Things I Have Learned About Cycling:  Advice from a Bicycling Consultant

by Kirby Beck, PCI #002T/EMSCI #017T
Coon Rapids (MN) Police Department (Retired)

In the twelve years since I retired from policing, I have worked as a bicycling consultant and expert during civil tort actions.  I have read many reports, investigated the facts and been witness to the mistakes that cyclists from around the United States have made; mistakes which have either cost them their lives or caused serious bodily injury.  

I would love to work on behalf of a conscientious cyclist, riding properly and legally, who was involved in a collision with a motorist who was violating their rights and placing them in danger.  Those opportunities are rare.  As a result, in the majority of cases, I find myself working for the defense and pointing out errors made by the injured cyclists.

There is one thing that I have learned:  people who have had some level of quality training in cycling and cycling skills are much less likely to be involved in serious crashes.  

Many of my cases have involved cyclists using bike lanes.  These so-called “safer places to ride” on the roadway don’t always live up to the advertising or perception.  Bike lanes too often give cyclists the impression they are no longer part of traffic, and they become dependent on the painted lines for their safety.  Several deceased riders left me with the impression that they concentrated on staying between the lines, ignoring the vehicles and traffic around and in front of them, even as they rode swiftly along. 

One young man was commuting in a left-side bike lane on a busy one-way street on the south side of a large downtown area.  He was enjoying a strong tailwind, his newly rebuilt single-speed bike, and the speed they brought him.  He was apparently so tuned into his speed, and staying between the bike lane stripes, that he neglected to look ahead.  When he finally noticed the heavily loaded semi turning across the bike lane in front of him, he applied his rear brake, skidded 31 feet and ran into the trailer’s rear set of tires. The tires rolled right over him.  His relatives told the newspaper reporter he was a very safe cyclist!  Not that day.

At intersections, bike lanes can be as dangerous, if not more so, than riding in the traffic lane.  Cyclists in bike lanes are often hidden behind other vehicles and more vulnerable to turning cars – especially oncoming cars making left turns.  Don’t trust your safety to paint!  When necessary, move out of the bike lane and into the traffic lane.  That will make you more visible, more relevant, and more predictable to other vehicles around you.  It will force you to become part of traffic.

As in the previous example, it is more dangerous to operate in a bike lane when around large vehicles like buses, semi-tractor-trailers, and other trucks.  NEVER ride alongside a bus or truck anywhere it may make a turn.  This is especially true when you are tempted to pass one while in the bike lane.  As visible as you may think you are, you may learn too late that you were not seen.  When a truck or bus makes a right turn, it will trap a cyclist, leaving them with nowhere to go.  

To avoid having their trailer track over curbs, pedestrians and waiting cars,   18-wheeler drivers start their turns much later into the intersection, doing what is called a buttonhook turn. Sometimes cyclists figure the truck really isn’t turning at all, so they continue toward the intersection.  Too many cyclists have died making that mistake.  Either stop and wait for the truck or bus to proceed through the intersection, even if you were ahead of it, or get in behind it and become a regular part of traffic.  Those large conveyances are complex and their drivers have much more to watch out for and do than drivers of most other vehicles.  Cyclists need to be extra cautious whenever they are around them.

Other popular facilities frequently used by cyclists are sidewalks, bike trails and bike paths.  Trails usually meander through parks, neighborhoods or forests.  Bike paths, typically designed for multi-modal use, often parallel the streets, much like a sidewalk. These facilities present few problems until the user arrives at an intersection with the roadway or a driveway.  One of the tenets IPMBA espouses for safely operating in traffic is “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.”  While that is true for riding in traffic, it is not true for people riding across roadways on paths and trails.  

The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Knoblauch Study learned that pedestrians who are running when they enter a crosswalk are as much as three times more likely to be struck by a driver who does not see them.  Cyclists ride even faster than a running pedestrian, and a cyclist’s chances of being struck are even greater.  Add to that danger the fact that users of a trail, sidewalk, or side path can legally approach the intersection from either direction, and drivers are even less likely to see you.  

The number of cases I have worked in which a person was riding on a trail or sidewalk, against the flow of adjacent traffic, is enlightening.  Drivers look for people approaching the street or driveway at walking speeds, especially from their left.  They search near the edge of the crosswalk or the corner.  Very few drivers look far down the sidewalk or trail for approaching cyclists.  At the same time, the cyclists assume they are seen and ride right in front of the vehicle as it starts out into traffic.  That is but one reason why IPMBA teaches our students to be extra cautious when operating on a sidewalk.  Here is the tenet for crossing a roadway or driveway while riding on a path, trail or sidewalk:  “Cyclists on a sidewalk or path fare best when they act and are treated as slow-moving pedestrians.”

