Sunday, September 17, 2006

Passing Clearance, Helmets and Lane Position

A study in the U.K. made the news recently, primarily (I think) because it fits so well into our "fearful soundbyte" model of news presentation. So televisions have been blaring with well-groomed talking heads saying things like "Is your bicycle helmet putting you at risk? Find out at 11:00!" The Walker study of 2,500 passing cars showed that test cyclists were given 8.5 cm (3.3 inches) more clearance by cars if they were not wearing helmets and the alarming headlines quickly followed.

The most unfortunate thing about the fearful soundbyte is that many people don't look beyond the soundbyte. But there is more to the story and this link is a good place to start:

The above page looks critically at the study and brings up a very relevant variable in the cyclist/motorist interactions, the lane position of the cyclist. John Forester has long advocated "taking the lane" in his Effective Cycling book and courses. But the Effective Cycling folks are not without their critics as well. As with many things, I find it most useful to listen to what the loud voices have to say and try to find the part that seems true and workable. A recent discussion on the Bicycle Touring List on this subject made a lot of sense to me and I'm directly quoting the two people involved with their permission:

A fellow named Bob very nicely summarized the Effective Cycling "take the lane" strategy and Alberto responded:

I think you make a good point that I seem unable to follow: being more aggressive in taking the lane as opposed to the extreme right position on the road. It makes a lot of sense to make cars "see you" in the lane so they supposedly have to venture into the opposing lane to pass you with sufficient space. Riding with my friend Paco, who is a seasoned racer and does many training miles on the road, I find it very uncomfortable to follow his technique of taking the lane so aggressively as I ride close on my right. I find that cars tend to get more ticked off at him than me, though, as they cannot pass until they have clear room from the opposing lane. It is true, however, that cars seem to squeeze closer to me than to him, though I've never felt in danger in my position.

Very interesting idea to think about and work through.

Seasoned touring cyclist Mark Boyd replied with this advice with the list:

I think keeping far right does encourage people to pass close, but sometimes that is what you want. When I am riding in light to moderate traffic, where passing is not difficult, I will take the lane because that is safer. However, if traffic is heavy, I will do every thing I can, including getting off the road periodically, to help cars and, especially, trucks, get by me. Under those circumstances, I think taking the lane is rude and, while possibly safer for me at the time, will anger drivers and increase the chances that they do something unsafe for bicyclist in the future.

Riding a bicycle safely in traffic on the road requires cooperation between the cyclist(s) and the drivers. Both groups need to recognize the rights of the other group and act in ways that help the other group share the road with them. Taking the lane can be a good thing or a bad thing. The experienced rider should be able to decide which it is in any given circumstance.

I follow the rule that, in traffic, I should ride as near the edge of the road as practical. It is up to me to judge where that is. It can, and does, change as road and traffic conditions change. It can, and does, depend on the drivers behavior. If I 'give' drivers the lane because they need it to get past me and the result feels dangerous to me, I'll take it back again or, in extreme cases, get off that road.

Like Mark, I try to ride safely and courteously. All of us on the road are trying to make our way in the world.

I've mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating. A good page on cycling safety is Michael Bluejay's How Not To Get Hit By Cars at:

Ride safely,



Alberto said...


A couple of things. The Walter Study, as reported, raises some significant ethical issues. Researches (whether or not they are tenured or whether or not they need notoriety to become tenured) ought to be very careful with what results are furnished to the press before those results are conclusive or the full study is duly reported. This alone is beyond the issue of whether or not people should wear helmets. Professional integrity dictates – ought to dictate – that the results from any study that might have immediate consequences are properly reported and not misused as sound bites and headlines. Let’s leave that to politicians. It is thus that I must conclude from what has been reported till now that the study should not be taken seriously at all; it (the “experiment”) sounds frankly ridiculous – unless and until we are given full information of its methodology and results. For instance, wearing a wig while cycling does not make you a “woman” cyclist. It makes you a cyclist-wearing-a-wig cyclist. Perhaps one is more deserving of more room on the road while wearing a wig! I donno. I do not judge.

Notice – and I think this is serious – the lack of backbone on some of the professor’s findings: it might be OK for children to wear helmets because, anyway, helmets have proven effective in low speed falls. Does this suggest that adults do not benefit from the use of helmets on slow speed falls? Or that adults simply don’t ride slow enough to make the benefit viable for them? What it suggests to me is that since adults are supposedly responsible for their actions they can choose to ride – slow or fast – without a helmet and take the consequences. Fair enough. But the good professor wouldn’t want that to apply to children – just in case he’s wrong – because experiments are just that and theories are just theories and children hitting their heads on concrete are hurt children. (Those of us who ride quite often with our children take this shit very seriously.) We cannot make such easy leaps to conclusions without assurance that they hold water. Specially when the professor’s own results point out that the increased or improved separation between car and helmet-less rider is only ONE INCH AND A HALF.)

To each his own might be fair enough, but to mislead – even unconsciously – is no experiment worth my while.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned pulling off when necessary to let cars go past. Too many cyclist forget that we are considered motorists and must follow the rules of the road. One of those rules is that if you are holding up more than 5 car you must pull over, when safe, and let them pass.

This is safer and more helpful than just continuing.

My issue is what are you supposed to do for the moron who won't pass because they can't get their 6 foot wide car past you in the 11 foot wide lane? Is that you holding up traffic or them?

So far I have never been stopped but it sure is aggrivating when they will not pass because the motorists behind them all are getting mad at you.

Ride safe.


Wallet B. Grundle said...

The comment from Mark Boyd is spot-on. It's a common-sense cooperative approach (take the lane unless you're screwing up traffic), and, in my opinion, the most constructive for cyclists. While my pride wants me to take the lane all the time, my common sense is usually good at making my pride shut up. Good post.

Ellie Hamilton said...

Great post with great quotes and references, Kent; thanks for linking me to it. Great comments, too. And a couple new resources for me in your sidebar. Thanks for visiting my blog and for your helpful comment!