During the ten-year period from 2000 to 2009, more than 7,000 cyclists were killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes (an average of 600-800 per year); hundreds of thousands more were injured (51,000 in 2009 alone, for example). I frequently see and hear stories of automobile/bicycle accidents, but the numbers are still staggering. These statistics lead to fear in some and to anger in others. Both, I believe, are legitimate responses. But what can be done?
As a cyclist, I often see stupidity on the streets first-hand. Now, don't get me wrong, I know that cyclists do dumb things sometimes. But more often than not, what I see is ignorance on the part of motorists. So here are five things I really wish drivers understood about cyclists. Hopefully, a little education will go a long way toward keeping everyone safe out there this year.
We belong on the roads as much as you do
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "bicycles on the roadway are, by law, vehicles with the same rights and responsibilities as motorized vehicles." I can't tell you how many times I've heard drivers shout "Get on the sidewalk!" or "Use the bike trail!" as they've sped past me on the road. But did you know that it's actually illegal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in most parts of the country? And even when it's not explicitly outlawed, it's still extremely dangerous.
"Share the road" signs can now be seen along many streets, but even when you don't see one of those signs, we're still allowed to be there. In fact, while we appreciate the effort to make drivers more aware of our rights, many cyclists I know take issue with the "share the road" sentiment. The way it's worded makes it sound like motorists "own" the roads and are doing cyclists a favor by "lending" us a few inches of "their" roadway. We're not asking that you kindly share something that belongs to you, however; we have just as much a right to be on the roads as you do.
We're really not trying to get in your way
Not all roads have bike lanes or shoulders for us to use, and even when they are available, they're not always the safest place for us to be. Parked cars, potholes, storm drains and debris can all spell disaster for cyclists. Loose gravel or swerving to avoid roadside debris can quickly land us on the ground with a severe case of road rash. If we hit a pothole or tree branch, we could be thrown off our bikes and end up in the hospital. We also need to avoid potholes and broken glass to prevent flat tires. Flats are a lot more common on bikes since we keep our tires at about 120 psi (as compared to maybe 36 or 38 psi for a car).
Ohio's bike laws state that we are to ride "as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable," and I assume the law is similar in most other areas as well. From your car, truck, or SUV, you probably can't see the same dangers that we see as cyclists. Please know that we are not trying to get in your way; we just want to ride as safely as possible.
Not all cyclists know and follow the rules
Cyclists are required to follow the same laws as you: we cannot operate our vehicles while intoxicated; we must stop at stop signs and red lights; we must signal our turns; we must use head and tail lights after dark. Unfortunately, just like drivers, cyclists don't always obey the law. I know this can be frustrating for motorists and probably contributes to your irritation with us. But please don't take your aggression out on the cyclists you encounter on the road. Most of us do try to obey the law, and we get just as irritated as you do with riders who ignore the rules and give us all a bad name.
We're probably going faster than you think
It's not uncommon for cyclists to cruise along a flat stretch of road at 20 or 25 mph, and on downhill sections, we can easily hit 30 mph, 40 mph, or more. Please keep this in mind when you're considering pulling out or crossing in front of us, or when you plan to pass with oncoming traffic. On the other hand, we do slow down considerably going up hills, often to only 5 or 10 mph, depending on how long or steep the incline is. Please be patient with us and pass only when it's safe to do so.
"I didn't see you!" is NEVER a good excuse
Generally, we know you're not actually trying to hurt us (though some drivers might occasionally want to give us a good scare). Still, you are often distracted while you operate your two-ton vehicle at 30, 40 or 50 mph. This scares us more than anything else! Please put away your cell phone. Stop looking in your purse. Don't try to read your mail while you drive. Get your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. Drivers often use the "I didn't see you!" excuse after hitting a cyclist. But should that really make us feel better? If everyone just paid a little more attention on the road, many a fatal accident could be avoided.
Jennifer Ciapala has been an avid cyclist and triathlete for the last five years. She often rides and trains on the streets near her Cincinnati home, and she looks forward to the day when motorists and cyclists can share the road safely and respectfully.