Chicago Cycling Fatalities: Making Sense of the Senseless

Chicago Cycling Fatalities: Making Sense of the Senseless
Memorial to Neill Townsend killed 10-5-12, courtesy of Chicago Tribune

This is a post that I dreaded writing.

This is a post that I should never have to write.  Each time this happens – and it happens too often – I have a very difficult time getting my head around it all.  My mind refuses to dwell on the details.  The trauma.  The pain.  The suffering.  The gravity of the loss to the rider’s loved ones.  “There but by the grace of God go I”…  I literally cannot process the enormity of these cycling fatalities.

My thoughts are with the loved ones of the yet-to-be indentified 50 year-old cyclist killed by a turning truck at Augusta and Ashland this past Wednesday morning.  I’m still struggling for the words to comment on the senseless death of Neill Townsend who was killed  by a tractor trailer while swerving to avoid an opening car door nearly one month ago.

I feel like lashing out at every careless motorist.

Get your head out of your ass!  You’re not the only one on the road.  Your actions have consequences!   No cyclist should ever have to surrender his or her life because you exhibit a complete disregard for anyone but yourself.  Pay attention #@*!

As good as it may feel to vent, to admonish someone – anyone – everyone, it won’t put an end to these avoidable accidents.  Cranial-rectum disorder runs rampant in our society and encountering others who can’t see beyond their own butt cracks is a hazard we all encounter each time we step outside the security of our homes.  You can’t fix stupid, so the saying goes…

Researching the details of this latest fatality, I came across an article shared by a Grid Chicago follower on Twitter.  Though well-intended advice about defensive cycling, this article from Commute Orlando reads like the Jim Crow Voter Manual of 1950.  Technically, you do have this right.  Just remember, there are others more powerful than you and if they refuse to acknowledge your existence it’s your own damn fault for being anywhere near them…

This attitude infuriates me and most other transportation cyclists.

It is beyond insulting that at any given moment – without even a moment’s notice – cyclists have to accommodate the illegal and inconsiderate actions of motorists.  We should expect to be treated as second class citizens.  Our safety is our concern and our concern alone.  We chose to share their roads, they didn’t invite us.  This attitude is wrong on so many levels.

But it’s also a reality that each cyclist can’t ignore.  Rights don’t do you much good when you’re dead…

Beneath the natural human tendencies toward disbelief and denial in the aftermath of these tragedies, there lies an unsettling desire to derive some sort of meaning.  Why did this happen?  What can I learn from this?  How can I prevent this from happening again?  What can be done?

We can advocate for safer streets.  Protected bike lanes.  Green zones.  Bike paths.  Signage.  Motorist education.  Legislation.  Criminal prosecution.  Cyclist safety programs.  Public service announcements.  National, state, and local advocacy groups are already doing a great job with this and will continue to fight our fight admirably and aggressively.

We can bicycle better.  Follow the letter of the law.  Make ourselves more visible.  Ride more defensively.  Err on the side of caution.  Avoid distractions.  Elevate our level of personal responsibility.

But we can only do so much to ensure our own safety.  A cyclist’s fate is in the hands of anyone who possesses more mass and suddenly chooses to enact physics’ irrefutable law of occupying the same space at the same time.

There is no sense to this senselessness, only probability.

Probability is a factor for each of us when we wake up each morning.  Insurance actuaries can accurately predict how many of us born in a certain year won’t make it to our next birthdays.  They just can’t tell us who, when, where, or why.

Each time I drive my car on the tollway, I see the sign with the statistic for auto-related fatalities year-to-date.  It’s more than 100 times the annual number of cyclists killed.  When one considers this number and calculates the percentage of trips taken by bike, the odds of being killed while riding equate to about one-half the odds of driving.

Still, each fatality is a tragic loss.  For the loved ones involved, it creates a void that can never be filled.  For the cycling community, it’s a reminder of our own mortality – a warning to remain ever vigilant in the face of ignorance, inconsideration, and incompetence.

Keep riding and be safe.


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  • First and foremost, condolences to the friends and families of the crash victims. What I'll say below is in no way meant to "blame the victims." I'm sorry for their loss.

    That said...

