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Why Cyclists Should Stay Out of the Gutter

Here's why you should usually ride near the middle of the traffic lane, assertively taking charge of your own safety, rather than passively slinking along in the gutter at the edge of the road.

Near middle of lane Fig. 1 - Good position by a young cyclist
Outside door zone Fig. 2 - Avoiding the door zone.  Ride a bit further out to avoid the "flinch zone" In through lane, RT lane to right Fig. 3 - Avoiding the right turn lane Be my guest gesture Fig. 4 - Safely allowing right-turn on red
  1. You can deter most unsafe passing by showing overtaking motorists that they must act -- either move over or slow down rather than squeezing by at full speed (Fig. 1).  [See note 1].
  2. You are more likely to be seen by approaching motorists instead of being subconsciously ignored as part of the "clutter" at the edge of the road.  This makes it less likely that you will be hit from behind by a distracted motorist not paying full attention to the job of driving.
  3. If you ride near the middle of the lane or even in the left tire track on a higher-speed road, approaching motorists can see early that the lane is occupied.  This helps both motorists and you (Fig. 1).
  4. You are much less likely to have motorists pass and then immediately turn right.  (This is called a "right hook" and it is a frequent cause of collisions.)
  5. If a motorist does hook you, it will be from further out in the road where you can better see it coming and you will have more room to escape.
  6. You are less likely to have left-turning motorists cut in front of you.  This is called a "left cross" and it is very dangerous.
  7. If a motorist does left-cross, you have room to escape.
  8. You are less likely to have a motorist violate your right-of-way by pulling out from a side street or driveway.  This is sometimes called "drive out".
  9. If a motorist does pull out in front of you, you have room to escape.
  10. If you ride at least five feet from parked cars, you have zero risk of being "doored".  And if you stay at least six feet away, you are unlikely to "flinch" and swerve into traffic if a door is suddenly opened as you pass (Fig. 2).
  11. On a fast downhill run, you need extra room (Fig. 1).
  12. Being out in the lane allows you to better see and be seen by crossing traffic (better sight triangles).
  13. Riding near the middle of the lane is safer if the light changes while you are still in the intersection -- both you and the other driver can see each other sooner and have more space to maneuver.
  14. By staying out of a right-turn lane when you are not turning, you avoid crossing paths with turning traffic (Fig. 3).
  15. The road is usually in better shape (fewer cracks and holes) where traffic operates.
  16. Riding well away from parked cars can prevent you from running into a pedestrian or animal cutting between parked cars.
  17. There are rarely dangerous sewer grates where traffic operates.
  18. If you do have to dodge something, you have room to move away from passing traffic (to the right), rather than towards traffic.
  19. There is much less debris (glass, gravel, dead mufflers, etc.) where traffic operates.
  20. You will get fewer flat tires by riding where passing traffic has cleared the road of broken glass.
  21. If you are "first-out" at a red light where right turn on red is authorized, you can be polite to motorists by moving up and left to allow the turn safely on your right rather than unsafely from your left (Fig. 4).

Here's why most cyclists do not ride assertively to protect their safety.

  1. Cyclists are not taught to do this.  Instead, they're encouraged to stay out of the way.
  2. Bike lanes and paths are designed to get cyclists out of the way -- exactly contrary to being assertive for safety.
  3. Traffic laws that require riding "as far right as practicable" are often misinterpreted "as far right as possible."  [See note 2].
  4. If you ride correctly, most people will think you are wrong -- and vice-versa.
  5. If you ride correctly, some motorists will yell or honk their horns.
  6. Occasionally, improperly-trained police illegally harass cyclists for riding correctly.

Footnotes:

[1] While nothing prevents foolishness by the really reckless driver, you can prevent almost all incidents of squeeze-by passing by riding correctly.

[2] In Ohio, traffic law includes a clarifying paragraph § 4511.55(C) that says: "This section does not require a person operating a bicycle to ride at the edge of the roadway when it is unreasonable or unsafe to do so. Conditions that may require riding away from the edge of the roadway include when necessary to avoid fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, surface hazards, or if it otherwise is unsafe or impracticable to do so, including if the lane is too narrow for the bicycle and an overtaking vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane."


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© Copyright 2010-2011 Fred Oswald and LAB Reform.  Material may be copied with attribution.
For latest version, see http://labreform.org/education/
Revised 12/18/11