By Coach Robert Wilhite
Yes, you read the title correctly, but what in the world does it mean? As with all my posts, I share my perspective on various topics, why I believe what I do, pulling from 250,000 miles of road cycling, and then let you decide what you do with it. This post is no different. A bit more controversial, but nonetheless, the same approach.
First off, we have to start with a few realities. Some may surprise you, some may not. Some you may agree with, some you may not. Doesn’t change the fact they are still realities. Just stick with me till the end and and then draw your own conclusion. In my home state of Georgia, we have a 3-Foot Law, that took affect in July 2011 — it’s similar to other states that have the same type of law.
A reality here is that most road cyclists have no clue what’s in the law, what they can “legally” do and what they can’t. You would think that if the state passes a law like this, that cyclists would rally around it. Well, in theory, yes. But in reality, it’s just not the case. Cyclists tend to cite the law only when it becomes beneficial for them and entirely depending upon the scenario. Let me explain.
Pick and Choose
We go out for a group ride, or maybe solo. The first time a vehicle passes us way too close — what we cyclists call “getting buzzed” — we are quick to yell out at the drivers to get away from us and give us that 3-foot space our state says motorists must give us, when they pass us. Sound familiar? But, what about that same group of riders coming up to a stop sign, never slowing down and just blowing through the intersection as though the stop sign wasn’t even there at all?
In one breath, we’re blowing through a stop sign (clearly illegal) yelling out “clear” to each other. But in the next breath, we’re yelling at motorists for buzzing us and not (legally) passing us safely. This is just one very typical example of cyclists citing laws, only when it’s to their benefit. This example happens in just about every group ride in Georgia, and I bet it’s probably the same where you ride. With that said, I do know some states have passed a law allowing cyclists to (legally) roll through a stop sign; Georgia is not one of them.
The point I’m trying to drive home is road cyclists tend to pick and choose whatever laws they think will benefit them (at that time) but go ‘brain dead’ on all the other laws that apply to them. You can’t have it both ways. And therein lies a fundamental flaw in the mentality of typical road cyclists.
I wanted to highlight the mentality I just mentioned because it plays a direct role in the title of this article. Because cycling is inherently dangerous out on the road, we cyclists tend to ride with an “it’s all about me” mentality. We don’t feel like anyone cares about our safety, so that means we tend to push the envelope when it comes to protecting ourselves when we ride. Hey, it’s kinda human nature. But that doesn’t mean its correct.
Now, if you re-read the stop sign scenario with the mindset I just described, it’s easy to think, or more accurately, feel like its our right to ride the way we do. No one else cares so we’re gonna take matters in our own hands. Here’s the big problem. When we blow through stop signs, and motorists witness that, we send a very strong message that we can do whatever we want, when we want, how we want, in spite of what the law says. It’s no wonder motorists have a bad taste in their mouths when they see us on the road.
Do this long enough and we create a battlefield, of sorts, when we clip in for a ride. Sometimes the truth hurts, and I’m pretty sure this may be one of those times. But hey, we contributed a lot to how motorists see us now, how they think about us, and more importantly, how they act around us. I’ll prove this point even further in Part 2 of this series — in a way most cyclists never think about or do, and how it directly impacts motorists in the exact opposite way.
Understanding A Motorist’s Mentality
In Georgia and maybe for you too, we have this great 3-foot law. But the problem is almost no motorists have any clue about it, much less drive in accordance with it. That’s the fundamental problem. Our state did basically zero to properly educate motorists that they are required (by law) to pass cyclists with a minimum of 3 feet. If motorists have no clue about the law, why in the world should we expect motorists to pass us accordingly?
You may not like this, but fundamentally, it’s not their fault — to a point. Now I can hear the comments boiling up. What about just basic common sense or basic respect for others? Ha!!! That may have been the case about three generations ago, but to expect that in today’s world? Don’t hold your breath. Yes, it’s a shame and I can’t even comprehend how far in the wrong direction our world has come in this respect. But that’s where we are, so we can either succumb to it or try and make a positive difference. I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna always focus on the latter.
Cyclists Asking To Get Buzzed
I’m going to describe reality every time we go out for a ride. At the same time, I want you to visualize this scenario as I add key pieces of information. Follow along with me because this is the crux of this entire post. You ready?