    I'm completely mystified by your animosity towards the Commute Orlando post. What in the world is wrong with pointing out something dangerous so that others may avoid it? Are you worried that pointing out a contributing factor lets motorists too much off the hook? What would YOU do to mitigate right hooks by large trucks? Ban large trucks? (Then how would deliveries get made?) Prohibit right on red? (There would still be right hooks on green, especially on the transitions, like in a Portland bike box recently.) Legislate that all trucks have a camera system looking at all their blind spots, requiring the driver to look at a bunch of TV screens while simultaneously looking out all their front and side windows? Repeal the laws of physics so that the blind spots don't exist?

    You ask: "Why did this happen? What can I learn from this? How can I prevent this from happening again? What can be done?" The Commute Orlando post answers all those questions for you, and it is all something the cyclist has control of. That's empowerment for you. If you don't think it should be the cyclist's job to worry about that stuff, well, that's ideology, and please join the real world, where safety is everyone's job, not just the other person's.

    You say: "We can bicycle better. Follow the letter of the law. Make ourselves more visible. Ride more defensively. Err on the side of caution. Avoid distractions. Elevate our level of personal responsibility."

    I agree completely, and so does the author of that C.O. post, if I may speak for her. That's why I find your critique of it so mystifying.

    Then you say: "But we can only do so much to ensure our own safety. A cyclist's fate is in the hands of anyone who possesses more mass and suddenly chooses to enact physics' irrefutable law of occupying the same space at the same time. There is no sense to this senselessness, only probability."

    I agree to a point. But the C.O. post is talking about how to avoid hitting up against that law about occupying the same space at the same time, by being aware of the danger and not putting yourself there. There IS sense to it, and it WILL lessen your probability of meeting that fate. What's wrong with that?

    I can't imagine why you seem to think that occupying the travel lane at intersections and waiting in line is treating ourselves as second class citizens and somehow inviting them to treat us badly. I think it's just the reverse. The streets are public streets, for EVERYONE, they are not "their [motorists'] roads". The don't need to invite us, we belong. As you yourself probably say, we ARE traffic. Keeping out of the way at the edge all the time at the expense of your own safety is the true second-class citizen behavior.

    But we CAN do things to HELP the motorists keep us safer, like controlling our space better through an intersection, and riding far enough away from parked cars to avoid opening doors. Note that I am not letting the motorist off the hook, necessarily. Opening a door into traffic is of course illegal and that motorist should always be ticked if not more, depending on the circumstances. The right hook issue IMO is not as legally clear in certain circumstances, such as when the cyclist came up unbeknownst behind an already-stopped motor vehicle and especially if there are blind spots involved. (And I'm not saying that was the case Wednesday morning; I'm actually haven't read that story. I'm talking generalities.) But again, cyclists can mitigate against that so the issue doesn't even come up.

    My point is, regardless of legal blame, these things CAN be avoided, and by criticizing those who are earnestly trying hard to educate other cyclists (if you only knew how hard), something you yourself say is needed, I think you are doing a real disservice to transportational cycling.

    I'm a transportational cyclist, and I approve this message. ;-)

  • In reply to JohnBrooking:

    "that motorist should always be tickETed..." There's always a typo...

  • In reply to JohnBrooking:

    John, thanks for taking the time to reply.

    You may not have read many of my previous posts. It might give you some context without me re-explaining my positions on sharing the road.

    When I read the Commute Orlando post, I wasn't very impressed with the tone, particularly the first line "Cyclists hit by turning trucks is a repeating news story which highlights the most serious deficiency in our system — education of cyclists." I don't agree that the most serious deficiency is the education of cyclists - it's actually the education of MOTORISTS.

    I admitted that the Orlando post was well-meaning, but it is written with the assumption that transportation cyclists don't already know this and that it is the cyclist's responsibility to protect him or herself from getting right-hooked. My point in using the word "suddenly" underscores that sometimes there just isn't enough time to react and that being the object with the least mass, cyclists, unfortunately, lose.

    Truck drivers with CDLs require additional training and are held to a higher standard in securing a license because they have a greater responsibility to other road users - of which cyclists are lawfully included. Their vehicles are more dangerous by design and the drivers of these vehicles (city buses, too) need to be more vigilant. Issuing a truck driver a traffic citation after he just killed someone through his negligence doesn't exactly seem fair. He failed in his responsibility.

