Unpredictable Driving

Angela and I are both mathematicians. Inevitably, when either of us mentions math, either that we do math, teach math, or studied math, the response we get more often than not is “Oh, I hate math.” You get used to it after a while, and we can usually find ways to move conversation back out of that deep dark pit, but it happens often enough that we both get kind of excited when we run into someone who says something like “Oh, I just loved calculus. I really miss it, and wish I could get back into it.” (It does happen! Hi Violet from the Fresh Pond Toddler Nature Walk!)

I’ve noticed a similar black hole when biking comes up. The response often goes something like this: “Oh, you bike? Bikers are so unpredictable.”

In city riding like we do in Boston and Cambridge, where bikes are mixed right in with the cars in confusing, cramped and often poorly marked city streets, I do understand that we make drivers nervous. But I’ve been noticing lately that cars can also be extremely unpredictable, in ways that make navigating our streets as a biker more dangerous and more difficult. I’m not talking big asshole moves, like whisking around a biker to cut them off sharply on a right turn, or blazing past with barely any clearance. Polite drivers know not to do that, and most drivers are polite. I’m thinking about more subtle things that a perfectly skilled driver might never know put bikers on the defensive, and sometimes prompt us to do things that might seem unpredictable and frustrating. I’ve identified three that give me pause when I’m riding in traffic, and I offer them here, along with a few suggestions to make your driving (and parking) friendlier to bikers. These thoughts are offered with the understanding that most everyone is doing their best to navigate safely, in a traffic infrastructure that doesn’t always help us to share the road.

1) Nudging aggressively out into the intersection when making a left.┬áThis is something of a necessary evil in Boston traffic, but if I’m coming through an intersection straight on a green light on my bike, and you are in a car waiting to make a left, I need to know that you see me, that you aren’t going to whip into your left hand turn just as I enter the intersection. If you are aggressively nosing out into traffic, I can’t know that, and have to assume you don’t see me. As a result, I slow way down to watch what you do, holding up traffic and making you wait longer for your turn. If you see a biker approaching, even if your gap is coming up soon, please back off just a bit, and maybe even give us a wave.

2) Pulling over with the engine running and with no signal indicating your intentions. I get it. You need to pull over to pick someone up, let someone out or check your directions. But when I see a car pulled over to the right in the parking lane with the engine on, I have to assume you could pull out at anytime and probably don’t see me. That means I have to pull out and take a full lane to pass you (something that drivers complain is an “unpredictable move,” in fact, the one really bad driver interaction I’ve had in the last year was getting screamed at and aggressively cut off for doing exactly this). This is even more true if you have given absolutely no indication of your intent. Putting on blinkers while you are pulled over, and then putting on a turn signal when you wish to pull out, can do a lot for bikers trying to navigate safely. And please, always check for bikes before you pull back into traffic.

3) Parking with wheels turned to the left. Why in the world would you ever know that the position of your wheels is important to bikers? Well, probably, you wouldn’t. Like I said, I’m not talking asshole moves here. But when I’m riding on a street with a parking lane, even if I’m riding out of the “door zone,” I am watching cars on the side of the road for any sign of life. Yes, that fast moving traffic to my left is important, but I know those drivers probably see me. People pulling out of their parking spot, or waiting for a break in traffic to open their door, are much less likely to see me. I watch for faces or flashes in rear view mirrors (which can show that a door is about to open), and I also look at tires. Before a driver pulls out, they are going to need to turn their tires sharply to the left, and that can be a clue to me that a car might be ready to spring to life. Thus, it’s really nice when drivers either turn their wheels straight or to the right when they parallel park. It’s one way that I can know your car is less likely to pull out in front of me.

Our audience contains a lot of bikers, and I would love to to hear suggestions from our readers for simple changes drivers can make to be more predictable, but I do ask that any comments not devolve into driver bashing. I really do believe that, by and large, we’re all doing the best we can out there, and most of us who bike, also spend a fair amount of time behind the wheel (even us, a couple times a year anyway).

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About Nathan

Nathan is a postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience. He thinks parenting is way more fun when you don't have to worry about car seats.
This entry was posted in Biking, Cambridge and Boston area, Problems and issues, Sharing roads and paths. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Unpredictable Driving

  1. dr2chase says:

    Signal. Signal-signal-signal. All your turns. Because many of us DO ride up on the right, because we can (and you know that every Boston driver out there would do the same, if only they could fit their cars into itty-bitty spaces).

