Riding With Situational Awareness

Riding With Situational Awareness

By Rick Bernardi

I was riding in the bike lane, heading from the Bicycle Law office to downtown Portland; up ahead, there was a T-intersection with a street to my right. And to my left, a car began to pull even with me. I could almost see what was going to happen next.

And it did.

The car pulled slightly ahead of me—I was still riding next to the car, but it had pulled slightly ahead—and then the driver made a right turn at the street to our right, cutting me off and violating my right of way.

This is the part of the story where we often read that a cyclist was hit by a car or truck making a right turn.

I didn’t get hit, because I could almost see the car making the right turn before the driver actually turned right, so when the driver actually did turn right, I wasn’t taken completely by surprise.

Instead of getting right-hooked—not today, careless driver—I made a hard right turn, carving a beautiful arc in sync with the car.

My emergency turn saved me, so I didn’t make the news that night. But what a news story it would have been. I had just left the Bicycle Law office, and was heading to the memorial ride for Tracy Sparling, who had just been killed the day before, right-hooked by a cement truck in downtown Portland.

Probable headline: “Bike lawyer killed riding his bike to memorial ride for fallen cyclist.” And in fact, 10 days later another Portland cyclist was killed, right-hooked again, this time by a garbage truck. And then 10 days after that fatality, another Portland cyclist was right-hooked (although, thankfully, she survived with serious but non-life-threatening injuries). October 2007 was a brutal month for Portland cyclists.

But this time, I survived, and attended the memorial ride, dumbfounded by the sheer stupidity and total lack of awareness of the driver who had right-hooked me, but even more so by the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up irony of what had almost transpired on my way to the memorial ride.

When I think of bicycle safety, this moment comes back to me, because I think what happened perfectly encapsulates the missing link of bicycle safety advice. Beyond bicycle helmets (I was wearing a helmet), beyond lights (I had lights), beyond bright colors (I was wearing hi-viz), we need to have situational awareness, and we need to be able to react to a dangerous situation instantly, almost instinctively.

Situational awareness means that you’re aware of what is happening on the road around you. This isn’t a legal requirement—you have no legal duty to anticipate the illegal actions of other people on the road. That said, being aware of what is happening around you can help you anticipate what might happen and avoid a perilous situation as it unfolds. The evening I was right-hooked on my way to a memorial ride for a fallen cyclist, I saw the elements of a dangerous situation unfolding before the right-hook actually happened.

Being able to react instantly means that your bicycle is in excellent mechanical condition (the last thing you want is to have your chain drop or your brakes fail right when you need them most), and you are well-versed and practiced in emergency maneuvers, and are able to execute them in a fraction of a second. You don’t have a legal duty to know and practice safety maneuvers, but if you are able to react to imminent danger with a well-executed safety maneuver you may be able to avoid a crash, and possibly even save your life.

Think of it this way—safety measures like wearing a helmet, wearing conspicuous colors, and riding with lights are “passive” safety measures. Once the helmet is (correctly) strapped on, once you’re wearing the conspicuous colors, once the lights are on, there’s nothing else for you to do in order for them to perform their functions. They operate in the background, passively.

On the other hand, active safety measures require your participation. For your own safety (and also for the safety of others around you), you need to observe and be aware of and understand what is happening on the road around you, and to respond appropriately. For example, if there’s a pothole or glass on the road up ahead, it will help you to respond appropriately if you observe and are aware of the surface hazard and understand the danger so you can avoid it. This is active safety.

Some elements of active safety are your legal duty. For example, you have a legal duty to keep a proper lookout, and you have a legal duty to exercise due care. These requirements are to prevent you from injuring somebody else that you should be aware of if you are paying attention. However, there is an aspect of active safety that is not a legal duty that you must observe: You don’t have a legal duty to anticipate somebody else breaking the law.

Here’s how this works: You have a legal duty to keep a proper lookout for pedestrians and cross-traffic as you enter an intersection. This legal duty means that you have a responsibility to pay attention as you enter the intersection so that you don’t injure others or cause a collision. You also have a legal duty to exercise due care not to hit a pedestrian or to cause a collision in the intersection.