    As a transportation cyclist, you know how vigilant each of us must remain to avoid being doored, right-hooked, mirrored, buzzed, and run off the edge of the roadway. It takes nerve to ride with vehicular traffic and even if we ride lawfully and behave predictably, we're still no match for the motorist who has a momentary lapse in attention or fails to respect our position on the roadway.

    When the article states "If a truck passes you, slow down and let it get ahead of you ASAP", the author is implying that YOU are now responsible for the behavior of the truck driver. While the law clearly states that the truck driver is responsible for you and that he should wait for you approaching in the bike lane before he makes his right turn, the article is sending mixed signals to the driver. "I thought the guy on the bike would stop when he saw my signal on" or "he hit me" or "I didn't see him" are all excuses he'll use to deny his responsibility when clearly, he is the responsible party for failing to notice the cyclist.

    It took a lot to get the dooring and right-hook legislation passed. IMHO, the penalties need to be greater to send a stronger message to drivers to pay attention and take their responsibility to others more seriously.

    My purpose for this post wasn't to criticize Commute Orlando, but to share my feelings about this tragedy. To find some perspective about the safety of cyclists when avoidable accidents like this occur. To avoid rehashing all the same cyclists' rights points I've written about before.

    I get rattled when I hear about these tragedies. I lose my nerve to share the road. Odds are that I am more likely to lose my life driving than riding, but I seem to feel more vulnerable after hearing about a fellow cyclist rather than just seeing the escalating motorist death statistic on the tollway signs.

    I don't think I'm doing a disservice to my readers or fellow cyclists by sharing my feelings. I just can't endorse a "how to" article that reinforces the perspective that cyclists should yield our rights to those that are breaking the law.

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    In reply to Brent Cohrs:

    You say, 'When the article states "If a truck passes you, slow down and let it get ahead of you ASAP", the author is implying that YOU are now responsible for the behavior of the truck driver. '

    Nonsense. The only behavior you're responsible for is your own. You can bury your head in the sand and refuse to acknowledge the threat posed by heavy vehicles, or you can admit that trucks often pose a threat that you have the power to reduce through your own behavior. That's no different than basic defensive driving in a car -- you're safer if you acknowledge that other drivers may do stupid, dangerous things, whether intentionally or by accident. People who insist they shouldn't have to allow for the stupidity of others are the drivers who end up in the middle of a 60-car pileup because not one of them had the sense to get out of the herd before it ran over a cliff.

    Whether there's a bike lane or not, the space to the right of a heavy truck is known as a "suicide slot" for a reason. If you're riding on the far right edge of the road and there's a truck to your left, it doesn't really matter who got there first, it matters that you're in an unsafe situation that you have the power to change.

  • In reply to Joshua Putnam:

    Joshua, thanks for reading and commenting.

    I'm not implying at all that it is safe, just stating that it sometimes isn't possible to do this. You know how the traffic ebbs and flows on city streets - if a truck passes you and gets slowed or stopped behind a car turning left, do you wait until he's clear to proceed past in the bike lane? If the truck is traveling slower than you once he passes, do you just hang back for blocks on end just in case he might make a right turn without much prior notice?

    There is no substitute for defensive riding and I'm not knocking the suggestions for staying out of harm's way whenever practicable. But a cyclist exercising caution doesn't excuse a driver from upholding his responsibility to the cyclist or grant the driver permission to violate the cyclist's right to be riding as far right as safely possible.

    Bigger vehicles have greater responsibilities - it's right in the motor vehicle code.

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    In reply to Brent Cohrs:

    The obligation for bicyclists to ride as far right as practicable was introduced into the Uniform Vehicle Code in 1944 and subsequently adopted into the codes of most states. Before that, bicycles were vehicles and bicyclists were drivers of vehicles. That was replaced with the provision that bicyclists had the same rights and duties of drivers of vehicles, except that they were required to ride as far right as practicable. Since one of the key rights of drivers is the use of a full lane, that meant that bicyclists were not really drivers.

    So saying that bicyclists have the right, rather than the duty, to ride as far right as practicable is a misreading of the law. That law is part of the marginalization of bicyclists so that they think it is dangerous, rude, and antisocial for them to use full lanes. That belief is why bicycling is not safer, more efficient and popular than it is now.

