Basic Bicycle Safety Tips for Newcomers to Fort Collins

First published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan August 21, 2015DSC_0025

This is my annual appeal to teachers and mentors, including CSU residence hall directors and resident assistants, to remind new student cyclists of critical bicycle safety tips.  Help spread the word on these points as they are easily overlooked by newcomers.

A bike lane is another travel lane on the road.   A motorist would never drive the wrong way down a travel lane.  The same should be true for bike lanes.  Never pedal the wrong way in a bike lane, even for half a block.  Motorists don’t expect you there and they won’t look for you as they turn onto a street with a bike lane.

Bike lanes are made for the preferential but not exclusive use of cyclists.  Motorists should use a bike lane to make a right turn and cyclists should exit the bike lane at certain times.  Making a left turn across traffic, for example, is illegal from a bike lane.  You should first merge into the adjacent travel lane, take a position in a left turn lane if there is one and make your turn.  If you, or your mother for younger cyclists, are not comfortable with this then you should stop to the right and become a pedestrian to cross.

Sidewalk riding is the single biggest cause of bike/car crashes in Fort Collins.  This happens when a cyclist is riding against traffic on a sidewalk and rides out unexpectedly into the street either at an intersection or a driveway without stopping.  Motorists aren’t expecting you here and they aren’t watching for you.  You are much safer riding with traffic in the bike lane or on the right hand side of the road where motorists expect you.  Although it is legal for you to pedal across an intersection with a walk light it is much safer for you to stop and become a pedestrian in this situation. In short, riding on the sidewalk, contrary to what you might believe is very dangerous.

Sun blindness:  Some of our most serious bike/car crashes in Fort Collins have occurred when the sun blinds a motorist unexpectedly.  The next two months are the worst time of year for this since the street pattern in Fort Collins means that eastbound motorists are blinded by sunrise when students are going to school and westbound motorists can be blinded at sunset when cyclists are out for an evening ride.  Being aware of this danger can help keep you safe.  If you see a long shadow pointing in front of you drivers of oncoming cars may not even see you.  Watch out for cars turning in front of you in this situation.  If a long shadow is behind you and you have the sun in your eyes motorists coming from behind may not see you.  If possible avoid traveling our east-west streets within thirty minutes before sunset or after sunrise.  Use tree-lined streets where the sun is not likely to blind drivers, stick to bike paths or use sidewalks to avoid this danger.

Teach Bicycle Safety with An Elevator Speech

First published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan Sept. 7, 2015

Readers often ask me to remind cyclists to stop at stop signs, use bright clothing and a light at night, to ride single file in the bike lane, to show more respect for pedestrians, and to be friendlier to other cyclists and motorists.

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Even the best cyclist cannot follow the three rules of cycling without incident.

My response is, yes, I’ll tell them all of the above. Unfortunately, those who need the advice don’t read this column. So I pick my topics carefully to reach as wide an audience as possible.

When the Fort Collins Cycling Club invited me to discuss bicycle safety at a monthly meeting I agreed and asked how much time I would have. “Ten minutes,” came the answer.

Considering that the course to become a League of American Bicyclists cycling instructor takes 30 hours, my initial reaction was to decline the invitation. Yet, any opportunity to talk about bicycle safety is valuable, so I decided to take up the challenge and it has served me well ever since.

I developed an elevator speech 30 seconds long that introduces bicycle safety to almost anyone. Depending on interest, I can expand that pitch to the time available.

My speech presents three simple rules to being a safe cyclist: 1) don’t fall off your bike; 2) don’t let anyone or anything knock you off your bike; and, 3) don’t you knock anyone off their bike. These three simple rules take in the entire range of bicycle safety issues. I tell my listeners, if you can successfully implement these rules you don’t even need to wear a helmet, as you will never crash (more on this later).

The City of Madison, Wisconsin, illustrates how 10 bicycle safety points are covered by my three rules. Madison advises cyclists to be visible so motorists will see them, including using lights at night, to use hand signals to be predictable, to watch for obstacles on the road, to ride with, not against traffic, to behave as other road users do, to not be distracted by listening to music or talking on the phone, to obey all traffic laws, to be sure that the bike fits you, is safe and is ready to ride, and they suggest that cyclists wear a helmet.

My three rules cover all these suggestions except the helmet. My rules also cover the entire curriculum of the League of American Bicyclists.

About the helmet. I remind my listeners that even the most macho or macha 14-year-old can’t always follow all three of my rules. So wear a helmet for those times when you break one of the rules!

Buffered bike lanes nice but come with learning curve

First Published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan September 18, 2015

Whether you drive a car or a bicycle the recent addition of buffered bike lanes or “BBLs” in Fort Collins will make driving a bit complicated for a while.  BBLs are being added to give cyclists a more stress-free ride.  But all new road markings need some getting used to and that will be the case with buffered bike lanes.

