Unorthodox Interactions (A Little Rant)

After many years on a bicycle, most riders develop a sort of sixth sense that enables them to anticipate the actions of motorists based upon their lane position, speed, smoothness (or lack thereof), etc. Sharing the road with motorists will eventually develop this essential skill in most any bicyclist.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear the same can be said about motorists. It often seems as if motorists are completely perplexed by bicyclists who obey the rules of the road, take the lane when necessary, and generally act as if they have a right to be on the road just like any other vehicle. It often seems as if motorists expect us bicyclists to ride erratically and outside the normal conventions expected of vehicle operators.

A pair of examples (among many others) include a motorist waving a bicyclist through at a 4-way stop when the motorist clearly has the right-of-way; and, a motorist slowing to let a bicyclist make a left turn when the motorist has the right-of-way from the opposite direction. These unorthodox interactions are confusing and potentially dangerous.

Perhaps at least some of the blame for this lies in the fact that we bicyclists do, in fact, sometimes ride as if the rules of the road don’t apply to us. In other words, if motorists are accustomed to seeing bicyclists riding erratically, perhaps they’re only reacting accordingly by being hesitant in their interactions with us.

It would sure be nice if all motorists treated bicyclists as equal road users and responded to us in ways that are normal for the circumstances at hand. In the meantime, the best thing we can do is keep abiding the rules of the road and sending clear messages about our intentions to other road users.

35 Responses to “Unorthodox Interactions (A Little Rant)”

  • Moopheus says:

    I think part of the advantage for cyclists is that many of us are also drivers, so we are well aware of how cars are supposed to behave, and already have some idea of the ways in which drivers are likely to be misbehaving. But drivers who don’t ride don’t “get” bikes in the same way. Or necessarily understand how the rules of say, the right of way, apply to bikes. It’s not part of driver ed (or at least, I don’t remember it being so). Even cyclists who ride “erratically” don’t do so completely randomly for the most part–they fall into patterns, like the salmon and the running of red lights, though it is true that it may be hard to predict the moment when some idiot is going to decide to weave around in traffic.

  • FreeRangeBiker says:

    This post is so apropos of my commute this morning. I try hard to be a good bike ambassador by following the rules of the road. Early in my commute, while it was still pretty dark, I approached a four way stop (yes, I had tons of lights and reflective clothing on). A car reached the intersection a little before me, with her left turn signal activated. I came to a full, if balanced stop (I didn’t have my foot on the ground), waiting for her to make her turn. She hesitated; I continued to balance. I couldn’t see her face because of the darkness and glare from her headlights. Finally, she made her turn, but midway into it, she yelled at me out of her open window: “Don’t be mad; you have to follow the rules just like cars!” Huh?! That’s what I was doing; stopping and recognizing her right of way. And got totally dumped on in response. Wow.

    But back to the point of your post, I totally agree. As much as I appreciate the good intentions of drivers, I really would much rather that they treat me like regular traffic. Often in an effort to be nice to me, they just make things confusing, and actually harder on me.

  • DerrickP says:

    On my commute this morning I was waiting in the left turning lane. A car came from the right, didn’t use a turning signal and turned in on my right side… as in, they didn’t understand what to do with me sitting there, so in a perplexed action, turned into oncoming traffic instead of going around me like they would have instinctively done with a car.

    In this instance, I suppose they only put themselves in danger. But I could see the look on his face as he wondered what to do with that bicycle in the lane instead of on the sidewalk where he probably thought I belonged.

    You make a great point, Alan. As cyclists, we become more aware as we gain experience on the road. I think drivers become more unaware with time. They get comfortable and turn their brains off. Even if this guy didn’t expect to see me there, his mind should be alert enough to have made a wise choice… not a choice to turn into oncoming traffic.