  • fb_avatar

    Hi Brent,

    I've read your blog and your response to John Brookings. Great discussion. I must say, your perspective fascinates me. The articulate expression of your thoughts and feelings is illuminating. Thank you for that. You've set the bar high. I'll try to keep up, but no promises.

    I guess I'll start by saying that I'm absolutely convinced the ability of bicyclists to control their own safety is greatly underestimated, even by experienced transportational cyclists. The fundamental premise of defensive driving is that in any crash, either driver could have done something to avoid it, had they been following defensive driving best practices. This applies to bicyclists as well as motorcyclists, car drivers and truck drivers. Defensive driving is not about being ready to make a sudden emergency maneuver; it's about learning how to avoid being in situations where a sudden emergency maneuver might be necessary in the first place.

    It's true that that means every fatal bike-crash is an unnecessary tragedy that could have been avoided by the motorist; but it also means it could have been avoided by the cyclist.

    Now, we could say that the motorist has the greater responsibility because he's operating the deadly weapon, and focus on that. But the fact is that the cyclist has much more to lose. The cyclist is the one with skin in the game, literally. It's inevitable that all drivers makes mistakes once in a while. They're human. And it's inane to assume that no motorist will ever make an error. We must ride accordingly, and not be shocked or surprised when we encounter motorists making errors. You might as well be surprised by a gust of wind or broken glass on the pavement.

    Right now there are people all over this country running red lights. I'm sure there were several while I wrote that sentence. That's wrong and illegal. Of course. But it's inevitable. We can get all worked about it if we want, but the fact is there is nothing we can do to affect the frequency of red light running by any significant degree. Odds are, sooner or later, we will encounter a red-light runner while riding, and it's probably going to happen more than once. I, for one, check for those bastards every time I enter an intersection. Does that make me a second-class citizen on the road? I don't know, but I'll tell you this: I do it just as the same when driving a car or riding a motorcycle as when bicycling. So if I'm a second-class citizen for doing it while riding my bike, I'm a second class citizen when motoring too. But I don't feel like a second class citizen. I just feel like I'm being prudent. That's what defensive driving is.

    It devastates me to read about a bicyclist fatality. But I know people who think that bicyclists practically deserve it. You've heard the attitude, I'm sure: "What the hell are they doing out there mixing it up with 2 ton motor vehicles anyway? They're nuts! Suicidal! They should be on the sidewalk if they don't want to get killed!"

    But I also have to say this. Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but it seems to me that the essence of what these "bicyclists-are-suicidal-and-deserve-it" people are saying is the same as the essence of you're saying: bicyclists are sitting ducks out there. Am I wrong? Isn't your point that bicyclists are easy to overlook and are vulnerable so motorists need to take extra care to avoid crashing into them? Isn't that what you meant when you wrote that the most serious deficiency in our system is education of MOTORISTS?

    Here's why I agree with Commute Orlando. First, for any given bicyclist (say you, Brookings, or me - take your pick) his safety and likelihood of avoiding a crash depends on his behavior, and the behavior of the countless motorists he will encounter. Now, where is the greatest potential for improvement, practically speaking? Hint: the only one he controls is himself...

    Now, if you reject defensive driving, there is really nothing else to say. But if you accept it, that means our cyclist almost certainly has the ability to avoid every potential crash he will encounter in his life. Of course there is the type of crash that is unavoidable, like when a chair suddenly flies out of the back of a pickup, or a drunk driver careens at you from the other side of the road. But thousands of us will get through our lives without such an encounter, for every one who does. We can't worry about such low odds. The vast, vast majority of crashes are not freak events like, but involve well-understood and really predictable (and therefore avoidable) scenarios, like doorings, right hooks, left crosses, red light running, even close-pass sideswipes in narrow lanes.

    And that's what cyclist education addresses: learning what all the crash types are, how they occur, and most importantly, how to avoid them, without putting yourself in more danger some other way. Most bicyclists, even most transportational cyclists, have tons of room for improvement in this area. I'm talking about the ability to reduce one's chances of a crash by one or even two orders of magnitude. The same cyclist can't improve his chances by even a tiny fraction of that by somehow getting the behavior of the motorists he encounters to improve.

    Consider the truck driver in this scenario. There are probably tens if not hundreds of thousands of truck drivers in this country who habitually and regularly make right turns without checking their right side for bicyclists, and without incident. Sure it would be great if we could change their habits. But is that going to happen? Even if they're taught to do it, about the 250th time they look and there is no one there, most will drop the habit. It's human. And it's just unrealistic to depend on them to do that.

