Friday, May 18, 2012

Too nice can be just as bad

Yesterday morning I caught Ottawa Morning's interview with Luc Lafreniere, one of the three cyclists injured in a crazy flurry of accidents that happened Tuesday morning. He said just about what I would have: that both drivers and cyclists can be accused of bad or careless driving.

But it was how his accident happened that really resonated with me. He was biking along in the designated bike lane on Prince of Wales, when a car traveling in the same direction stopped to let a car coming toward them turn left. He didn't see the oncoming car, and the driver didn't see him, since he was blocked by the vehicle that had stopped, so he T-boned it as it made the turn, totaling his bike, and hitting the pavement face first.

Is this ever familiar. I've seen the "stop to let someone through" move far too many times, while walking, on my bike and when I'm driving. I've found myself, in my car, leaning over the wheel to try and see around the car whose driver has helpfully stopped and is waving me through a left turn, because I can't tell if there are more cars - or bikes - coming from behind it. And I've been the cyclist that passes a stopped car on the right side, only to discover they were letting someone turn, straight into the space I'm about to be in. (I've never been hit that way, thank goodness, but it happens almost on a weekly basis on Bank Street South.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of courtesy in drivers, and in cyclists, but there's a time and a place. I'm a much bigger fan of predictability than of courtesy. This is why four-way stops drive me crazy, because when a car and a bike have both stopped at the same time at a stop sign, there's almost always a confused dance (as illustrated by n00biker in this post) of "you first - no, you - no, you first - well, okay, I'll go - wait, no..." Unpredictable. Difficult to communicate.

And stopping to let pedestrians or cyclists cross the road illegally, to let another car turn left where there is no signal, or to let a cyclist make a turn when she shouldn't, are all, also, unpredictable and difficult to communicate. In Mr. Lafreniere's case, it caused an accident.

A perfect illustration of why this frustrates me happened to me on Tuesday. I was on Main Street at Hawthorne, about to turn left and cross Pretoria Bridge. For once, traffic was light enough that I'd dared to make the leftwards merge into the left turn lane. There's an advance green to turn left there, but I'd just missed it, so I stopped before heading into the intersection, to let the oncoming traffic go ahead before making my left turn.

One small black car coming toward me had a right turn signal on. I looked behind it, and saw another car coming behind it, but if he continued through the turn at regular speed I could come through the intersection, follow it, and be through my turn and out of the way before the car traveling straight got there. Unfortunately, the driver of the black car saw me in the middle of the intersection and slowed down mid-turn, then stopped, obviously waiting for me to go ahead. The problem is, that's not the rule. If I were a car, he would have continued his turn without a second thought because he had the right of way. But he saw a bike, and became too polite. Because cyclists are unpredictable. Because people don't know the rules, or can't be sure that the other person does.

I wound up shouting, "Go, go, go, go, GO!" at the driver, because I was stuck in the middle of the intersection, waiting for him to get out of my way so I could finish my left turn and get out of the way of the car that was coming toward me from behind him. I felt bad about shouting, because he'd honestly been being courteous, and cautious around a cyclist, which normally I would give him a grateful wave for (I do, when I know that a car has slowed up or given me space to pass me, or otherwise been kind: I want to make a point of acknowledging that.) But it had caused him to put me in a slightly more dangerous situation than if he'd treated me like another car and just made his turn.

Courteous is good. Courteous to one other driver or cyclist in particular, without awareness of all the other traffic around you, isn't so good. In Luc Lafreniere's case, he's lucky the consequences of that driver's actions were so mild, really.

And I know it's a pipe dream to wish that drivers could be certain that cyclists knew the rules and obeyed them (how many bikes have I watched sail through red lights, bike down the wrong lane, cut off traffic, or hop the sidewalk in the last week? Don't ask, I lost count) but it would certainly make the roads a lot simpler for all of us.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Too damn close (and why I should have called it in)

Not the truck that passed me, though it's about as close. I got this image from - from a post with a great video showing good and bad driving and cycling.
So it wasn't just me. According to Ken at, three cyclists were injured yesterday in the space of 40 minutes. . . which might explain why I was feeling a little at risk. Drivers, please: think about how scary you can be.

