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.


  1. "I'm a much bigger fan of predictability than of courtesy." Nice. Thank you. Me too.

  2. Yup, yup, yup. Well said... I don't know how to fix it either.

  3. This does not happen in Mtl (very rarely anyway). It is a strange and dangerous Ottawa thing.
    Great post.

  4. I've had this happen trying to cross a Centretown sidestreet and Lyon. A car will stop to wave me across, meanwhile the oncoming cars in the second lane have no idea. I shake my head and wave them on. Thanks... but... no.

  5. Well-described here, this is a very common problem in Ottawa. This happens quite a bit downtown to me, too. Although I appreciate their motives, often the drivers trying to be helpful are making things worse, especially at busy downtown locations like Hawthorne and Main.

  6. Ugh. Just had this today. Buddy and I were at a red light, left lane, signaling left. Light turns green, jerk in the opposite direction just stays there. Flickers his highbeams. We held our ground. We don't have a clear view of the curb lane. Driver and passenger both frantically waving their hands--they should be focusing on the road, not holding an intra-vehicular luau. Finally after pointing at car, then pointing at the path it is supposed to take, while mouthing "you have the right of way", he speeds off.

    Listen motorists: When I'm on my bike signalling left, I'm not begging for your permission to turn left; I'm indicating my intention to turn left when other vehicles that have the right of way over me have cleared from my path. You've got a car, learn to drive!

    - RG>

  7. I'll be a bit contrary here. I love, and will never discourage kindness and accommodation. Life by definition is unpredictable and chaotic. Most often I am squeezed, rushed or have my right of way taken. I will gladly take what ever accommodation is offered (cautiously of course).