I spend a decent chunk of time looking at crash histories, and one underlying truth is that when a crash happens, generally several things went wrong that led to it. In other words, there’s rarely one guilty party (and when there is, the little box on the crash record indicating whether alcohol was involved is usually checked). So when the video below was posted on BikePortland on Friday, it struck us folk in the Lancaster Engineering office as a classic example of multiple guilty parties with a little bit of ill-conceived infrastructure to boot. It’s a good thing it wasn’t more serious, and it’s worth some careful and detached analysis to think about how things like this could be prevented.
A few thoughts and observations:
1. Watching the first few seconds of the video (and knowing it would end with a crash), I was pretty certain that it was going to end with the person filming getting right hooked. The gentleman filming leaves the bike lane to make a right turn, but then passes vehicles that are in the right-turn lane on the right. Not a good idea. The fact that he was presumably turning right on the bike/ped path before the cross street makes this time-saver tempting, but I think there’s just too much that could go wrong to make this a safe maneuver.
A much smarter way to approach this turn would be to line up at the back of the queue, just right of the center of the lane, and clearly signal your intention to turn right. This keeps you off of that pesky drainage grate, and ensures that the motorists (who clearly aren’t looking for you at this intersection) can’t NOT see you.
2. I think we need to radically rethink this whole business with allowing turns on red. As I’ve written here before, I’ve witnessed and personally experienced more close calls than I can count due to exactly the same thing that caused this crash: a driver approaches an intersection looking left in order to make a quick right on red, and never sees a pedestrian or bicycle coming from the right. Allowing right turns on red basically guarantees that this sort of thing will happen from time to time. What’s more is that, psychologically, I think legal rights (and sometimes lefts) on red cloud the whole subconscious understanding that “red means stop, green means go.”
To make our streets “complete” and build a transportation system that’s people-centric rather than vehicle-centric, legal movements on red should be the first thing to go, at least in urban areas or anywhere with decent numbers of non-motorized traffic (bikes, peds, skateboards, segways, etc).
3. Now, here comes the part where I make all of you hate me (well, maybe not any truckers or ODOT officials that happen upon this blog): the person on the bike was not riding very intelligently here. I wish we lived in a world where our traffic laws were enforced to a degree where motorists were truly compelled to follow them to the letter, but we don’t. We’ve also inherited an infrastructure that favors one particular mode of transportation–the motor vehicle–above all others (Many of us are working to fix that, but it takes time). With this in mind, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard regarding bike safety was given to me by a DC bike messenger friend (back when our nation’s capitol still had a big, vibrant bike messenger ‘culture,’ so to speak): Ride like you’re invisible.
At an intersection like this, I think you simply need to operate under the assumption that the people in cars stopped at red lights are not looking for you and are not going to see you. Forget the traffic laws and ignore the fact that you’ve got the right away–the laws aren’t enforced, and besides, you’re invisible. Slow down before entering a conflict area like that one and ensure that you’re seen by making eye contact. I think that last point is key. As any sort of “vulnerable” road user (read: not protected by two tons of metal and an airbag), force drivers to acknowledge your presence by meeting their eyes, and you’ve just cured your invisibility problem.
It’s not surprising that those transportation visionaries from across the pond, the Dutch, have a sign asking road users to do exactly that:
But for my money, nobody puts it as simply and eloquently as Mr. Miyagi. Keep his sage advice in mind when approaching tricky crossings and you’ll be alright even when drivers are behaving badly: