The Well-Tempered Bicycle Commuter: In the Lane

By Steve Chambers

Cycling in traffic.

That’s why drivers hate cyclists,” I announced to the others in our car. We were in the far right lane leaving American Fork, a lane that becomes the on ramp to I-15 North. A bicyclist in our lane moved suddenly across the lane left to merge into the center lane, which goes straight. In doing so he cut in front of a car. The driver honked, the cyclist gave the one-finger salute.

“What was the guy supposed to do?” my son, who was driving our car, asked. “The car cut right.”

From my vantage point in the backseat, I had not seen the car swerve sharply right in order to get onto the on-ramp at the same time the cyclist swerved left to get off the on-ramp. Two vehicles suddenly changed lanes at the last moment, a common enough occurrence in Utah—except one was a bicycle and had they collided the damage would have been worse than a simple fender-bender.

Many of us grew up riding bikes on sidewalks and making the transition to the road can be traumatic. Sidewalks are fine for kids, who don’t know the rules of the road, but for adults, riding on the sidewalk is dangerous and in most places, including Utah, illegal. Dodging people on foot slows you down, trips you up and puts you at risk for accidents.

Some cyclists take a page from the unwritten rules for pedestrians on roadways, and that is to ride on the left side of the road, into oncoming traffic. That’s even worse than riding on the sidewalk. Motorists aren’t expecting bicycles coming at them and just plain don’t see them. “Traffic works best when everyone is predictable,” says Preston Tyree, education director for the League of American Bicyclists.

A bicyclist must consider herself to be a vehicle on the road, subject to the same privileges and responsibilities as drivers; and drivers need to see cyclists in the same light. So the most fundamental aspect of being a predictable cyclist is to ride on the right side of the road.

When riding in traffic, stay as far to the right as you safely can. “Safely” is a relative term, especially if there are cars parked on the street. To get a sense of perspective of how far to stay to the left of parked cars, open the door of your car and place the handlebars of your bike six inches from that. This will give you an idea of how far to the left of a parked car you need to be to avoid being hit by a door that suddenly opens as you ride by. Even if you’re riding on a road without cars you should be at least three feet from the edge of the pavement. That’s roughly an arm’s-length from the curb. Riding closer to the side of the road may make you feel safer, but it actually puts you more at risk because you are less visible and therefore more vulnerable.

When approaching an intersection with a designated right turn lane, if you’re going straight move to the right of the lane that proceeds straight to let cars pass you and turn right. If there is no designated right turn lane and you’re going straight, move left to give enough room for a car to pass on the right if possible. Some roads don’t have enough room for two cars. In that case, move slightly left to indicate that you intend to go straight, but don’t worry about blocking traffic. If you were a car, the person behind you couldn’t turn right anyway.

Left turns require anticipation, especially if you’re traveling on a four-lane (or more) road, because you have to move from the right across the travel lanes into the left turn lane. You should anticipate your turn at least a half-block before the turn lane. Once again, act as if you are a car, moving gradually from one lane to the next. An arm signal (left arm extended horizontally) is helpful.

So back to our initial question: Who was wrong, the driver or the cyclist? Both. Neither the motorist nor the bicyclist anticipated his need to change lanes soon enough. The cyclist continued in the far right lane, the one that becomes the on-ramp, until the very last moment. The motorist continued in the center lane until the same time. If both had anticipated their need to change lanes earlier, their last-second lane changes would have been unnecessary and another unpleasant car-bicycle encounter would have been avoided.

Steve Chambers is a Salt Lake City lawyer and freelance writer. He has been commuting by bicycle part time for over 10 years.

This article was originally published on July 29, 2011.