However, you don’t have a legal duty to be aware that a driver is texting while driving and doesn’t see you, and you don’t have a legal duty to anticipate that the driver might run the stop sign as he approaches the intersection. In this situation, if there is a collision, and you did not break any traffic laws yourself, the driver will be 100% at fault; you can’t be held liable for failing to anticipate that the driver might be breaking the law.

But what if, legalities aside, you happen to notice that a cross-traffic driver isn’t slowing down as he approaches the stop sign to your left or right? You may have no way of knowing that the driver is texting while driving, but his behavior suggests that he might not be paying attention and might not see the stop sign—or you. If you happen to notice this on your ride, you at least have the opportunity to prepare for evasive emergency maneuvers if they become necessary. That’s situational awareness. Again, its not legally required of you, but it can save your life.

Situational Awareness- Recognize These Hazards

Cycling Car Hazards

“Situational Awareness” is a general concept that you should understand and practice. But it’s kind of like saying “be careful”—saying you should have situational awareness is good advice, but it doesn’t tell you specifically what you should watch for. Furthermore, situational awareness doesn’t mean that you should let fear and paranoia rule your ride. It only means that you need to be aware of what is happening around you. Nevertheless, even though “be aware” is good general advice, there are some specific real-world situations that are potentially life-threatening and that you need to know about and should always be aware of.

The Left Cross

Anatomy of a Left Cross

When you are traveling straight through an intersection, you are at risk of collisions with drivers in oncoming traffic who are making a left turn. Maintaining situational awareness in the intersection means that you should never assume that oncoming drivers will proceed straight through the intersection. Some drivers in oncoming traffic may want to turn left across your path of travel, and you need to be vigilant to what drivers in oncoming traffic are doing as you proceed through the intersection.

The danger you are facing here is that drivers turning left are focused on the hazards they face—in this case, oncoming cars and trucks. Because of the 1:7 size differential between a cyclist and a typical motor vehicle, you’re less conspicuous than a car, and you don’t pose a hazard to these drivers. This means that you’re less likely to register in their consciousness as they scan the road for hazards.

One particular danger that you must be aware of is when a car to your left passes through the intersection, reaching the other side of the intersection before you do. The driver who is attempting to make a left turn will be scanning for oncoming traffic, and after the car to your left passes through the intersection, the left-turning driver may think the intersection is clear and not even notice you.

The Right Hook

Classic Right Hook Auto/Bike Crash

If you are to the right of a vehicle at an intersection, you are at risk of being right-hooked; a right hook is when the vehicle to your left makes a right turn at an intersection, cutting you off. Some drivers do this because they are blissfully unaware of your presence. Some drivers do this because they mistakenly believe that they have the right of way because they are driving a car and you are supposed to yield because you are riding a bike. Whatever the reason, you need to be able to recognize when you are in danger of being right-hooked.

Some examples: (1) If you are stopped at an intersection, and there is a truck to your left, you are in danger of being right-hooked because the driver may not see you. (2) If you are approaching an intersection and passing vehicles to your left, you are in danger of being right-hooked by a driver who did not see you approaching from the rear. In Oregon, the driver has the legal duty to look before turning, but that doesn’t guarantee that the driver will observe their legal duty. (3) If you are approaching an intersection and a driver begins to pass you before you reach the intersection, you are in danger of being right-hooked.

In each of these situations, you are in danger. You may have a legal right to proceed straight through the intersection, and the driver may be breaking the law by turning right. But your goal here is to avoid getting hit, so, while you may have the right of way, and the driver may have the duty to yield the right of way, your own safety requires that you be aware of the situation.

Therefore, if you are stopped at an intersection, to the right of a truck, for your own safety you must assume that the driver cannot see you. For your own safety, you must either make sure that the driver sees you and knows you’re there before you proceed straight through the intersection, or assume that the driver is turning right and wait until you are certain of the driver’s intentions before you enter the intersection.

If you are approaching an intersection and passing a line of vehicles to your left, assume that they do not see you, and assume that one or more will be turning right. Therefore, do not enter the intersection until you ae certain that the driver to your immediate left sees you and is either proceeding straight through the intersection, or has indicated that he will yield the right of way to you if he is turning.

