In the warmer months, I commute to work by bike, which means I spend a lot of time on it. I also take my cycling safety very seriously because, well, I don’t want to get injured or worse.
One morning, while biking along Dundas Street east of Sherbourne (before the Dundas bike lane begins), one of TO’s ancient streetcars pulled up alongside me. We were cruising along side-by-side for about 150 metres, me in the right lane and the tram in the left. When suddenly a fast-moving pickup truck barreled past in the narrow gap between my skeletal system and the streetcar, not two inches from striking me with his sideview mirror.
It gave me quite a fright, which quickly turned into anger. Of course seconds later, myself, the streetcar, and the pickup truck arrived at the same red light. In my angry haste to cycle up to the pickup truck’s window and have a few words, I distractedly drove past the open streetcar doors. This eliciting an angry blare from the streetcar operator, which the very observant pickup driver took note of.
“That’s too close!” I shouted into the pickup window – to which the pickup truck driver shouted back: “Here you’re yelling at me, but you just drove past the streetcar doors – that makes a lot of sense!”
While this was a relatively tame interaction on the streets of Toronto, comparatively speaking, it highlighted three really important things for me about cycling safety.
1. Avoid cycling abreast of a streetcar, or any other large, slow-moving vehicle that cars might want to get around.
Many TO cyclists are afraid of streetcars and streetcar tracks as major hazards to cycling safety. On the one hand I can see their point; streetcars are literally huge, and your wheels can get caught in the tracks pretty easily. But on the other hand, streetcars and their tracks are among the most predictable hazards on the roads. A streetcar or the track will never turn suddenly, fling their doors open into your path, or race around you to get to the next red light a bit faster.
Far more unpredictable hazards to your cycling safety are the cars desperately trying to get around the streetcar in order to shave a few precious seconds off their commutes. Since my encounter with the pickup truck, I have made a choice: to avoid riding abreast of streetcars (when there’s no designated bike lane), even if that means pulling off the road while they roll past or staying five car lengths behind them.
It doesn’t mean I think cars have more rights to the space than I do – because they don’t. It simply means that I’m accepting the reality of the situation; motorists are unpredictable and impatient, and my cycling safety depends on keeping my distance from them.
2. Getting angry at a motorist is counterintuitive to cycling safety.
This one is tougher to swallow, especially considering that I can’t think of a better reason to get angry (in response to having your life put at risk by some idiot driver). Unfortunately, though, getting angry where cars are involved puts you at greater risk – because we all do things we wouldn’t normally when we’re angry (road rage!).
While we’re all going to get angry from time-to-time, I think minimizing the situations where personal risk is higher and anger might result is a safer choice. At its core, anger has the best of intentions: to protect us from harm. But in this case, it has the opposite effect of placing us at greater risk and compromising our cycling safety.
Make avoiding situations where you might get angry at a car driver the goal. In doing so you will be repurposing anger to keep you safe, as opposed to it placing you in greater danger.
3. Car drivers use cyclists’ disobedience of the rules as a reason to not share the road with them.
This is the big takeaway, and the most important reason why cyclists should obey the rules for cycling safety. Regardless of whether its necessary for the safety of others, when we plow through red lights, ignore stop signs, text and cycle, speed past streetcar doors, fail to signal, car drivers take note. They shake their heads and think, They expect us to keep them safe, when look what they do?!
While it might seem like the best reason to obey the rules is because, well, they are the rules, unfortunately there come times when breaking them doesn’t seem like a big deal. If there’s no one else at a stop sign or stoplight, is skipping on through without stopping such a big deal? If the streetcar’s doors are open, but no passengers are getting out, does it really matter if I cruise past – no one’s at risk here anyway, right?
In doing so you place yourself and all other cyclists at risk from this driver mentality: Cyclists disobey the rules and drive like maniacs, so why should I share the road with them?
When you are seen to obey the rules and respect the system, you send a message to others around you that you care about your cycling safety, and that you expect others to extend that same courtesy to you. It won’t always work – there will always be maniacs in cars whizzing past within inches of destroying you for no other reason than to get to the next red light a couple seconds faster.
But it will help, and we need all the help we can get.
So make the choice for cycling safety; obey the rules all the time, not just when it makes sense. In doing so you send a message to others that you care about your cycling safety, and you expect that others do the same.