    Turn your lights on in less-than-ideal conditions. Rain or snow, lights on, please (there’s this great law in Florida, where if your lights are off but your wipers are on, you can get a ticket. Yet another way tourists help support the economy of the state where I grew up). Turn them on BEFORE sunset, instead of waiting till the legal last moment (3o minutes AFTER sunset, which is insane).

  2. antijen says:

    Heh. I used to get similar comments about biochemistry. In fact, I once had a doctor tell me that that was his worst subject. At which point, I really wanted a different doctor ;-) . The funny thing now, though, is that people are much more matter of fact when I tell them I work in biotech. I have not figured out why “biotech” sounds less intimidating that “biochemistry”.

    Drivers here will sometimes stop to let me cross a busy street. It’s a kind gesture and I know they’re trying to be helpful. However, it doesn’t mean that the cars in the other lane can see me! So, I still have to wait to cross the street and the “helpful” driver is left sitting and wondering what’s wrong with me.

  3. Danno says:

    Cars are very unpredictable, every day on m commut (5 miles each way) cars take turns without turn signals, I was hit by a car back in April who took a LEFT not at an intersection without signals. Amost happened again Sunday night. Use your signals people. I am used to the right tuen no signal at intersections but parallel parkers are doing it daily now pure laziness.

    Something that happens about dail when trying to take a left into the industrial park I work at is cars pass me on the left while I am taking a left. Do you think my arm is out just to feel the breeze? I am signaling here. Last night on Mt Auburn going towards Cambridge, I was taking a left onto Aberdeen and this happened, guy almost took me out.

    My wife said it best drivers shuld have to retake the test every 10 years. Laws change constantly, Aways beig told by th 50+ crowd to get on the sidewalk where I belong.

    When I do drive, cars change lanes on the highway never using signals, or they take a right turn from the left lane or left turn from the right lane. I love how they say cyclists are law breakers… Kettle calling the pot black.

  4. Dorie says:

    Signal, signal, signal. Here in SF curbed wheels on hills are the law (huge ticket if you don’t do it), so leftward facing wheels are no hint whether a car will pull out. I will swing waaaaaaay out left into the lane if I am uncertain.

    I have also had the experience of a driver trying to be polite and let me go ahead, often at a 4-way stop, when there is cross-traffic that is less friendly. I do sincerely appreciate the sentiment, but it’s better to just take turns as with other traffic.

    I feel the most danger when forced out of the bike lane because a truck wants to stop, as it puts me into traffic, much of which either can’t see me (if oncoming) or is gunning to get by (if behind me). I wish that delivery and garbage trucks would stop in the car lane (they’re blocking that lane no matter what, as they don’t fit completely in the bike lane even when they try to pull over) and let riders pass safely on the right in their protected lane. I understand that’s not going to work if the driver is picking up someone in a wheelchair, but it’s completely feasible if the driver is unloading boxes.

    I teach biostatistics. I feel your pain.

    • Dorea says:

      I didn’t know about the turned wheels in SF, but it makes sense. A car rolling down a hill is a pretty bad idea, but it does remove a clue.

      I don’t think I’d rather pass trucks on the right — they wouldn’t be expecting us there, and the delivery person would have to walk in/out of the lane anyway, but yes, it is hard to go around. I actually cringe whenever I see anyone passing stopped trucks, or more often, buses, on the right. Especially the buses can pull right or open their doors at anytime. Better to either wait until the bus re-enters traffic or go around on the right.

      Biostatistics. Nice.

      • AmyB says:

        I was just going to post that I learned to drive in SF and you MUST turn your wheels to the left if you are parked facing up a hill. I still do it out of habit.

        A

  5. Charlie says:

    Yes signals please! Whether you’re turning or merging or pulling into or out of a parking space, signals let me know what you’re doing. Nothing is more important for my safety than clearly communicating what you are intending to do!