    So I, for one, am not waiting for that. Instead, I will continue to follow the advice in that outstanding article from Commute Orlando, and know at least I will never be right hooked. Abd I'll continue to try to reach as many bicyclists as I can to encourage them to do the same, including you and your readers.

    Thanks again.

  • Serge, thanks for taking the time to read and add a very thoughtful comment.

    I am 100% in agreement with you about defensive riding. I model my bicycling after my own driving practices (and I drive 10X as many miles as I bicycle each year). More often than not, I can predict what another motorist will do before he or she even does it. A lot of close calls can be avoided just by maintaining a safe following distance and leaving yourself an out.

    My point wasn't to dismiss defensive cycling or critique all the suggestions in the Commute Orlando article. I took issue with the tone and the underlying assumption that - in my interpretation - cyclists must not only be responsible for their own actions, but the actions of others, as well.

    Defensive riding can prevent a lot of close-calls. What I call remaining vigilant - constantly remaining aware of your surroundings - can, unfortunately, only take you so far (but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it). Split second decisions by motorists - opening a door in your path or passing you only to make a quick right turn in front of you - sometimes don't allow the rider enough time to respond or provide the rider with a safe "out". In those instances, we lose because of mass.

    Motorists can't be let off the hook for their irresponsible and illegal actions. Issuing a moving violation for reckless homicide is not justice. It doesn't send a message to motorists about their responsibility for the safety of other road users. It doesn't increase awareness about share the road laws. It certainly doesn't serve as a deterrent to anyone who reads about it in the paper.

    When you drive your car, do you zoom past trucks and cut them off while making a right turn in front of them? Do you get into your parked car and immediately pull out into traffic without first checking your side view mirror? Hopefully, your answer was no. Most motorists won't do this because they don't want to get hit themselves. Self-preservation will do that for a person regardless of whether the behavior is lawful or not.

    When it comes to bikes, drivers have a tendency to disregard our safety because there is no downside to them. Swing open a door into the bike lane? That damn cyclist just scratched my door panel! Pull a right hook? That asshole on a bike just dented my fender! Squeeze a bike off the road? Hey, I would have been too close to oncoming traffic riding the center line and I didn't want to slow down for 5 seconds to pass that bike safely!

    It is a small wonder that bicycle fatalities are lower as a percentage when compared to those of motorists. I would hazard a guess and say that cyclists avoid getting hit - or maybe I should say avoid losing their lives - through bike handling skills and defensive riding. It certainly isn't because most motorists respect cyclists on the road and obey the 3' passing law and the right-hook law.

    Again, I'm not arguing against cyclists improving their skills, riding defensively, or erring on the side of caution. I am for personal responsibility. But personal responsibility has a "to" component as well as a "for" component.

    When I ride the bike path, I have a responsibility "to" the other users because I am traveling at a faster speed and I have the potential to do more harm. I am ready to stop suddenly or swerve around meandering pets, oblivious children, preoccupied pedestrians walking four abreast, runners wearing headphones, and zigzagging rollerbladers. Why? Because they have a right to be on that path and I have a responsibility NOT to injure them - regardless of whether they were where they were supposed to be.

    I expect no less of motorists. There is a pecking order and the higher up you go, the more responsibility you have TO others. It's reflected in the licensing laws - they don't give CDLs to 16 year-olds and let them drive semis. Driving a truck carries more responsibility "to" other users - truck drivers should have a greater liability when they fail to uphold their responsibility.

    There is a very fine line we cyclists must straddle when we take to the roadway. Each of us is judged by the behavior of the worst of us because there exists a persistent public perception that we don't belong on the road. We have to work together to change this perception. We have to stand up for our rights. Our safety is at stake.

    If you have the time, go back and read some of my previous posts about city cycling and sharing the road. Cyclists Target of Rahm-Pass (8/23/12), What Can Cyclists Do About our Rogue Element (8/17/12), Who Is Against Protected Bike Lanes (8/14/12). These should give you a greater perspective on the whole issue - the continuing controversy - and my stance regarding cyclists' rights and responsibilities.

    Thanks again for joining the discussion!