  • John Lascurettes says:

    Regarding drivers yielding when they’re not supposed to, it happens at least a few times a week to me. Most commonly, I’m waiting to cross a busy Portland street from a side road and an over-curteous driver will stop to let me through when there’s a string of cars behind her. Never mind that the cars in the other lane aren’t stopping. Never mind that there was a perfectly timed gap I could have used for both lanes had she not stopped. I usually wave the person through saying, “Go when you’re supposed to go and I will too!”

  • Lucas says:

    It doesn’t happen very often, but every once and again I will be stopped at a red light and a motorist will slow down and stop to wave me through… I usually just point at the light and wave them through.

    Another instance is when a pedestrian looks at me with shock and awe as I come to a stop at a red and they are crossing… probably having expected me to nearly run them down (which the cyclist who bombs through behind me invariably does).

    I wholly agree that predictability is crucial to safety, but though there are many cyclists who follow the rules of the road, it seems that we are the minority to the legions of those who flout, ignore, or just plain don’t know or don’t care about the rules. So, by unfortunate default, according to your average motorist, most bikes will act unpredictably.

  • Mark says:

    I agree that motorists do not know how to behave around cyclists – for some reason they see cyclists as a special case. An example came last week on my commute in to work – the road is 4 lanes, (2 in each direction), there is on street parking, and the RHL is not wide enough to share, so I typically take the lane. The other morning, I am riding down the street, and there is a backhoe driving down the street in the left hand lane, going slightly slower than my pace of about 20mph. Not sure why the backhoe was in the left lane, as he went more than 2 blocks this way, so he was not preparing for a left hand turn. In any event, a motorist gets behind me, and starts laying on the horn and madly motioning for me to get out of his way. Nobody seemed to wonder why the backhoe was driving down the left hand lane, but the expectation is that there is a different set of rules that apply to cyclists.

  • John says:

    I completely agree, Alan. While I’ve experienced the same scenarios you mention, just this week an even more bizarre scenario happened to me. On my way home, I had come to a complete stop (foot on the ground) at an intersection with a two-way stop (my direction), the driver coming from my right, who had no stop, sees me and decides to stop. I thought perhaps she was going to make a left onto my street so I waited for her. She just stared at me, and finally waved me through. Not only was I completely perplexed and a little annoyed by her actions, but I then almost feel guilty for taking a right-of-way that’s not mine. In the end, she didn’t make a left, but proceeded straight ahead after I had passed. Go figure.

    I think we bicyclists develop a heightened sense of awareness because we must always be ready for the unexpected from drivers, whether from the extremes of over-caution or no caution at all. Unfortunately, this erratic and dangerous behavior by drivers prevents more people from riding bicycles. I’ve often thought that state motor vehicle departments, driver training courses, and traffic schools all need to include more training for drivers on how to share the road with cyclists. It won’t eliminate all bad drivers, but it seems to me it would cut down on the number of drivers who think they’re doing cyclists a favor by deviating from the rules of the road in unpredictable ways.

  • Janice in GA says:

    OMG, it makes me nuts when cars try to wave me through instead of just following normal intersection rules.

    OTOH, it makes me really happy when someone pulls back so I can come through where the multi-use trail crosses the road. I always give them a big audible “Thank you!”

  • John says:

    I’ve thought for a while now, that a line of clothing and/or a wearable placard having the words, “State Law: Bicycles Are Vehicles” emblazoned in large reflective letters, was long overdue.

  • FreeRangeBiker says:

    In retrospect, I probably should have made my intentions absolutely clear to the driver, by putting my foot on the ground. I thought I had, but It’s good to remember that not all motorists ride bikes, and so may not understand what one is doing when you stop but continue to balance. It’s inconvenient to have to break the inertia again, but that’s life.

  • Pete says:

    Good post, Alan. This is really common. In my case, I am usually the only cyclist acting in a “vehicular” way, and I often encounter about a dozen others on my commute riding on-and-off the sidewalk, salmoning, etc. I often wonder if it would not be easier on the drivers if I, too, rode like this, so at least all the cyclists’ behavior they encounter would be consistent! ( I must confess that one section of my route requires sidewalk riding due to road construction, and yes, I do take – safe – liberties with many of the 24 (!!!) traffic lights I pass through on my 3-mile commute. So I try not to get preachy.)
    I think one reason that so many motorists behave this way is that the only mental concept they have of a cyclist is CHILDREN. It’s little wonder they drive as if they’ve just come upon a 6 yr old on a bike in the middle of the street!