- Motorists don’t know they are required by law to pass us with a minimum of 3 feet clearance.
- Motorists DO know it’s illegal to cross the center line when it’s solid.
- Motorists DON’T know they can legally cross the center line, in order to pass us safely.
- Motorists eventually come up behind us while we are riding and let’s assume we are riding to the far right of the road.
Now, I want you to stop and visualize these four points so far. I call this the “goal post” scenario. Motorists now see the center line on the inside of the lane and us on the outside; the goal post. Their default tendency is to stay within the goal posts. Can you see that from the motorist’s perspective? Again, you may not agree or like this example, but this is reality.
As long as we ride to the outside, or far right, of the lane as possible, we actually play a huge role in creating this scenario for motorists. This is what I call riding with a cyclist’s mentality. Yes, I understand we need to ride to the right side of the lane — but we have to realize that this area may not always be the best place to ride. There are so many other scenarios just like this I could describe for you, and you’d be begrudgingly nodding your head up and down because you’ve seen them for yourselves.
Riding With A Motorist Mentality
I’m absolutely convinced of what I just described, and let me prove my point. There is a certain group ride I’ve done for almost 10 years and a particular stretch of two lane road that every time we approach this road, many in the group will yell out “Single file.” Now, I understand from a cyclist’s perspective (because I AM one) why we think we should ride on the outside of the lane. We want to give motorists the most amount of room for them to get around us. I totally get that.
Every single time I have ridden that stretch single file, we have gotten buzzed countless times. It’s almost a guarantee on this road. However, every time I ride on the inside, or in a double pace line to the left of everyone else, the ‘buzzing’ dramatically reduces. Every single time. Why is that? It’s because I am creating a scenario where even smaller cars don’t have enough room to stay in the lane without crossing the center line…and pass us without buzzing us; I’m forcing them to cross the center line and enter into the opposite lane.
When motorists see and realize this, they do three things. First, they have to take into account of any oncoming traffic. Second, they tend to pass us with far more than three feet of clearance. And third, if there is any blind spot, they have a tendency of hesitating to pass. Are there motorists who just don’t care and will buzz us no matter what? Unfortunately yes. But in my humble opinion, we cyclists do have some level of control.
I’ve been on countless group rides across this country where I’ve done this exact thing and almost without fail, motorists do exactly what I just described. It’s human nature and if we ride on the road and fail to factor this into how and where we ride, well, we are literally (to a degree) setting us and the motorists up for failure, or in other words, getting buzzed. Watch the video below and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
This is what I describe as riding with a motorist mentality. As long as we ride where vehicles will be, I am convinced to the core of who I am, that we have to adopt to riding with this mentality, if we want to have a better experience interacting with motorists.
This is Part 1 of an article series on this subject, citing many real-life scenarios where we can dramatically change how motorists behave around us. I hope you share the heck out of these with your cycling friends. If you end up totally disagreeing with me, at the very least, I hope it will cause you to think or re-think about what you do (or not do) and how that affects motorist’s responses.
We absolutely can make a difference.
Kenneth Pierce says
I live and ride in south east Georgia, Ft Stewart/Hinesville/Savannah and I agree with you on all these points. I ride mostly long solo rides and have seen it all. You are very correct about drivers not knowing what laws cyclists have here, but on the same note most law enforcement officers don’t either. I ride in the right “wheel track” and always hold my line as most vehicles like to pass while there are oncoming vehicles. When I see vehicles approaching from ahead I prepare myself to take the lane to keep cars from coming at me head-on while passing. It sometimes doesn’t always work and I end up having to swerve hard to avoid a collision. I once showed a video of this scenario to the local Provost Marshall and he blamed me, showed me the “law” but left out the sections about lawfully taking the lane for just these situations, then threated to have his officers cite me if they see me taking the lane. We went back and forth and Brett Buice even got involved and finally Brett recommend just dropping it as the law was on my side. I can give you many examples of these situations, and law enforcement either ignore it or blames me. I ride with complete respect for motor vehicles and avoid high traffic times and always give way when it doesn’t threaten my safety. I used to record my rides for just these close passes and threatening drivers but it became a waste of time knowing law enforcement won’t take it seriously. I had an MP tell me to ride on the shoulder with rumbles because it is the bike lane. It is imperative that law enforcement also know these laws and judge us fairly. GeorgiaBikes! used to have a small pocket law enforcement guide to hand out that has the actual laws, not just suggestions like the new version of their booklet. I carry the digital version on my phone if needed, but I showed an officer 40-6-293/294 and he told me me it was too dangerous to ride in the center of the lane. This says how much law enforcement actually know and care about us, legal road users. Until we are taken seriously it’s hard to bow to careless drivers and even those that knowingly threaten our safety just for kicks. More MVO’s break the law than we do, and if they aren’t alert it can kill. I respect your attempt to show us how we’re seen through the windshield, but it goes both ways. I’m assuming your are in Atlanta, if you fight for our safety I can share lots of clips of the same examples you talked about in 2013 for HB 689 town hall. Best to you.