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Brent Cohrs:

    "Defensive riding can prevent a lot of close-calls. What I call remaining vigilant - constantly remaining aware of your surroundings - can, unfortunately, only take you so far (but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it). Split second decisions by motorists - opening a door in your path or passing you only to make a quick right turn in front of you - sometimes don't allow the rider enough time to respond or provide the rider with a safe "out". "

    Sorry, but if you get doored, you could have prevented it. You provide your own safe "out" for dooring by not riding in the door zone, no matter what the paint stripes and code books say. That, too, is basic defensive cycling. You shouldn't be trying to predict opening doors or avoid them once they start to swing into traffic, you should hold a steady line outside the door zone so you can focus your attention on traffic.

    Most of the time you can also avoid short passing right hooks by taking a safer line near intersections -- even if you prefer edge riding mid-block, you should be in the center of your lane approaching an intersection, precisely because it's safer for you.

    A vanishingly small fraction of motorists will intentionally ram a cyclist they can see. Most car/bike collisions come from people not seeing or misjudging the position and speed of a cyclist. Defensive riding respects basic human abilities by making you more conspicuous to those who are supposed to avoid hitting you. Help them obey the law - get out of the door zone and away from the curb approaching intersections.

  • In reply to Joshua Putnam:

    Joshua, thanks again for joining the discussion.

    Please clarify one thing about the door zone. Are you saying that you won't ride in a striped bike lane if the outer left edge of it is still in the door zone? Seems to me that that would disqualify all of the bike lanes that run along parked cars...

    I can't disagree with what you are saying except for the part about it being an "absolute."

    Moving in traffic is fluid and nothing is absolute from road surfaces to the timing of lights to lane striping to you-name-it. A cyclist has a responsibility to other road users to make him or herself visible and ride predictably. He has a responsibility to himself to ride defensively. You simply can't predict what every driver is going to do every time and you can't be perfectly placed every time.

    I don't like to argue semantics.

    I maintain that more needs to be done to educate motorists on their responsibility TO other road users. That's not just limited to cyclists, it includes pedestrians, motorcyclists, buses, trucks, and other motorists. In Illinois the number of motorist fatalities will top 800 this year, so clearly, there are bad drivers that aren't taking their responsibility to other drivers seriously. I don't want to cede my safety to them OR take full responsibility for how they may or may not act as we move along in traffic.

    Just to clarify one thing, I ride in the suburbs far more frequently than I do in the city. I feel much more secure in the city where the traffic speed disparity is not that great. Suburban drivers fail to honor the 3' rule consistently, pull right-hooks regularly, and come very close to t-boning me with great frequency. My defensive riding keeps me safe, but it does nothing to let them know that they are in the wrong, breaking the law, and endangering my safety.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Brent Cohrs:

    Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying -- when the city constructs a hazardous bike lane, I'll exercise my right not to use it. Door zone bike lanes are inherently dangerous facilities, avoiding them is simple defensive driving. Their purpose is to get cyclists out of the way of impatient motorists, not to make cycling safer.

    I take a consistent position to the left of the door zone no matter what stripes the city chooses to paint encouraging me to risk my life.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Brent Cohrs:

    Also, riding further into the lane gets wider passing clearance from suburban drivers. They may not be happy about it, but they realize that they need to change lanes to pass me if I'm controlling the lane.

    Riding too far to the right encourages impatient motorists to squeeze through without changing lanes, reducing passing clearance and increasing stress for cyclists. Riding properly within the lane makes cycling both safer and more pleasant.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Brent Cohrs:


    I must again complement you on your approach here. This might be the best discussion I've ever seen about these issues on the internet. I mean, no condescension. No straw man arguments. No red herrings. Just respectful discourse. Where am I? ;-) Anyway, I look forward to see where this goes with John Brooking's guest post, etc. But right now I'd like to focus on a couple of things you and I are discussing.

    I wrote: "Defensive driving is not about being ready to make a sudden emergency maneuver; it's about learning how to avoid being in situations where a sudden emergency maneuver might be necessary in the first place."