  • JonP says:

    @FreeRangeBiker — I think your story illuminates the point being made here: Any other experienced biker would have know what you were doing, but a driver without biking experience wouldn’t.

    So, yes, foot on the ground is a small pain, but it signifies your intention clearly. Balancing on the bike doesn’t, at least to some drivers.

  • Gaff says:

    Riding mostly on rural roads I mostly encounter impatience from motorists when I attempt to claim my lane. Clearly, they expect me to ride on the 3″ – 4″ of road to the right of the while line. I’ve started yelling “Too Close” when I get passed close enough to feel the wind of the passenger side mirror.

    OTOH, inconsistent cyclists are not making things better. While stopped at 2 way rural intersection riding with my wife, another cyclist barrels through the intersection at top speed without a thought that the crossroad doesn’t stop.

    I think both motorists and cyclists would benefit from better driver (a cyclist is still a driver) training.

  • Rich says:

    This reminds me of a daily issue I have. There are several zebra crossings on my daily commute. I prefer to wait and cross as a cyclist, where I don’t have the privilege of stopping traffic, rather than getting off the bike, becoming a pedestrian, and thereby stopping all traffic across the zebra. I’d rather just be lazy and wait for it to clear. But cars will often stop for me, even though I’m still mounted. Sometimes I’ll dismount, just to remove any ambiguties in people’s mind. I guess I should do that anyway.

  • Jay says:

    Only occasionally do drivers in on-coming traffic stop and wave me ahead when I’m trying to make a left turn.

    I stop, and wait, signaling I want to turn left, and sometimes the oncoming traffic stops to let me through. I suppose that this can be dangerous, particularly if there are cars behind that person who don’t know why the person in front of them is stopped, and they whip around only to find themselves face to face with a biker.

    However, I’m not annoyed by this behavior generally – I often prefer it. It’s courteous, even if it adds to unpredictability, but the real reason I’m OK with it most of the time is that it allows me to get out of a precarious spot in the road more quickly.

    Think about it – who expects to find a biker standing – stopped – in the left lane, in the middle of traffic, with lots of cars piling up behind. If there’s a lot of oncoming traffic, and no one stops to waive me across, I’m in a very vulnerable position, and a place in the road where few people expect to find a biker, so I feel like I’m less safe standing there for long periods of time. I’m essentially standing in the middle of the road. If a car stops in the left turn lane, it’s easily visible to oncoming and following traffic, but a biker is not that visible, and seems awfully exposed standing there in the street like that, waiting to make a left across oncoming traffic.

    I do that, and wait for the left turn, but I’m happy when someone stops and lets me scoot out of there quickly.

    Note, this is mainly only an issue during rush hour, and when I’m turning onto a street that doesn’t have a left turn arrow.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    From what I can tell, motorists let bicycles go when it is the motorist’s right of way, because they are afraid that the cyclist will try to go anyway, even if they appear to have paused. The motorist would rather have them go so that they don’t need to worry about whether the cyclist is beside them or not when they are executing the maneuver.

    Though I find it annoying when drivers do this, at least in Boston I think the motorists’ fears are justified by the erratic behaviour of over 50% cyclists.

    During my commute today, I witnessed:

    . a cyclist going around a car *on the right* as it was backing up into a parking space (the cyclist squeezed between the car and the space it was trying to back up into)
    . over a dozen cyclist crossing an intersection on red after a pause
    . 5 cyclists crossing an intersection on red without pausing
    . 2 cyclists continuing to cycle into the path of a car in the process of making a right turn, forcing it t come to a screeching halt in the midst of the turn
    …and more

    I hate to criticise cyclists, but motorists need to know what to expect in order to react appropriately. If they expect chaos, then their behaviour will reflect this.