Coach Robert says
Yup, I’m in NE Atlanta and ride ALL over the metro. Totally agree on the law enforcement thing; I’ve been actively advocating for cycling for 20 years. A long way to go….
For new riders, I tell them two “rules”. First, know all the laws as well as the “rules” (safety tips regarding approaching intersections, making left turns, lane positioning, etc). Second, and more important, assume you are the only one on the road who knows these rules and expect all motorists to “violate” them.
You can call this “defensive cycling” or you can call it “motorist mentality” but, I call it surviving 50 years of urban cycling…
Well said. I agree completely.
It’s just asking for trouble to “claim the lane”.
Be willing to give up your rights for the sake of others.
Anticipate obstacles (cars, trucks, walkers, joggers, etc) and assume that you’re the only one with a brain. It can actually be enjoyable if you adjust your attitude.
Randy Baskin says
Here’s my advice as a 68 year old who’s been riding most of his life.
You and your bike probably weigh less than 200 pounds.
Most cars weigh over 3,000 pounds.
Stay out of their way!!
Ride defensively. Assume that motor vehicles don’t see you.
Be willing to give up your right to the lane in return for your right to life.
Share the road but always give more than your share.
I love bike riding but am sick of seeing bike riders riding like they own the road.
Anticipate someone pulling out in front of you. Stop, smile and wave. You’ll be shocked at the positive impact you can have. And, it won’t be a painful impact.
Love one another and forgive each other’s mistakes.
You can make the World (in your area) a better place. It could get contagious.
larry english says
riding on the edge encourages car buzzing though.
Larry Best says
I disagree. Riding on the edge shows respect to the motorists. Share the road is a two way street and I find when I give motorists room then they return the favor. Of course YMMV as attitudes may differ in your part of the country.
Well done. Another aspect of communication between cars and cyclists. I would guess most drivers don’t know hand signals. When signaling for a right turn most drivers think I’m waving at them. At least I’ve gotten waves back!
A right turn should be signaled by extending the right arm straight out to the right, and NOT like a motorist would with the left arm pointing up. A motorist cannot signal a right with that arm as it would not be seen. If motorists are waving at you, you’re doing it incorrectly.
Robert Wilhite is indeed correct.
Ride as far to the right as practical when available road resources are safe and appropriate.
Ride in the traffic lane (the safest practice for all concerned), when available road resources are questionable, unusable or insufficient.
I am a League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructor. I teach this lane positioning idea (not my original idea, I steal from the best): Every motorist, all of us riding bicycles included, think that the center line is a pane of glass and God forbid if one should break that pane of glass. That means if a motorist thinks that s/he can squeeze between that pane of glass and a slow moving, two wheeled vehicle, then that is precisely what the motorist will do. Squeeze even if the motorist had no freaking idea where the left side of his/her behemoth-mobile might be. If, on the other hand, the motorist can be convinced that there is no room to squeeze, then the motorist will break that pane of glass and go wide. Be Visible!!
Larry Best says
Absolutely! I’m also an LCI & the riders I teach are mostly newbies. They’re shocked when I teach that the right tire track is the place to be. A phrase that I like nto use when teaching is “driving your bike.” Since you’re a legal vehicle that’s how you should drive your bike. Realize, of course, that you’re much slower, but if you act like your a car, you’ll be treated like you’re a car. And the rules & traffic laws DO apply to you.