    I don't think this was clearly conveyed. In explaining that your point was not to dismiss defensive driving, you seemed to show that you understand defensive driving differently than what I was talking about. You wrote: "Defensive riding can prevent a lot of close-calls. What I call remaining vigilant - constantly remaining aware of your surroundings - can, unfortunately, only take you so far (but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it). Split second decisions by motorists - opening a door in your path or passing you only to make a quick right turn in front of you - sometimes don't allow the rider enough time to respond or provide the rider with a safe "out". In those instances, we lose because of mass."

    I don't consider vigilance to be part of defensive driving. Ideally, a defensive driver should not have to be vigilant. Let's examine what I mean by this with your two examples, "split second decisions by motorists - opening a door in your path or passing you only to make a quick right turn in front of you - sometimes don't allow the rider enough time to respond or provide the rider with a safe 'out'".

    The defensive bicycle driver would never be affected by either of these. As other have noted, regardless of whether a bike lane is there or not, we simply do not ride in door zones. My personal rule is "at least FIVE FEET from parked cars". By that I mean I never (and I mean never, it is an absolute for me) track closer than five feet from parked cars. I know that gets me far enough from them so that not only will I not be hit by a suddenly opened door, but I'm far enough so that a suddenly opened door won't make me flinch and possibly swerve in front of overtaking traffic. This allows me to not worry at all about opening doors, and focus on other things, like how that positioning affects overtaking traffic. Is there plenty of room for them to pass me safely within the lane (rarely)? Or do I need to be even further left to clearly convey that they need to change lanes to pass (usually)?

    Yesterday I was riding side-by-side with a friend in a bike lane. There was no curb parking allowed. It was relatively light Saturday morning suburban traffic. At one point we were passed by a large Penske rental moving truck, that we later caught up with because he slowed down to below our speed of 16-17 mph. We were chatting and not really paying attention. It wasn't vigilance. Out of habit, or good defensive driving practices, if you will, we both instinctively slowed and avoided passing that truck on the right, even though we were in a bike lane, and he wasn't signaling a turn. My friend actually pulled out of the bike lane and got behind the truck. We had no idea what he was doing, or whether the truck driver even knew what he was doing - but we knew what we were doing: staying behind, or passing on the left. Sure enough, as we came to the next intersection, he abruptly turned right, still without using his turn signals. Vigilance was not required. We were never in any danger. We sensed a potential problem situation, and normally adjusted accordingly. That's what defensive driving is about. Avoiding situations in which you have to make sudden split-second evasive maneuvers. In fact, I would say that if you ever have to make a sudden split-second evasive maneuver, that means you weren't engaged in defensive driving.

    Defensive driving like this does not come naturally. It is not common sense. Common sense, for almost all bicyclists, would have been to continue riding along in the bike lane, oblivious to the truck or what the driver might do. Few cyclists demonstrate defensive driving. It can be learned from many years of experience on the road. But the process can be greatly accelerated with classes, books or even discussions like this. So I'm convinced that many more bike-car crashes could be avoided, and many more cyclist lives saved, with education of cyclists than with education of motorists.

    It's not that I'm against education of motorists; it's just that the return on investment there seems like it could at best be only a tiny fraction of what it could be with cyclists, in terms of actually improving the safety of cyclists.

    Hope that makes sense.

  • In reply to Serge Issakov:

    Serge, thanks for the compliments - I am all about civil discourse - as long as the commenter is being civil, that is...

    Each of your points is well-taken and I would encourage you to contact John about contributing to the guest post he will be working on.

    I don't disagree with any of the suggestions you make and I appreciate the detailed examples you share. You are taking complete control of your cycling and leaving as little to chance as possible and I applaud that.

    Like many political issues, the battle is on many fronts. I prioritize motorist education because of motor vehicle mass in a collision and the stupidity I witness on a daily basis whether in the saddle or behind the wheel.

    Much flows from gaining motorist awareness and respect. Funding, for starters. If we're seen as a nuisance and a pampered special interest group, we will continue to be marginalized in our attempts to gain acceptance and money for cycling initiatives. We can't lose sight of this.

    Cycling is a solution to traffic congestion, air pollution, and fossil fuel dependency. Cities that have built cycling infrastructure have increased participation and improved citizens' quality of life.

    I'm anxious to hear more of your ideas once John's guest post goes up!