  • Bryan @ Renaissance Bicycles says:

    I guess may take on the post is a little different; yes, I have the same frustrating see-a-cyclist-and-forgot-the-rules-of-the-road experiences, but I don’t think it has much to do with courtesy or personal interaction.

    My theory is that the way a person interacts with their Environment determines their behavior on the road.
    — In a car, you are sealed off and not interacting with your surroundings. Therefore, drivers are numb to the interactions with their Environment and other road occupants.
    — On a motorcycle, you are part of the Environment and interact with your surroundings. You are aware of the actions of other users and have the ability to counteract as needed to avoid dangerous situations.
    — On a bicycle, you are part of the Environment and interact with your surroundings. You are very aware of the actions of other uses, but have little ability to counteract actions of other users.

    As to the 4-way Stop Car vs. Bike issue, I think motorists are just numbly moving along, till they suddenly realize their is a non-car entity in their Environment. Since this startles them from their numbed state, they are a little dazed and unsure of the correct protocol. Their safest bet is to let the UCO (Unidentified Cycling Object) move out of their Environment before proceeding.

    I could point fingers at motorists, but alas I am sometimes one of them; I was guilty of the same numbness last night during a long drive. The only obvious solution is mandatory convertibles for all cars to increase the interaction with the Environment.

  • Marc says:

    With the range of ages of bike riders being from toddler to old-timer drivers see a wide range of behaviors from folks on bikes. To contrast, drives must be a specified age and obtain a license. As for bike riders, there are novices, the ignorant, uber racers and angry teenagers to name a few, and none have to qualify to ride on the road… Its no wonder to me why drivers cant predict any given cyclist’s commitment to the law. I live in a college town where the majority of bike riders don’t follow the rules of the road. I too am expected to blow by stop signs, but i don’t. And i dont like when people wave me through a 4 way stop thinking they are doing me a favor. But i do take the invitation some times, if it is safe, and it some times it is. Even though it is dangerous and confusing to be waved through a 4 way, i try to be flexible because we all have different back grounds and understandings of our chosen modes of transport. i try to forgive drivers of there mistakes and oversights just as i hope i get the same forgiveness… cause i just plain space out some times…

  • Dave says:

    To be fair, this kind of thing happens all the time between motorists. Some people just don’t understand basic right-of-way, or think they’re being “nice” by letting others go first. You don’t need to be on a bike to see it happen.

  • graciela. says:

    I receive this kind of behavior as a pedestrian too and honestly, it doesn’t bother me. I have more of the lunatic drivers trying to run me off the road than I do drivers giving me THEIR right of way. I can see it becoming dangerous if other cars are coming to the intersection but overall, I try to establish some kind of eye contact, let them know I’m taking their wave, and going forward.

    When I drive, I also tend to give cyclists my right of way if they are making a left at a four way stop sign. I guess my rationale is that cars will gun it and cut off cyclists most of the time so that by me being literally in the way of the cars behind me, I can hold up traffic a bit and let the cyclist through. So that way they don’t have to wait with cars honking and going berzerk cos no one lets them through.

  • Pete says:

    “With the range of ages of bike riders being from toddler to old-timer drivers see a wide range of behaviors from folks on bikes…Its no wonder to me why drivers cant predict any given cyclist’s commitment to the law. ”
    Well put, Marc!
    I also don’t see this situation changing very soon, if at all, in the US.

  • Garth Madison says:

    I think a big part of the issue, around here at least, is that so few people bike on the road, we are an uncommon and therefore confusing variable for most motorists. Motorists are only used to dealing with cars in these spaces, and bikes look very different and fit very differently (taking up such a small amount of a lane built for cars, and able to ride through spaces a car could not). Of course, the slow moving and erratic cyclists also outnumber those of us who generally behave as a vehicle within the rules of the road, which does not help either. But I think the base issue is that most motorists here encounter hundreds or thousands of cars and trucks on the road for each one bike. We’re an anomaly, and so they lump us with the pedestrian category in their head, since they think we look most like a pedestrian and move at a speed more similar to a pedestrian’s.