Finally, if a driver begins to pass you as you are approaching an intersection, assume that the driver will make a right turn and violate your right of way. Slow a bit, so that the driver reaches the intersection before you do.

Cyclist Spidey Sense

Another technique that works very well is to enter intersections in the through-traffic lane, because it virtually eliminates the risk that you will be right-hooked (I say “virtually,” because I was once right-hooked when a car in the left lane made an illegal right turn across the right lane, where I was riding). Many cyclists don’t enter the intersection in the through-traffic lane, particularly in Oregon, because the law requires them to ride in the bike lane if one is available. However, the law also allows cyclists to leave the bike lane to avoid hazardous conditions, and right hooks are one of the greatest hazards cyclists face.

Doored!

Cyclists Getting Doored

A dooring occurs when you are riding next to parked cars, and a driver or passenger suddenly opens the car door across your path. It happens with private vehicles, rideshare vehicles, and taxis alike. In movies, this is considered “funny.” In real life, it is often fatal. Cyclists have been seriously injured on impact with the door. Cyclists have also been killed, either by falling into traffic, or swerving to avoid the door and getting hit by a passing vehicle.

If you are riding next to parked cars, you must understand that you are at risk of being doored. You should adjust your riding position to avoid the “door zone,” typically 5 feet from the parked vehicle. This distance gives you space to pass without having your handlebar clip a door suddenly flung open in your path, and without having to swerve away from the door.

If conditions are such that you can’t ride outside the door zone, scan the vehicles ahead through the windows. If you see a driver or passengers in the car, there’s a risk that they may suddenly open the door across your path, and you must be prepared to avoid the door by either adjusting your riding position to move outside the door zone, or being prepared to come to a sudden stop.

Driveways

Think of driveways as a type of intersection, both at the sidewalk, and at the street. There are several hazards cyclists face at driveways. When you’re approaching a driveway, you’re at risk of being right-hooked by drivers traveling in the same direction as you. After you’ve passed a driveway, you’re at risk of being hit by drivers turning right onto the roadway while looking left over their shoulder for oncoming traffic. If you’re riding against traffic (aka, “salmoning,” because you’re going “upstream”), you’re at even greater risk from drivers entering the roadway, because they won’t see you coming. And if you’re riding on the sidewalk in either direction, you’re at risk of getting hit by drivers as they cross the sidewalk, because they won’t expect you to be there as they cross the sidewalk.

As you’re approaching and passing driveways, you need to understand the risk involved, depending upon where you are in relation to the driveway, and maintain situational awareness of what is happening at the driveway.

Overtaking

Car Hits Bicyclist

Overtaking collisions occur when a car traveling in the same direction as you hits you while overtaking. Sometimes this happens because the driver passed too close; sometimes it happens because the driver never saw you and rear-ended you.

Your best option for maintaining situational awareness of traffic behind you will be to ride with a mirror.

Sun-Blind

Sunrise and sunset are two of the most hazardous times for cyclists. With the sun just over the horizon, drivers can be practically blinded by the sun’s rays shining into their eyes.

If you are riding into the sun, and are blinded by the glare, you are in a very dangerous situation, because the drivers behind you are also blinded by the sun. Conversely, if the sun is to your back, you are also in danger, because you are lost in the glare for the drivers in oncoming traffic. In either situation, you should give serious consideration to immediately leaving the roadway and waiting until the angle of the sun changes and you are no longer lost in its glare, or taking an alternate your route.

Conclusion

The specific types of hazards cyclists face are well-known. If you understand these hazards, you are in a good position to avoid the danger, or at least reduce your risk. Observing your surrounding conditions and understanding and assessing the risks are how you maintain situational awareness. And if you are practicing situational awareness, you may be giving yourself precious seconds to see a bad situation unfolding, and avoid the danger, either by modifying your position on the roadway, or through emergency maneuvers if you need to react quickly.

For more information, see the Emergency Maneuvers page here on bicyclelaw.com.

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