regard to others. When it comes to sharing the roadways it’s a good idea to err on the side of caution and civility no matter what vehicle you are sitting in or on.

I’ll begin by addressing drivers. I understand that bicycles make you nervous, even when they are being ridden by adults. Occasionally they might swerve into your path or their riders may seem oblivious to your existence. Here’s what you can do to make sure no one or nothing gets hurts or damaged:

First and foremost, slow down. This is so important I can’t stress it enough. With your vehicle, the bicycle and any oncoming vehicles all on one narrow road there is only so much space and it can seem dangerously tight in this situation. Take your time and wait until you are sure you can pass the cyclist safely. It will only be a few seconds, really - it’s worth that much to avoid an accident.

Do pass a cyclist when you are sure you can do so safely. Hovering behind will make him nervous and you irritable. While passing, please give the cyclist wide berth as he is probably hugging the side of the road as much as he dares. We do not have wide shoulders around here and the rises between many of our roads and the dirt and weeds on the side are high and crumbly. If a cyclist rides too close to the edge there is a very real chance he will fall. That’s dangerous enough but doubly dangerous should he fall into the path of your car.

When you do come upon that cyclist, use care in alerting her to your presence. Please do not wait until you are 10 feet behind the bicycle and then lay on your horn. The startling effect of a loud blast like that could easily cause the cyclist to fall. If you see the cyclist peering over her shoulder often you can probably assume she knows you are there so prepare to pass her safely (see above). If you think a cyclist is unaware of your approach, lightly tap your horn from a good distance, say 50 yards or so. If you drive an electric car this could be very helpful since they are very quiet and may not be heard by a cyclist.

Finally, do not whip around blind curves or gun it up hills. You never know what is around the bend or just over the crest - a cow, a dog, a deer, or a cyclist - and approaching blind spots slowly and carefully is a wise course of action for all concerned. When you do find a cyclist in the middle of the road do not assume he is there for the sole purpose of annoying you. Some of the roads around here are pretty rough (the west side is just about one big pothole) so a cyclist is looking for the safest pavement. That is often in the middle of a road.

Now for you cyclists - first of all, realize that might makes right so use common sense when you are riding in traffic because the average car weighs a lot more than your bike. Vermont state law grants cyclists all of the rights and privileges available to motor vehicle operators but it also requires them to obey the same laws.

Observe traffic rules, stop for signs and signals and use hand signals so drivers know what you are going to do next.

Be as courteous to drivers as you want them to be to you. Nod and wave so they know you know they are there. Do not make sudden moves near cars. As we’ve established, drivers are already nervous about your existence so cut them some slack. Get off your bicycle and walk it through busy intersections, even if you are a highly skilled rider who laughs in the face of danger. It will help the drivers around you relax.

Now some advice which may be met with disdain but if accepted and acted upon could immensely improve driver-cyclist relations - when riding with a group on a busy road, ride in single file. The number one complaint from drivers is that cyclists ride next to each other and block the road so cars cannot pass. According to Vermont law, cyclists may ride two abreast, but just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is smart or courteous. Save the conversation for empty country roads and go nose to tail in town, even if the law is on your side.

Full disclosure - as you may have guessed by now, I am both a driver and an avid cyclist. Much of what I write here is based on personal experience. I hope addressing the situation from both sides will help both cyclists and drivers play nice and lead to better road experiences for everyone this summer. Now be careful out there.

Audrey Pietrucha, a Banner columnist, always wears a helmet and almost always uses hand signals. She wants to thank the gardeners of Bennington and Rensselaer counties for the delightful botanical displays they provide for her viewing pleasure.