When your ‘right of way’ on a bike puts you in danger

Inspiration for writing these blogs comes from all sorts of places, including the many conversations I have with non-cyclists. Good advocacy requires not just consistency and determination but sensitivity to the state of mind of the people you are trying to convert to your way of seeing things.

Yesterday I was talking to a non-cyclist from London and she made a remark which struck me as very wise. She pointed out that cyclists often put themselves in danger because they take up a position on the road which they believe they have a right to take but which is not the safest option.

How true! Here are two examples.

Sometimes cyclists observe that a vehicle in front them is not indicating left and therefore they conclude that proceeding down the left hand side of the vehicle is their “right of way”. In fact, cycling down the left hand side of a vehicle is by far the most dangerous thing you can do on a bicycle; the vehicle may suddenly turn left into a side street even though the driver was not indicating to do so. Hence, in this situation cyclists’ perception of their “right of way” puts them in grave danger.

In the latter example, I am not even sure whether it is correct to use the term ‘right of way’ – which is why I have put it in scare quotes. Cycling up the left hand side of a vehicle is so dangerous perhaps it should never be considered to be a cyclist's ‘right’. In any case, some cyclists perceive it to be their right and therefore they neglect the danger: this is precisely the problem.

Here’s another example. Sometimes when a cyclist approaches a T-junction (a junction which intersects with either the left or right side of the road which the cyclist is riding along) a car may simultaneously approach that T-junction. The cyclist, certainly correctly in this case, concludes that they have a right to proceed down the road: it is the driver’s legal obligation to stop at the T-junction and let the cyclist pass. However, the driver may not always see a passing cyclist. The human eye jumps from focal point to focal point, and sometimes a cyclist falls in the gaps in the driver’s vision and doesn’t get noticed. In correctly understanding their right of way in this situation, cyclists may be blinded to the risk that the driver hasn’t seen them. Cyclists may swoop past the T-junction assuming the driver will stop – and the driver doesn’t stop.

I am not suggesting instead that the cyclist should, as a rule, completely stop for the driver. Rather, it is sometimes prudent to make small (or even big) adjustments in advance of a potential flash point when you are cycling. In the latter example, you can perhaps slow down a little until you are sure the driver has seen you, especially if the driver is approaching the T-junction very fast; try to make eye contact with the driver before you pass the junction. Or, if a vehicle is approaching a T-junction to the left of the road you are cycling along, you can quickly look over your shoulder to check that there are no vehicles behind you then move slightly to the right of the lane, to give yourself more room for manoeuvre just in case the driver approaching from the left does swing out into the road.

This style of cycling is called riding ‘positively defensively’. It means knowing your rights and asserting yourself but always being aware that drivers do not necessarily know your rights. Sometimes proceeding on what you believe to be your right of way on a bicycle can put you in danger; I'll be interested to hear from readers of any other examples of this. Always proceed with caution on a bicycle if you would rather be alive than right.   

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