A buffered bike lane on West Stuart in Fort Collins.  (Photo: from FCBikes Momentum, September 1, 2014)

According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials or NACTO, BBLs bring numerous benefits:  they provide more distance between cyclists and motorists, they encourage cyclists to ride outside the door zone when they are placed along a parking lane, they provide a wider lane for cyclists while making it clear to motorists that it is not another travel lane for them, and they encourage more cyclists to ride as they give a perception of greater safety.

One last benefit cited by NACTO is not so obvious.  Their website suggests that BBLs provide room for a cyclist to “pass another bicyclist without encroaching into the adjacent motor vehicle travel lane.”  I’m not sure this is true as it would take a very wide bike lane with wide buffers to allow one cyclist to pass another.  In fact, on our local Fort Collins Coalition for Infrastructure’s Facebook page, members have noted that the new BBLs on Folsom Street and on University Avenue in Boulder are too narrow to allow passing.  And a member in Fort Collins notes that the BBL on Laurel Street suffers from the same problem.

There are other problems with BBLs that will require some educational outreach.  Many motorists and some cyclists believe that bicycle drivers belong only in the bike lane and not in the travel lane on the street.  BBLs may simply add to this belief as the double white or yellow lines buffering the lanes look pretty intimidating suggesting that bikes have to stay in the BBL.  I worry that many cyclists and motorists will believe that cyclists belong only in that lane and nowhere else.

So we all need to be reminded that bike lanes, buffered or not, are simply “preferential lanes” (the official term) for the use of cyclists but that they are not for the exclusive use of cyclists.  Motorists need to merge into the bike lane to make a right turn at intersections and cyclists need to be prepared for this.  Our streets engineers are slowly restriping the bike lanes in town and painting dashed lines to indicate where motorists might be occupying or crossing the bike lane.

As for cyclists, they are not required to use the bike lane if it is unsafe or if they have to make a maneuver that requires them to exit the bike lane.  Passing a slower cyclist might be one example and making a left turn is another.  This requires a cyclist to merge into traffic and use a different lane to make a turn as it is illegal for a cyclist to make a left turn from the bike lane across another lane.

Predictability is Key to Safe Cycling

First published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan October 6, 2015

The League of American Bicyclists or LAB teaches that predictability is key to safe cycling.  Their website explains, briefly, that as a cyclist you should “make your intentions clear to everyone on the road. Ride in a straight line and don’t swerve between parked cars. Signal turns, and check behind you well before turning or changing lanes.”  This is the CliffsNotes of safe cycling.  But it is worth exploring the details a bit.

Should we Train Fort Collins Police in the Principles of Vehicular Cycling?

A right-turning cyclist can use an outstretched right hand or a raised left hand to make the turn.  Both are allowed by Colorado law.

“Make your intentions clear,” means that you shouldn’t surprise other road users.  Don’t dart out of a driveway or off a sidewalk without warning; don’t make a left turn across traffic unexpectedly; and don’t switch lanes unexpectedly.

I’ve been in Italy for several months and it is unnerving, as a motorist, to have a cyclist come from the right at a crossroad or driveway and not only not stop but simply make a right turn without looking.  Of course the cyclist used his or her peripheral vision to judge the speed of the oncoming vehicle from his or her left and proceeded to roll through the turn.  The motorist expects this to happen and moves slightly left to avoid a crash making this behavior predictable for both parties.

“Ride in a straight line,” sounds straightforward.  But our automobile culture has taught cyclists over the decades to stay as far to the right as possible or, as the laws in many states still require, as far to the right as “practicable.”  Many novice cyclists understand this to mean that if they swerve left to pass a parked car they need to get back as far to the right as they can and ride on the shoulder or in the parking strip.

The problem with this behavior is that it can be dangerous with cyclists swerving from the shoulder or edge of the road, back onto the road then back again so they become invisible to cars from behind. As a cyclist you should pick an imaginary straight line and follow it.  If you have a parking strip, even with just a few cars in it, ride far enough into the street so cars coming from behind or pulling out of a parking space can see you.

“Signal turns, and check behind you well before turning or changing lanes” is self-explanatory but the devil is in the details. The recommendation of the LAB is that you signal 100 feet before your turn by extending your arm in the direction of your turn for two seconds. (Or, you may use the motorists’ signal of a raised left arm for a right turn if you prefer.)  If you arrive at an intersection with other road users you should stop, signal once more, then place two hands on the handlebar and proceed as appropriate.

It is important for cyclists to signal before a turn and not in the turn.  For safety a cyclist should always have both hands on the handlebar when executing a turn.

 

Reducing Bike/Car Crashes Caused by Sun Blindness

First published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan October 20, 2015

I’m back after five months in Italy to face the realities of bicycle crashes in our fair city, including one that most of you have not likely heard of.  On Saturday, September 19th east-side neighbors Jen Barna and Lisa Cunningham met at Lisa’s house on Smith Street at 7 a.m. to ride the cement plant road north of LaPorte.  They made it two and a half blocks before they were hit by an eastbound pickup truck whose driver was blinded by the rising sun.