    Oh and yes please only turn right from the right lane and left from the left lane, unless explicitly signed otherwise. I think this is a product of many people being lost (I know it can be very confusing in the Boston area). The number of people I see cutting off other drivers and bicyclists to turn from multiple lanes over is pretty amazing though…

  6. Melanie says:

    Oh, if only I could have a long talk with 4 years ago driver-me before I got into cycling. Sooo much I did not understand! My biggest pet peeve these days is drivers pulling quickly in front of me to squeeze past at a narrowing in the road (we have a bunch of traffic “calming” circles around here with bump-outs). I know, not exactly an unpredictable behaviour, but definitely stress-inducing. With respect to the wheels pointed to the left – are some of these cars by chance on a hill? I was taught to turn the wheels to the left (or right, as appropriate) on a hill in case the parking brake fails, to prevent the car rolling down – it hits the curb and stops).

    • Dorea says:

      Nope, these leftward wheels are on flat streets on our usual routes, around Porter/Davis/Alewife. But yeah, Dorie’s point about hill parking, especially in SF is a good one.

  7. Mamavee says:

    totally signals. Even when I am in the car I am driven crazy by the lack of signals.

    I also have a huge pet peeve against wrong of way do gooders. People who have the right of way- yet give it up to let you go. I don’t like it whether I am in a car or on a bike b/c I assume that the person with the right of way will take it and thus I slow or stop accordingly ready to move after that car has moved. Then they stop and I need to figure out that they really are giving me the way and then re start etc etc. I got into a car accident ( while in a car thankfully) b/c the lanes to the right of me decided let a car go coming from the driveway and turning left. I was moving in the left turn lane only and had the only green light and so got T boned. If I had been on a bike that would have been pretty deadly. If you have the right of way- use it. I certainly do. ( although on bike I still have to pause since people don’t expect me to have the right of way but I pretty much try to maintain it whenever possible. )

  8. dr2chase says:

    On the San Francisco parking laws: yes, “curb your wheels” but there’s also a ticket for not parking close enough to the curb, period, and they pay a lot more attention to it there than here. Twelve inches, according to a little web poking. If that were regularly enforced, that would buy a little more room in our door lanes, which are almost-but-not-quite wide enough.

    That wrong-of-way stuff can be deadly — for example, if one car waves another car into the path of a bicycle or motorcycle. A couple of polite drivers killed my cousin that way. A friend drives a Verizon truck, she says that they are not allowed to offer or accept that sort of wrong-of-way helpfulness. There’s definitely a cognitive distraction at work, too — the polite person draws your attention from the dancing gorilla/moonwalking bear/stormtrooper.

  9. Microzen says:

    Due to the extremely unpredictable nature of Boston drivers, it is the only place I’ve biked where I felt safer biking than driving for one main reason. If I am on a bicycle, I can jump out of the street to avoid a crazy driver. In a car in the street, I am just waiting to get hit. Nowhere else in the world have I experienced the need to get out of the road like in Boston.

  10. Brad says:

    Oh golly, I do the first two all the time and hadn’t even thought about it when I drive. I’ll be much more careful. Left hooks are deadly.

    I thought of one. Here in Seattle, we descend hills super fast and often have to take the lane because we are going as fast as traffic even if there is an adjacent bike lane. At car speeds on a downhill, bike lanes are crazy dangerous. Now while descending, the car behind will more or less tailgate. This is scary because I start to worry that I might hit a bump and fall or that I might not have enough reaction time to the car in front of me so I slow down, creating an even larger perceived window of lost opportunity for the driver behind me. The worst part is that when I motion with my hand to back off my rear tire a little, drivers go ballistic. I even had a police officer pull me over after I motioned for him to stop tailgating me. He didn’t give me a ticket for his trouble, thankfully.

    Anyway, tailgating down hills is my super pet peeve with drivers.

  11. Gus says:

    I want to second tailgating. I reckon it’s partly because drivers subconsciously feel very safe right behind a bike (versus, say, being right behind a truck), so they tend to drive closer. I’d like them to back off a bit.

    • andr3vv says:

      The other part of this is from enviro. psych.: drivers usually track depth with the windshield of the car ahead. That is they are guaging the distance, not necessarily from the bumper or the high taillight, but where the rearwindshield is placed. In the best case scneario, it seems in mixed traffic, a lot of drivers don’t really know what to use as a frame of reference — and who can blame them they were never taught. As a driver, I’ve learned to track the back tires of motorcycles/bicycles for the 2-to-4-second tracking that is needed on the streets.

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