I agree 100%. Whenever possible, I pull over, let the car/cars go by, and give a big friendly wave.
John Marsh says
I’ve known you for a few years and ridden some of the same roads with you in metro Atlanta.
I agree with your general premise, but I think we all need to recognize that every rider faces different situations that dictate different choices and behavior based on the unique factors in each.
I’m the perfect example. Lately I’ve been holed up in North Carolina and riding a lot on the Blue Ridge Parkway. On the long climbs to local peaks, I ride exactly as you describe — in the middle of my lane. All cars, and most motorcycles (except for the occasional jerk) pass me completely or mostly in the other lane, across the yellow line.
It’s easy for them to do so in most cases because there simply is not a lot of traffic on much of the Parkway. I’m safer for it, to be sure.
However, in the decades I’ve ridden in Atlanta — most of it on highly-trafficked suburban roads — I very carefully and thoughtfully pick my spots when it comes to taking the lane. The vast majority of the time, I keep as far right as practicable, with a little bailout space when possible.
Riding in the middle of the lane in many cases in an urban or suburban area with high traffic can invite outright aggression. I’ve seen it. I’ve heard it. I try to avoid it.
My primary approach to riding is doing what I can — based on the situation at hand — to best stay safe. I always ride with a “cyclist’s mentality.” That’s what the term means to me.
And while I also agree with you about rogue law-breaking knucklehead cyclists giving us all a bad name, I believe it always needs to be pointed out that there is no equivalency between the harm they pose to themselves and others and the harm motorists pose to cyclists. I passionately believe this, and wrote about it in RBR in the past. It bears re-reading now:
Greg Titus says
When a motorist is overtaking a cyclist, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration advises the cyclist to move to the center of the lane in order to force the overtaking vehicle to move over into the adjoining. Once the psychological barrier of not crossing the centerline is broken, the motorist will give more room to the cyclist. The Iowa DOT gives the same recommendation. Getting caught in a “squeeze” play is as much the fault of the cyclist as the motorist. Most of the “squeeze” plays I’m subjected to is a result of my inattention to an overtaking vehicle and not having moved to the middle of the lane in time to force him over. Disclaimer: I ride in rural SE Iowa, not a metropolitan area. Big difference. Big, big difference.
The other issue is being visible. Screw the 3-foot law. If a motorist can’t see you, or doesn’t see you until it’s too late to pass safely, then you’ll get unsafe passing. Riding with at least one 150 lumen red flashing tail light does wonders to alert motorists well in advance that you’re a slow-moving something occupying space on the road. It gives them time to see you and begin preparing how to pass safely. A flashing tail light has more practical effect and is much safer than a law on the books that most motorists don’t know about. And it’s a courtesy to the motorist, politely alerting them to the presence of a vulnerable road user. I’ve actually had motorists pull over after passing me, stop, get out, flag me down, and compliment me on the visibility of my tail lights (I ride w/3 flashing radomnly, mounted on my seatpost). They’ve told me it’s a great idea and I should tell all my cycling friends. Y’all are hereby told!
Gary Turney says
Great insights and comments – I concur with pretty much all of them. I particularly agree with the idea that motorists seem to regard the center line as an impenetrable “glass wall” not to be crossed. But in my experience that is very much an American perspective. Having driven quite a bit in Europe, I had an interesting experience in Greece, where many of the major highways are only two lane, but with quite wide shoulders (designated by a white fog line). When one is being overtaken by a faster car, standard practice is to move as far to the shoulder as reasonable, then the passing car straddles the center line. Should an oncoming car approach, they also take to their shoulder, so the passing car just takes the middle of the entire road.. Because drivers treat the lane delineations almost as “guidelines”, it creates a very effective method for passing on a two-lane road. But everyone has to be on the same page.. And it is indeed legal, because the first time I tried passing this way, the oncoming police car took to the shoulder just like anyone else.. While this system works very well in Greece, it would not in the US because of our our training that the lane lines are essentially rigid delineations.. If drivers in the US were taught to adopt this sort of mindset, in many cases it could well improve cyclists’ safety.