Check your local laws, but in a number of jurisdictions, cyclists are considered pedestrians when operating upon a sidewalk or within a crosswalk.  Pedestrian laws, not cycling laws, would then apply.  Pedestrians may not have the right of way until they are actually WITHIN the crosswalk.  Entering a crosswalk at 10-12 mph, and expecting the right of way before you get there, may have a disastrous result.

A 2014 study entitled Every Bicyclist Counts (http://bikeleague.org/sites/default/files/EBC_report_final.pdf), compiled by the League of American Bicyclists (The League), reported that 40% of the fatal crashes in the League’s database were what they called “rear-end crashes”.  Unfortunately, the study gave few details about the dynamics of these incidents.  I know that of the cases I have reviewed, very few have been what I would call a rear-end crash.  Two rear-end crashes I do recall both occurred during nighttime hours. Both involved cyclists who used no legal lights or reflectors.  In one, the cyclist was wearing dark clothing and no helmet.  He was riding in the traffic lane at 11:30 at night on an exceptionally dark, 45 mph roadway, with virtually no street lighting. The driver who struck him had a very high BAC.  I asked the attorney if the fellow had left a suicide note!  

Only one of the crashes I have consulted on was a true rear-end crash occurring during daylight hours.  It involved a motorist who was following too closely behind a large vehicle.  When the driver of the rear car pulled out to use a freeway-style diverging lane, she struck the cyclist from behind at high speed.  The driver was unable to see the cyclist because the large vehicle blocked her view.  From my review, it appeared the cyclist had been riding legally, predictably and correctly.  

Sadly, the trooper who investigated the case didn’t know the law.  In his report, he put the fault on the cyclist (I presume for riding too near the road), ignoring the fact the driver had been following the vehicle in front too closely.  She admitted she was driving only about one car length back at 55 mph, so the Trooper knew it, but he did not mention it on the report.  The cyclist survived, but suffered permanent brain injury and had his life changed forever.  Fortunately a good attorney, and a certain cycling expert, were able to help him win a $3.5 million award to help make his life a bit more comfortable.

Based on the cases I have reviewed, I find the League’s claim difficult to understand and believe more facts are needed to explain it.  At the same time, I have to admit that the issues of distracted driving cause me concern.  Hi-viz clothing and daytime rear lighting seem to be more appropriate and necessary than ever.

The takeaway I’d like to leave you with is this:  people who ride bicycles all too often believe they know all there is to know about riding a bike.  In reality, they just don’t know what they don’t know.  I’ve seen Category 2 racers and cyclists who ride over 5,000 miles a year involved in life-ending or life-changing incidents.  Experience and miles are not a replacement for quality cyclist education and training.

Most readers of this piece have probably received some level of cyclist training.  I am sure you now realize that there is much more to riding a bike safely than you ever imagined before you had training.       I have come to believe that trained cyclists are much less likely to be involved in serious bicycle-related crashes.  They also become safer motorists around cyclists.  

As public safety cyclists, it should be our goal to help provide opportunities for civilian cyclists in our communities to receive quality cyclist training.  There are several good, civilian cyclist education programs available.  These include the League’s Smart Cycling program, and American Bicycling Education Association’s (ABEA) Cycling Savvy program.  

IPMBA Instructors can contact The League (www.bikeleague.org) to be grandfathered into the League’s Instructor cadre.  I also strongly encourage members wishing to engage the community in quality bicycle education to seek out a Cycling Savvy course (www.cyclingsavvy.org) and take it.   I have – and I’ve taken it twice – it is that good.  It will make you a smarter cyclist and better instructor.  As the program expands, there is a need for more instructors, and active IPMBA members would be a wonderful fit.

Ride safely – and keep learning.

Kirby Beck retired after 28 years with Coon Rapids Police Department.  He has 14 years of police bike patrol experience.  He has taught bicycle safety and traffic cycling to children and adults for more than 25 years.  As a training consultant, he co-taught the Bicycle Safety and Accommodation Course for the National Highway Institute, sponsored by NHTSA and FHWA.  A founding member and past President of IPMBA, he was co-creator of the IPMBA Police Cyclist Course and Instructor Course.  He contributed to both the Complete Guide to Police Cycling and the Complete Guide to Public Safety Cycling.  He can be reached at kirbyp42@aol.com.

(c) 2017 IPMBA.  This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of IPMBA News. 

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