Thursday, June 17, 2010

The benefit of passing on the right

Riding from City Hall the other day at around 6:30, I passed, by my count, 56 cars backed up on Beacon Street (eastbound) from Centre Street back to Laurel Street (or thereabouts). I had turned left from Walnut Street, so I rode only a small stretch before I hit the traffic knot. No more than five or six of the cars had passed me before I passed them.

Some observations:

  • That's a lot of cars stopped at a light; traffic can be brutal in Newton
  • Bikes have a tremendous edge in congested traffic, an edge that people should be encouraged to take advantage of
  • If traffic is jammed up enough, it is likely that bikes will be passing cars that haven't first passed them -- a cyclist has to be extra, super-duper careful because motorists won't have been given the notice of their presence that passing gives
  • If traffic is jammed up enough, it is likely that bikes will be passing cars that haven't first passed them -- a motorist has to be aware that a cyclist may come along on the right that the motorist hasn't seen yet

Mass law is not great on this point:

No person operating a vehicle that overtakes and passes a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall make a right turn at an intersection or driveway unless the turn can be made at a safe distance from the bicyclist at a speed that is reasonable and proper. MGL ch. 90, sec. 14

Why shouldn't a motorist be required to give a cyclist a safe margin before turning right, regardless of whether or not the motorist has first overtaken the cyclist?


Stealth said...

I think it's a question of how you define a "right hook." The law reflects a knowing awareness: you zoom around a cyclist and then cut her off with a quick right turn.

For myself, if I'm riding to the right of traffic instead of in the lane when I come to an intersection, I consider myself equally responsible with the drivers to make take care that they don't unknowingly turn into me, by staying out of their blind spots.

And as you say, it's great to be able to weave around traffic, and I do it, but one does have to be extremely careful and do so slowly, not only because cars might hit you, but because you might hit jaywalkers.

Anonymous said...

regarding "Why shouldn't a motorist be required to give a cyclist a safe margin before turning right, regardless of whether or not the motorist has first overtaken the cyclist?" Since it's a term that has been used in this blog before... Doofus, the driver has to see them first. How come Stealth and others understand this, and you are clinging to the "I can't do anything wrong, and I don't have to be attentive, I'm on a bicycle."? theory. I'm sure it was quite the adrenaline rush to pass those cars and no one is saying you shouldn't, but it seems like you want to change the law so that someone else is in the wrong even if you do something stupid. That's just not right.

Sean Roche said...

As a driver, it doesn't seem an unreasonable burden to require me to look in my mirrors before I turn.

Anonymous said...

I am always very aware of bicyclists but I do have one very big complaint. PLEASE, if you are cycling through city streets, obey the rules of the road! Cyclists traveling on the right side of the road are in huge danger of being hit. I can't say how many times I've pulled up to a stop sign to take a right turn, looked to the right and the the left and proceeded to go... only to slam on the brakes at the sight of a cyclist coming right toward the right front corner of my car. It is scary and unneccessary! Bicyclists need to follow proper rules or they should not be on the roads.

dr2chase said...


There's two parts to the driver's responsibilities. One is to look, the other is to signal. A standard rule for cycling with cars is to assume that the cars don't see you (but do everything you can to make that not be true). So you look, and that avoids some crashes, but it is not 100%.

However, if a cyclist is there, then the signal is also required. As I read the law, it is not "if you see the cyclist", but rather "if the cyclist (vehicle) is there". So unless you have 100% confidence in your ability to see things in your mirrors, you should signal, just in case there is a cyclist that you do not see. This seems like an incredibly minor burden on the driver, so I don't have any problem with this rule at all. It also takes no experience at all to know how to use a turn signal; it is completely low-tech, far easier than looking for a bicycle in your rear view mirror.

The cyclist, in turn, should be looking for your signal, and the experienced ones (e.g., me) are also watching things like brake lights, wheel angles, changes in lane position, etc, for other indications that you might turn, because far too many drivers don't use their signal. That helps, but it's still not 100%. However, if most drivers are not turning, if most turning drivers are looking, if most turning drivers are signaling anyone, if most cyclists are looking both for signals and other indications, the probability that everything will fail, gets pretty small.

