Saturday, June 9, 2012

The "nervous" check

Someone suggested a while back, on one of the Internet threads I follow, that the "nervous" shoulder check might actually keep cars a little further from you as they pass. I noticed that, because I'd started to get the same impression myself. In fact, I'd started doing it deliberately as a means of making cars give me a little more space.

The comment came up in a conversation about eye contact, which I think is important. The more you make eye contact with drivers, the more they see you as a person rather than an object: that's a no-brainer. Better yet, if you make eye contact and communicate - a wave of the hand or a hand signal or a nod saying, "no, you go ahead," or "I'm turning that way" you're more likely to have a, well, human interaction with the driver.

(Even when it's not a particularly friendly one: yesterday, as I was trying to navigate a construction zone and the lane was narrow, a couple sped past me about six inches from my leg. I shouted in fear - then noticed that their window was open and I could assume they'd heard me (for once.) I also had the chance to catch up to them (it was a construction zone, and passing me had gained them exactly zero ground) to shout "That was WAY too close!" through the open window. My eyes met the driver's. He looked... startled? Lost for words? Maybe angry, maybe defensive, I don't know. He was leaning toward me, like he wanted to see me too - I got the feeling he didn't quite know how to react. Good, I thought. With luck he'll think about the next cyclist he passes.)

Anyway, I had found, just before reading someone else's observation of the same thing, that when I was coming toward an intersection, swinging out to avoid a pothole, or even just moving fast, down a hill or something, and I looked back over my shoulder a little more frequently, it seemed like cars gave me more space.

It's totally unscientific, I know. But it does make some kind of sense. The drivers see me turn to look. The change in state - from "faceless cyclist" to "person on bike" - is subtle but I think it's important. They see the side of my face, not the back of my helmet. They see that I'm aware of them, in the way that I assume a "faceless cyclist" appears not to be. There's a subtle interaction. They think, subconsciously maybe, about the relative positions of their car and my bicycle. And they probably interpret my shoulder check as a signal that they've made me nervous, which puts them, momentarily, subtly, in my shoes. And they back off a bit.

At least, that's how it seems to me.


  1. Some of the old hardened bus divers would wiggle their bus to get car drivers to back off and stay alert. And be more careful when they pass on highway.


  2. I agree - "humanizing" ourselves does help most of the time. Gotta vent though - I'm a cyclist and a driver- today I was driving - it was 5 a.m. so starting to lighten but still quite dark. I passed a cyclist who I ALMOST didn't see - black bike, wearing a black dress, with a black helmet, NOT even a reflector on her bike. NO flashing light for sure, but seriously a bit of reflextive tape or reflector light woudl have been nice. At the next red light, I glanced behind and literally could NOT see her at all but I knew she was there. Traffic was really light, so I waited until she caught up and opened my window (I'm female, so hopefully not intimidating). I said, scuse me, I'm a cyclist too and just want to give you the head's up- you are basically invisible - you need to either get a reflective vest but for sure you need some reflectors and lights on your bike. She told me to FO. sighs.

  3. I agree 100% In my experience shoulder checks are huge, super useful visual cues for overtaking cars. No need to take your hands off the bars and as you say, makes the driver behind you consider you as a person who is keeping an eye on their position.

    When I need to get to a left turn lane, I fire off way more shoulder checks than really necessary well in advance of my signal...

  4. Yeah, I almost use the shoulder checks as a blinking turn signal, because usually if I'm about to merge across traffic I feel sketchy about taking one hand off the handlebars to signal for very long. The head-turns are like a secondary signal system.

    And Selkie - that sucks. I've seen those cyclists too: once when a friend was giving me a lift home from Barrhaven we passed one - all black, no reflectors, maybe, MAYBE reflectors on the pedals - and I commented on it. My friend, who was driving, said, "Really? What cyclist? I had no idea there was anyone there." Telling you to FO might have just been a knee-jerk reaction, but good on you for pointing it out to her. Guess all you can do is hope she thought about it afterwards.

  5. I use the shoulder check all the time, I can't remember where I read it first. But it's one of my coping tactics. My new route on Richmond Road has zero shoulder through all the business area and lots of sewer grates so I just keep shoulder checking. But I also don't creep up beside cars too much at red lights on the right. If it's a loooong line and there's room, sure, but I don't want to surprise anyone either. It's one of those "oh sure you need room when I pass you but not when I pass you" thoughts I don't want the driver to think. I signal like mad too, except for stopping unless there's a bike behind me. Guy almost cut across into me Monday but stopped as he figured out how fast I was going so he had to stop fast in his turn. I didn't get mad, he saw me and stopped so I waved and said thanks.

    1. This is exactly how to do it - interact with the drivers around you - give them every chance to see you and give them a wave when they do.

      We're all commuters getting somewhere.