  • Good to have a rational discussion without personal insults, not always the case on the Internet! ;-)

    I'd observe that an undercurrent going on here that it may be helpful to verbalize is the role of bicycle infrastructure in contributing to the dangerous behaviors we are discussing. You may be getting the idea, Brent, and I'll say so explicitly, that Serge, Joshua, Bob, and I (as well as the author of the C.O. site) are not fans of bike lanes when they are striped in the door zone or when they are carried all the way up to intersections, for the reason that they instruct unwary cyclists to place themselves in exactly the dangers we are discussing here. Many advocates feel that such bike lanes are "better than nothing"; we disagree.

    For example, in the case of intersections, who does have the right of way? The cyclist, because there is a bike lane? So motorists must wait to turn right until the bike lane is clear? This conflicts with other standard statute that says that right turns must be made as close to the curb as possible, which the bike lane discourages. Oregon is actually the only state that explicitly confirms the cyclist right of way in the bike lane, and that motorists must make right turns across it when clear. Some other states, like California, state exactly the opposite, that motorists must merge into the bike lane, if clear of course, to make the turn close to the curb, as would be the case without a bike lane. That would at least help prevent cyclists from passing on the right of turning motor vehicles. But the law does not clarify this in many states, with the resulting confusion.

    The concern with the bike lane at the intersection and the cyclist having right of way in it is the danger of requiring more vigilance of motorists that humans are capable of. They are already looking ahead and to the sides. Now they have to look back to their right, too? And in the time it takes to look all these places, the situation in the first place they looked may have changed. It's not completely about motorists laziness or carelessness, it's also about human perceptual limitations. Then introduce trucks with blind spots, where the driver CANNOT see into certain places, no matter how carefully they are looking, and you can get these kinds of crashes.

    This is why those of us responding here are so focused on cyclists using travel lanes at intersections, and riding far enough from the side of parked cars, regardless of the presence of bike lanes. We know we can't completely trust the motorists; we have also concluded we can't completely trust paint on the ground, and consequently we also don't completely trust those who advocate for it and approve it. We believe we have found a better way to keep ourselves safe, and we want to share it with others. The author of Commute Orlando has co-founded a cycling education program called CyclingSavvy which does exactly that, see

    Laws requiring cyclists to use these facilities are part of the problem. They prevent cyclists from feeling that they can decide to leave the facility to avoid a dangerous situation, or from even realizing that they should, because they want to trust the paint, and consequently the engineers who designed it and the advocates who advocated for it. And if they do leave the bike lane, even for valid reasons that the law allows, they get increased harassment from the public, and sometimes from law enforcement. That is why WE feel we are treated as second class citizens; not because we are victims of motorist carelessness (all drivers, including we, make mistakes), but because the facilities restrict, psychologically if not legally, our ability to choose the best place for us on the road, to avoid dangers like doorings and right hooks, and the laws enforce those restrictions.

  • In reply to JohnBrooking:

    John, this is a great reply and I appreciate you laying out your full position on this issue.

    Of course, you realize, that this is a different path than is being advocated for nationally...

    I have a platform here for you to share your position, so I would like to do just that. Would you like to submit a guest post? I think it would get more attention at the top of the page instead of in the comments section.

    Let me know. I have some space for this after the election is over.

  • In reply to Brent Cohrs:

    Wow, I'd love to do that, Brent. Let me know if you have particular ideas for content or structure. You can reach me by email at bike ( at )

    Yes, we are well aware that this is a different path than is being advocated for nationally. Despite what you may hear from some facilities advocates, we are not "against all bike infrastructure". But we do have a problem with certain assumptions underlying the infrastructure-only approach, as well as with certain types of infrastructure that have well-documented problems (door zones, right-hook zones) but nonetheless are technically allowable by standards, and are still being promoted around the country.

  • Thank you Brent for the thoughtful blog post. Based on the research, and data, from this country and others, it is clear that having bicycle infrastructure increases rates of bicycling, makes bicyclists an expected part of the transportation system, and reduces crashes and fatalities. A research paper published in Environmental Health provides an overview: Data published from New York City provides similar results: "When protected bike lanes are installed, injury crashes for all road users (drivers, pedestrians, cyclists), typically drop by 40 percent and by more than 50 percent in some locations."

    Congratulations to the City of Chicago for moving forward with installation of many miles of new bicycle infrastructure that will improve safety for all roadway users.

    For those who are interested in bicycling education in the Chicagoland area Smart Cycling classes and lessons are offered here:

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