@Anon#2, I think you meant "left side of the road" or maybe "wrong side of the road". "Right side" is the right side.

Steve R said...

Massachusetts law also says:

"It shall not be a defense for a motorist causing an accident with a bicycle that the bicycle was to the right of vehicular traffic."

It doesn't say whether that traffic was moving or stopped.

Steve R said...

What almost always happens in these comment threads is that a few people confuse points of law with issues of safety.

It is absolutely the case that a biker on the right of stopped traffic needs to be vigilant and careful, and bike defensively.

It is also absolutely the case that, if police and courts apply the law as it is written (not always the case), the driver can't use "but I didn't see the biker, because he was on the right" as a defense. That defense was unfortunately allowed by the Newton police in a recent accident. We need to make sure all local police are aware of these laws and buy into applying them.

Robert said...

This blog is very important as both drivers as well as cyclists needs to be informed of laws and encouraged to show common courtesy.
Remember that rudeness or brazen ness on the road leads to more aggessive driving. People want to get where they are going, and we know too well how much rudeness there is car to car. While cyclists would do well to be extra cautious, I think many motorists don't see cyclists as having a legitimate right to be on the road.
Creating bike lanes and affixing signs on posts are needed to bring more civility to motorists behavior. (Written by a motorist.)

Anonymous said...

Passing a row of stopped cars on their right is a risky business. At that point you are basically illegally passing on the right.

dr2chase said...

@Anon, that is not true.

Bicycles are allowed to pass cars on the right in Massachusetts

"(1) the bicycle operator may keep to the right when passing a motor vehicle which is moving in the travel lane of the way, (2) the bicycle operator shall signal by either hand his intention to stop or turn; provided, however, that signals need not be made continuously and shall not be made when the use of both hands is necessary for the safe operation of the bicycle, and (3) bicycles may be ridden on sidewalks outside business districts when necessary in the interest of safety, unless otherwise directed by local ordinance. A person operating a bicycle on the sidewalk shall yield the right of way to pedestrians and give an audible signal before overtaking and passing any pedestrian."

Anonymous said...

Sean, every driver should be looking in the mirror AND turning their heads before they turn a corner, but that doesn't mean that the cyclist isn't in your blind spot for the second or split-second they are doing this. You were talking about cars practically standing still, vs. bikes trying to zip by at 10-15 MPH. Turning around or a glance in the mirror won't necessarily catch them in it. If the cyclist is not 100% attentive, and is not looking out for turning cars they are at the very least partly to blame. Probably the larger part, just for not being very bright. You can't point to the driver and say he had the special obligation while the cyclist can be oblivious to these dangers and less than 100% attentive. Others are not saying that.

dr2chase said...

@Anon -- by law, the cars are supposed to signal before they turn, if it can affect another vehicle. If a bicycle is there, WHETHER THEY SEE IT OR NOT, they affect it, and therefore should signal. This is a minimal obligation -- far easy to comply with this, than to stop for the pedestrian in the crosswalk that you don't see.

We're not clairvoyant, nor are we expected to be. If there's no signal for a right turn, a cyclist can hardly be blamed for engaging in the legal behavior of passing on the right.

And in particular, I (an "other") am saying that the cyclist is obliged to look for turn signals, and the motorist is obliged to use them, and if no turn signal is used and there is a collision, it should be regarded as the fault of the motorist. A cyclist who fails to detect a turning-but-non-signaling car is not at fault, and is only "not bright" in the sense that they fail to appreciate how bad some drivers are; some of us catch most of those, but some of us have been driving for 35 years and cycling for 45 years -- you observe a lot by watching.

And, one other note, you assume that the right place for the cyclist is "not in the blind spot of the car". Right there, your auto-centric assumptions are showing -- if only the cyclist were where the driver could see him, then the driver would see him, and behave appropriately. Always. Some of us feel more comfortable riding in a place where the car behind sees us plainly, and we see the car in front, which may, or may not, be turning, so that we can react appropriately (this matters most when traffic is accelerating out of an intersection). I suspect this may be in the driver's blind spot, but that's ok, because I already assume that they cannot see me, and are probably distracted by their cell phone and looking elsewhere anyway.