    As to 4-way stops, nobody around here knows how to use them anyway, whether they’re faced with a bike or a car. I end up taking someone else’s right of way about as frequently when I’m driving as when I’m biking. That’s just a general 4-way educational deficiency.


  • Larry says:

    Personally, I much prefer the drivers who waive their right of way to me over those drivers who believe I have no right of way at all. Some of my riding is on busy car-dominated streets where drivers are frequently aggressive and unyielding. Most of my riding, though, is on quieter secondary roads and residential streets, and drivers often go out of their way to yield to me – waiting to pass until they can take all or most of a full lane to do so, and waving me through residential four-way stops when it is their turn to go. I choose to belief that they are courteous, respectful, and appreciative of my mode of transportation, and I give them a friendly smile and wave and thank them. I usually come to a stop before I get waved, so it should be clear to the driver that I’m following traffic rules. I see this as similar to holding a door for someone – if they’re doing something nice for me that doesn’t hurt them, then everyone wins.

  • bongobike says:

    Totally agree. The drivers that really flip my lid are the ones who will change over from the right lane to the left when it is perfectly safe to pass me while I am riding in my nice, wide bike lane! The worst is when we are on a one-lane road with a no-pass double yellow stripe and they proceed to cross into oncoming traffic illegally in order to stay away from the scary bike rider!!! What is wrong with these people?

  • Molnar says:

    I don’t know where Garth lives, but his description applies to Massachusetts, where I live. In fact, one of my pet expressions is “As clueless as a Massachusetts driver at a four-way stop”. The advantage to this situation is that I have learned to adapt both as a cyclist and as a motorist. Also, as erratic as the drivers are here, it is also the case that many of them smile and wave when I yield to them the right of way that they already have – it’s hard to be angry with them when they do that, even though they inconvenience me a bit.

  • MichaelF says:

    My pet peeve is when the driver stops at a four way intersection with the right of way and just stares at you blankly when you pull up and stop. If you want to wave me through, wave me through. But just sitting there looking at me like you’ve never seen someone on two wheels before is irritating.

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  • Niklas says:

    This issue will never be solved until more people actually ride bicycles on a regular basis. A lot of people have not ridden a bike since they were 12 and when they did that it was only around their cul-de-sac or on the sidewalk. I definitely feel the frustration but it is fruitless because most folks do not understand how to interact with bikes on roads because they experience it so infrequently and do not ride themselves. The more bikes that are out there the safer we’ll all be.

  • Janice in GA says:

    There are a couple of places on one of my regular routes where I do stop in the left turn lane at a light with a left-turn arrow. I do stay in the right half of the lane, because I deliberately take a wide turn so that cars behind me can turn tighter and get through the curve more easily.

    What baffles me are the people who stop about a car length behind me. I appreciate that they may think they’re being courteous, but I can’t usually trip the sensor that turns on the green light arrow! So I NEED them to be closer, or we’ll all wait longer.

    I usually just wave them up a little. Most of them comply. :)

  • Donald Bybee says:

    Most of the various scenarios above have probably happened to all of us. We have brought a lot of this on ourselves. It appears to me that a majority of cyclists do not follow the “rules” of the road to the letter, and in a lot of cases are blatantly abusing them. This creates a lot of confusion for the motorist. How does the motorist know that the next cyclist will follow the rules of the road, or blow through the stop sign intersection they are sitting at in their car? This leads to overcautious drivers who in some cases are offering the right of way when it is not ours to take.

    I try to be as clear as possible when I am giving a driver the right of way they are due. I will come to a complete stop, with foot down. (track stands or the slow creep at a stop sign make it appear we are going to go ahead. Drivers do not realize how slow we accelerate.) Signal and wave them through the intersection if I am giving them their right of way. While I do this I often mouth the words thank you but shake my head no. My intention is to indicate I appreciate the offer but the right of way is not mine.