When I encounter road works where there is a single lane marked with cones I always take the centre of the lane even though there might be room for a car to pass me. My logic is that the car might safely pass me but the truck behind the will try to pass and push me completely into the cones. When a car approaches from behind I stick my hand out signing them to slow down behind me, and thanking them when the obstruction ends; I usually get a friendly “beep” in return. In most cases this works well, but occasionally I get the driver who honks drives right behind me.
This only works for relative short distances, and not in uphill situation where the cyclist is moving slowly relative to the car.
I obey all traffic laws as an example.
Marc Palma says
I’ve been hit in the elbow with a side mirror once in South Florida. Now living in NE Atlanta/Decatur area and for the most part have not dealt with aggressive motorist. Most times they await a time to pass and the majority of what I have to deal with is their exhaust as they speed by. Anyone wanna ride in ATL? I’m looking for some peeps to crank with!
It’s rather hypocritical that the author states that cyclists should follow laws to the letter them proceeds to encourage cyclists to break the law by not riding to the right side. Where I live the law states that cyclists shall ride as far to the right as practicable. I believe that means that in the absence of an obstruction, glass, dangerous drainage grating, etc then cyclists should be, not necessarily hugging the far right side, but on the order of 12″-16″ from the right side of the road way. On roads with a decent shoulder I am not in the traffic lane at all.
I find that motorists are appreciative when I move to the right as far as I can when a car wants to pass. I find that they are made likely to get irritated as close pass if I hold a line as suggested in the right tire track as recommended in this article.
Larry Best says
Syborg, that’s not hypocritical at all. The law states that a cyclist may take the entire lane when hazards prevent riding as far to the right as practicable. On a two lane road with two cars passing you at the same time is absolutely NOT practicable, SAFE & is definitely A HAZARD.. You could be forced into a ditch or sideswiped. The proper procedure in that case is to: 1. be aware of the situation. 2. Move to the center of the lane to prevent the car following you to wait until it’s safe to pass. As soon as it’s safe to pass pull over to the right.
Kenneth Pierce says
Yes, you are very right! On every ride I get at least one illegal pass, vehicles passing from the oncoming lane or passing between me and oncoming traffic. When I see a driver doing this (Garmin’s Varia radar works great for warning of vehicles coming from behind!) I move to the center of the lane and they usually move back into their lane. Some do not move back into their lane, these are dangerous individuals and should be issued at least a citation, but we know that is almost impossible. The point is to be seen, taking the lane is actually safer than hugging the white line or riding on the shoulder. Remember, motor vehicles have big engines and can very easily make up lost seconds waiting to safely pass us.
Joe Mitchell says
Agree with author’s comments & point of view.
First, in reality we are vehicles on the road that have to obey laws & ride safely with traffic. That means obeying stop signs, etc. (An organized event with traffic control is another matter.)
Second, I have found that a mirror on the handle-bar or on the drops, 2-3 in diameter reduces close encounters by about 70%. It seems as though drivers see me, watching them, watching me. Result is that I get more respect on the road.
Gary Keene says
It might help to clarify the meaning of the title and thus the points in the essay that what’s being described is “A (Lousy-Selfish-Unsafe-Dualistic-Either/Or) Cyclist’s Mentality. And what is proposed instead is “A (Healthy-Safe-Inclusive-Shared-Space) Cyclist’s Mentality.
We all drive so we have a basis in a purely Motorist’s mentality, perspective, behaviors. Most drivers do NOT have an awareness of what it’s like to ride on the road*. So we have to have a Both/And mentality, which is what you’re describing = accounting for the driver’s perspective while at the same time asserting our place on the road by subtly influencing (manipulating!) their behavior. I’ve led hundreds of people over thousands of miles on tours in the U.S. and Europe, and one of the simplest things we teach is “the power of the Magic Hand”– IOW, simply using hand signals goes a long ways to thinking through what you are doing relative to other people on the road (cars AND bikes) and communicating– that is to say– connecting with them effectively. This is a healthy cyclist’s or really Citizen’s mentality.
*I’m convinced that the quantitatively better treatment of cyclists most everywhere else in the world is rooted in the common experience of far more people riding and/or having family members who ride, often for practical purposes. In the language of this article, they all have a “shared transportation mentality.”!