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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Watch for Built in Conflict Zones to Avoid Crashes


First published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan, Oct. 3, 2011
Also published on Bob Mionske's blog, bicyclelaw.com

Wearing a helmet and staying in the bike lane won’t protect you from crashes.  Even in a bicycle friendly community there are plenty of built in potential conflicts.  So cyclists need to learn to recognize them so they can avoid the crashes.

You may recall the three primary rules of safe cycling: 1) don’t fall off your bike; 2) don’t let anyone knock you off your bike; and 3) don’t you knock anyone else off their bike.  The first rule applies since half of all bike crashes involve only the cyclist.  A third of crashes involve another cyclist, a dog, or a pedestrian and only seventeen percent of bike crashes involve an automobile.  Most of these latter crashes can be avoided if you anticipate the conflict.  Unfortunately the place where you think you are safest, namely the bike lane, is often a major conflict zone. 

Parked cars along bike lanes can be dangerous.  So watch for opening car doors.  I ride the white line on most bike lanes in town.  I’m more visible to oncoming cars there and I am far enough from opening doors - about six feet - to be safe.  Some people will tell you that they watch for opening car doors and are able to avoid them.  But by focusing on that hazard they sometimes ignore other possible hazards around them.  In a narrow bike lane, as on Howes Street, I will ride just outside the white line in the travel lane. 

Where bike lanes cross intersections is another conflict zone.  The right turning motorist across a bike lane is the primary source of conflict here.  Our transportation planners have begun to consider this where possible, creating right turn lanes while bringing the through bike lane to the left of the turn lane.  The do-si-do dance step that ensues creates a safer intersection than the one in which right turning cars find themselves to the left of a line of cyclists. 

Unfortunately we have many intersections in town where the above treatment doesn’t work.  The cyclist’s rule of thumb that I would apply at all intersections is the following:  if you are continuing straight through the intersection, get out of the bike lane and take the primary travel lane.  This tells motorists your intent and makes room for right turning motorists to take the bike lane to execute their turn. 

Parked cars are a hazard anywhere, whether along a bike lane or not.  Diagonally parked cars are even more of a hazard.  So stay as far from them as you can.  This means that on Old Town streets such as Magnolia, Olive, Oak, all the streets surrounding Library Park, and on residential streets approaching CSU campus you should ride in the center of the travel lane well away from diagonally parked cars. You are more visible there and won’t be hit by a car backing out of a parking space.

Drive your bike carefully out there.

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