    I think this is the best way to “train” motorists.

    Sacramento, Ca.

  • Steve Cifka says:

    Excellent rant and topic.

    If awareness of bike rules of the road/responsibilities were required knowledge on state driver license tests (just as knowledge of how to respond to a school bus with flashing lights is required) then we might see a change in behavior.

    A few well written test items would quickly reveal common misunderstandings.

    It would be interesting to ask your readers to craft a few test items. These could be presented to bike advocacy groups.

  • JepLeas says:

    When I am stopped at a 2-way stop sign and motorist stop for me, I point and glance at my stop sign. They seem to figure out quickly that I am stopped for good reason (the stop sign) and am yielding to them. My feeling is that some even learn from this. I avoid waving them by, because I don’t want to take on the liability of directing traffic.

    @Don – I think this is the best way to “train” motorists.

  • Traci says:

    I can identify with so many comments here! Especially with FreeRangeBiker’s story of stopping only to have the driver berate him for *not* following the rules! The same thing happened to me when riding with my husband once. He was in front of me, and a car arrived at the 4-way stop at the same time. We both had one foot off the pedals, and the driver still felt the need to pull up in front of us, roll down his window and say “same road, same rules, right?” So rather than moving on through the stop and allowing us to do the same, he’d rather delay all of us to make some “point.” People like that are the ones who spoil the joy of cycling, along with all those who honk their horns for no reason. That’s even more annoying!

    At the same time, I can identify with others who stated that drivers often expect cyclists to be erratic, and I’ve experienced that when driving myself. Once, at an intersection, when the stoplight turned green, a biker zoomed around me on my LEFT side and scared the crap out of me. It only takes one episode like that and most drivers decide that all cyclists are bad.

  • Mike says:

    I frequently encounter the Annoying Samaritan on the streets near home. Particularly bad are the ones who arrive at a four-way stop from the north just before I arrive from the west. Often, they’re making a left turn, so we’ll both be heading east out of the intersection. Instead of taking his turn, he’ll wave me on, trying to get me to go through so he can then blow past me after making his turn. I almost always stop and wait as long as it takes for drivers with the right of way to take their turns, rather than accepting their “charity”.

    Four-way stops are just a bad traffic control device in general; stop signs are good for assigning priority, but a large percentage of people can’t remember the rules of engagement at a four-way stop, and when they’re used as an obvious traffic control device, it breeds general contempt for stop signs. I recall reading somewhere that motorists are no more respectful of stop signs than cyclists (the same fraction of them fails to come to a complete stop). Cyclists may seem to have more disdain for them, but that may simply be a result of lower speeds. If I slow from 35mph to 5mph in a car, it can look like a “rolling stop”, but if I slow from 8mph to 5mph on a bicycle, it may be interpreted as “blowing through”.

    On the other hand, we sometimes make unfounded assumptions about how we would have been treated if we’d been driving cars instead of bicycles. I can think of quite a few times when I’ve been driving and ceded my right of way to another motorist. Generally, I’ve done so to relieve traffic congestion, but I think most do it just to be nice to the unfortunate soul waiting to turn left (or whatever). This is undoubtedly the reason why the last car in a long line is always the one to stop and let you cross (regardless of your mode of transport), thus making you wait even longer than you would have if they hadn’t slowed at all.

    I’ve never seen a motorist react to a bicycle as extremely as what I used to encounter regularly on the sidewalks. When a head-down pedestrian looks up and sees someone on rollerblades approaching, they often panic…

  • Squib says:

    Ah why complain? I mean if they’re going to stop when they have the right of way great I’m going to take advantage of that. If they’re going to slow down, I’m going to take advantage of that. I often wave a thank you in the process. I think its great that drivers are giving the right of way. Why complain when you don’t have to slow down? Riding a bike in a heavy traffic urban center gives you the ability to travel the same distance in a much shorter time span without the aggravation of being stuck in a box in a line of boxes being told by an inanimate object when you can and cannot go on your marry way.

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