He posted this scary video of a transport truck blowing by him, and a sedan cutting him off at 35km/h on his blog today. I'm reminded of the phone call I didn't make yesterday.

I was on my way south on Bank Street. Bank has been identified, incidentally, as quite possibly being Ottawa's most deadly street for cyclists, by OpenFile's awesome data tool Open Road. I seem to recall that even before Open Road, I found Bank Street south of Riverside on a list of the city's most dangerous cycling areas.

Anyway, I was pedaling along on my way home from work when I was blown past by a full-size transport truck. (At least it wasn't also hauling a trailer, like Ken's was: trailers are the absolute worst. Often wider than the vehicle pulling them, they skim terrifyingly close to a cyclist, and you can never be sure the driver's remembering to account for the extra width.)

This truck appeared on my left out of nowhere, and I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that it was a foot and a half off my handlebars. It felt like a foot. I screamed as it went by, and considered braking reactively (damn good thing I didn't: the truck was too close and my best option was to keep going at the same speed and pray it was all over quickly.) The worst part was that after the cab had gone by, terrifying me, the trailer on the thing just kept going, like the Imperial Star Destroyer at the beginning of Star Wars. People waiting at the bus stop near me jumped and stared, because I was yelling so loud.

The instinct to brake when a huge vehicle buzzes you like that is hard to overcome. I don't know which is safer, really; braking involves a marginal loss of momentum and therefore control over straight travel, but on the sort of bad pavement you've got on Bank Street, the chance of hitting a pothole or drainage grate if you keep going at speed while the truck is screaming past you is frightening.

At any rate, I almost never have the chance to catch up to the people that do this kind of thing and get their license plate. But in this case, I caught up to the truck at the next light. It was being operated by Grant Transport, and the license plate on the trailer (though not the cab) was 870 35R. I know this, because I repeated the license number to myself the whole way home, and as soon as I had reached my building and was waiting by the elevators, I pulled out my phone to call them and report their driver.

I regret this: on the first ring, I hung up. Be honest, I thought to myself, do you really think they'll care? What are you going to report, dangerous driving? They'll just think you're a whining cyclist, or they won't believe that the truck was as close as it was, or they'll dismiss the whole thing, or the receptionist won't have a procedure for reporting this kind of thing. I don't have the cab number.

So I hung up. I regret that. But it's hard to make those calls: I tried it once with Capital Cab. The dispatcher listened to my shaking account, and then told me to call 311, and I didn't have a license plate number or any way of identifying the cab, so I figured 311 wouldn't be able to do anything anyway. I felt like my fear and anger were being dismissed. So this time around, I didn't even call Grant Transport. Although, now that I've written this, I just might. In fact, I should probably just call the police. Hey - at least this one time I actually got a plate number: I should use it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sure, they're pretty...

I randomly stumbled across these this evening. (Weird things wash up on my Internet shoreline.)

These are helmets created by a designer called Coyle. Tree Piece Helmets, they're called. I think they're gorgeous (check out his site for some more pics) but something makes me wonder how safe they are. I had it pretty much drilled into me that bike helmets were made to break up on impact, like the crumple zone of a car. I used my bike helmet for rock climbing, reluctantly, for a couple of months, and it freaked me out before I went out and got a separate helmet to climb in, one that was much more like a hard hat and would stand up better to falling rocks and impact with cliffsides. Bike helmets are for reducing force without transferring it to your body: climbing helmets are for resisting pinpoint impact.

Anyway, wood seems to me to have way more potential for unexpected flaws, weaknesses and break points. It doesn't disintegrate like a bike helmet, and it would certainly get dinged up to hell if I wore one of these climbing - at least I assume so.

Yet they're gorgeous. And according to the maker, they've actually been tested and found to be up to standard. Now the question is, who's got $350 for a helmet?