As Lisa and Jen tell their story, while northbound on Whedbee Street they stopped for a red light at Mulberry. When the light changed to green Lisa describes the blinding sun to the east, their right, but as they looked left, to the west, they could see a vehicle almost a block away.  So they headed across the intersection.  The eastbound vehicle was a pickup truck traveling 30-35 miles per hour according to the police report and it hit both women just after they entered the intersection.

Jen Barna was transported to Medical Center of the Rockies with a crushed pelvis, broken femur, broken ankle and very likely a slight basal skull fracture.  Lisa Cunningham was lucky; only the back of her bike was hit by the truck so she was thrown from her bike and suffered some brusing and abrasions or road rash.  Both cyclists are going to be ok, although it will be a year and a half before Jen can get back on a bike.

Jen and Lisa’s neighbors are abuzz about this crash.  As I write I’ve just scrolled through forty-five e-mails with neighbors discussing the crash and what might be done to avoid similar crashes in the future.   The city’s Forestry & Horticulture Division came out days after the crash to trim the trees on Mulberry and the Streets Department is working with neighbors to reset the timing on the lights at this intersection.

But few people are talking about the real cause of the crash and that is the automobile culture that encourages a motorist to barrel down the street at 30-35 miles per hour while blinded by a rising sun less than 4 degrees above the horizon.  What does it take for the driver of a motor vehicle blinded by the sun to realize that he or she needs to slow down or even stop in this situation?

We hear this over and over after these equinox related crashes:  “I couldn’t see anything, I was blinded by the sun,” says the driver.  The police report carries the same message and the driver, as in this case, is cited for running a red light.

I contacted the crash investigation unit at Fort Collins Police Services to see what they could tell me about this crash.  The answer came back that the “team did not respond to this crash because there were no life threatening injuries.”

We owe it to the community to do better than this.

(December 16, 2015:  Post-column comment – Fort Collins Police Services needs to adopt a new policy on crash investigations involving cyclists and pedestrians when there are serious injuries whether they are life threatening or not.  This would help to publicize common crash types and make all road users more aware of the dangers they face.  Motorists regularly kill or cause serious injury to cyclists while driving into a blinding sun.  A new policy in investigating such crashes would raise awareness among all road users.  Rick Price)

Driving in a Bicycle Friendly Community

First published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan December 15, 2015

bicycle_friendly_web_graphic

Some automobile drivers may think it outright silly that the City of Fort Collins will soon offer classes to teach “drivers how to share the road with bicyclists.”  Yet, to an experienced bicycle driver such a class is anything but silly and will be valuable in helping to make this a friendlier bicycle community.

Consider that in the 1890s pedestrians, cyclists and horse drawn carts had the exclusive use of the roadway.  Then along came the automobile so that by the 1920s the automobile industry invented the concept of “jaywalking” to ridicule and shame pedestrians when they chose to cross the street wherever they wanted.  And by 1944 our car culture relegated bicycle drivers as far to the right on the roadway “as practicable” so as to not impede motor traffic.

According to the League of American Bicyclists forty-three states still use the 1944 language requiring cyclists to keep as far right as “practicable” even though the terminology is imprecise, ambiguous and confusing.  The language, essentially, suggests that cyclists don’t belong on the road and would be better off on the sidewalk.

Colorado is one of four states that allow cyclists to ride as far to the right as the cyclist “feels safe.”  This is a great improvement over the previous language even though the current language is still subjected to different interpretations by different road users.

The class on learning how to share the road with cyclists will be valuable for fleet drivers, drivers of delivery vehicles, car pool groups, and large businesses with hundreds of automobile commuters.  A short list of businesses and organizations that would benefit from such a class includes CSU, the City of Fort Collins, Poudre School District and Larimer County.  In addition our biggest employers such as UC Health, Hewlett Packard, Avago Technologies, Banner Health, Woodward and several others could benefit from the class.

Years ago I met with Anthony Smith, owner of Mountain States Driver’s Education to discuss the importance of teaching young drivers to respect the rights of cyclists on the road.  Anthony invited me in to talk with ten of his instructors.  I had only thirty minutes with them but it was a valuable opportunity to discuss the dynamics of sharing the road with cyclists with these driver’s education instructors.

Experienced motorists often err in believing they know how to drive around cyclists. Do you know, for example, when you, as a motorist are allowed to drive in the bike lane?  Or why it is both dangerous and illegal to stop and yield to a cyclist when you actually have the right of way?  Do you know when it is legal to cross a double yellow line to pass a cyclist or how much distance you need to leave a cyclist before you pass him or her and turn right in front of them?

Encourage your business to offer this “Bicycle Friendly Class” soon.  For more information visit:  http://www.fcgov.com/bicycling/bike-friendly-driver-program.php.