It was a warm Saturday morning, not a cloud in the sky. I was out on a training ride through the leafy suburbs west of Boston. We were pedaling along a narrow, twisty road in Needham, heading out toward Sherborn and beyond.
Ten minutes after we began I noticed a white van speeding up behind us. Over the years I’ve developed what I call my sixth sense, my ability to anticipate danger on the road. Something about the way that motorist revved his engine, swerved from side to side, and crossed the double yellow line made me nervous. Even though we were riding single file and as far to the right as was safe, my sixth sense said, "He’s going to pass us right about now. Right about when we reach that blind turn up ahead."
My sixth sense was right: that’s exactly what he did. I yelled out, “Car passing!” as he crossed the double yellow line. And then I prayed.
Just as the driver of that white van reached the front of our group he slammed on his brakes. The car coming toward him braked, too. Fortunately they didn’t crash, though they ended up nose to nose and less than a yard apart.
For the rest of my ride I kept thinking about why he tried to pass us. Sure he may have saved a few seconds by zooming by (though we were cycling just under the speed limit), but had he waited just a moment longer he could have passed us safely, legally and stress-free.
I don’t think that van driver meant to hurt anyone but I also don’t think he considered what my friend Bruce describes as the asymmetry of risk of harm from a motorist-cyclist crash. That asymmetry doesn’t absolve cyclists from behaving responsibly, though it does mean that motorists need to consider the disproportionate damage that would ensue from a car-bike collision, regardless of who is at fault.
The good news is that overall there has never been a better time to be a Boston bicyclist: Bicycling Magazine ranked Boston as the 26th best bike city in America, and the League of American Bicyclists ranked Massachusetts as the third best state in the nation for overall bike friendliness.
Still, on almost all of my weekend rides a motorist (or two or three) will roar by me on the wrong side of the road. Sometimes it feels as if they’re driving like they own the road (they don’t). The truth is, our roads belong to all of us: motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.
I’m not saying cyclists are blame-free. We’ve all seen people ride at night without lights, run red lights, and pedal the wrong way on one-way streets. And yes, I’ve been on plenty of group rides where people take over the road and prevent motorists from safely passing. This kind of rule breaking makes me, and many of my cycling friends, pretty mad, though the truth is that the myth of the scofflaw cyclist is just that: a myth.
So what’s it going to take for all of us to get along? First off, it’s important to increase awareness and education for both motorists and cyclists so that we all know the rules of the road. Kudos to the RMV, LivableStreets, and MassBike for spreading the word.
Each of us can also encourage good behavior whenever we see it and explain (not yell or cuss) when we see behavior that needs changing. I know that’s easier said than done but trust me: it’s more effective to have a dialogue than a shouting match.
In the long run, increasing bike lanes and bike paths and lowering the speed limit will encourage more people to get out on their bikes, which in turn will make it safer for everyone: pedestrian, cyclist, and motorist alike.
Finally, we need to beef up enforcement of the rules (otherwise all that education and training will go to waste). This means aggressive ticketing of motorists (and cyclists) who ride dangerously or break the law.
And whatever you do, please don’t pass a biker (or another motorist) on a blind curve. They might not have a sixth sense that will keep them out of trouble.
Jonathan Simmons is a psychologist and an avid cyclist. His book, “Here For the Ride” will be published later this year.
Looking for something to do on your bike this week? On Sunday, June 10th, the Boston Jewish History Ride will explore the Jewish history of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. The ride starts at Franklin Park at 10am and will stop for a picnic lunch.
On June 12th the Lets Talk About Bikes the Boston Society of Architects will host a show exploring the use and impact of bicycles in Boston.