Just a week after Chicago was ranked as the “Best City for Bicycling in the United States” by “Bicycling” magazine, a woman bicyclist was killed when struck by a commercial vehicle. There have been six such cycling deaths in Chicago this year and the Mayor and Administration are searching for solutions. But the deadly crashes in Chicago highlight an especially dangerous variation of the right hook, and that’s when it involves a long truck or trailer.
Just a week after Chicago was ranked as the “Best City for Bicycling in the United States” by “Bicycling” magazine, a woman bicyclist was killed when struck by a commercial vehicle. There have been six such cycling deaths in Chicago this year and the Mayor and Administration are searching for solutions.
Since my earliest columns in the Rolla Daily News about bicycling, I have urged cyclists to ride within the traffic lane and to never squeeze between lanes of moving cars, especially at intersections. The danger is that drivers reasonably do not expect to be passed on the right and might make a quick turn. This most common cycling crash is called the “right hook”. Whether the car hits the cyclist or the cyclist hits the car, it’s always bad for the cyclist.
But the deadly crashes in Chicago highlight an especially dangerous variation of the right hook, and that’s when it involves a long truck or trailer. You might have noticed those warning signs on the back of tractor-trailers that say “Danger! This Vehicle Makes Wide Turns!” When a long vehicle makes a tight turn, the driver first pulls forward and then turns the front wheels sharply, but the rear wheels don’t steer so they just drag along, cutting the corner to the inside. That’s why you see so many tire scuff marks on curbs and at roundabout aprons.
Now visualize that truck. Its cargo bed is above and wider than the tires. The cargo bed will cross above the curb before that rear tire scuffs it. Worse still, if you are knocked down alongside a turning vehicle the rear tires are trailing to the inside of the turn and could still run over you. This hazard also applies to pedestrians standing at corners. Never stand or squeeze in alongside trucks or buses, ever. If they start to turn, you will be trapped with nowhere to go.
Though less sudden, the same happens on winding roads. While the driver keeps the front of the truck centered in the lane, the rear is swinging to the inside of every curve, so stay away from it.
Finally, if you are pedaling along and are being passed by a long vehicle, even on a straightaway, pay special attention. The driver had moved left to get by you but might start returning into the lane too soon, before fully passing you. If this starts to happen while you are still alongside, steer away and hit the brakes to slow down or stop! Let the truck pass you.
Now consider another danger of squeezing between lanes, parked cars.
Once parked, even if they look back for approaching cars, most drivers do not pay enough attention to notice a bicycle coming up alongside. They just toss open the door wide and “BAM!” Though often portrayed on TV and movies as almost a slapstick pratfall, “dooring”, or “getting doored” is no joke. Catastrophic injuries and even death are not unusual. While most such crashes result in only minor damage and injuries, let’s consider the worst case, what could happen. The door opens with a rear-facing edge at the top of the door that can horribly impale the cyclist. If instead the cyclist solidly hits the inside of the door, his hands can be shredded going straight through the door glass. Arms can be snagged and snapped as the body flies over the window frame. Upon hitting the ground, a fractured skull or broken neck are very possible. And the driver doesn’t get away free, either. Imagine a bicycle handlebar straight in the face. And even if the cyclist swerves away and avoids the door, he could still be struck from behind by the vehicle in the traffic lane.
But wait, there’s more than just doors to watch for. After a perfunctory look to see no cars coming, or at least a large enough gap, the driver might pull out right in front of or even into the cyclist. Think of this as a “left hook”.
Parked cars can kill you, so pay attention! Never squeeze between traffic and parked cars. Always ride within the traffic lane. Always watch for occupants in parked cars; they might be ready to step out. Pay attention for running engines, brake and backup lights, and wheels turning outward; that car might start moving.
Now, I’m not trying to scare anyone. I want cyclists to really get it, to understand the danger of squeezing in between traffic lanes. I want cyclists to think about this now, before they ride, and get it deep into their psyche so that when they approach slowed traffic, they have a gut reaction that tells them to slow or stop behind the vehicle in front of them, just as they would if they were driving a car. And when alongside a long vehicle or trailer, I want their brains to reflexively scream out, “DANGER!” so that they instinctively move away, slow down or even stop; whatever it takes to get clear of that swaying rear end. And whenever pedaling past parked cars, stay alert! Watch for occupants who might open the door. Look and listen for cars that might move out into the lane.
Riding in traffic is safe only if you make it so.
I hope that I’ve dispelled some concerns and encouraged others to give bicycle riding a try. Perhaps we’ll meet soon.
I’ll ring my bell.