Ride a bicycle around Savannah for long enough and you’ll probably hear it yelled from the window of a passing car: “Stay on the sidewalk!” or “Get out of the road!”
An experienced cyclist recently identified a new variation, provided by a motorist stopped at a traffic signal. Mistaking the Savannah resident for a tourist, she rolled down her car window and offered a polite scolding. “In Savannah,” she said, “We do not ride our bicycles in the street.”
The idea that bicyclists should restrict their travel to sidewalks is not only dangerous for cyclists, it’s against the law. What’s worse, many cyclists buy into it.
It may initially seem counterintuitive, but the street is almost always safer than the sidewalk for adult cyclists. Riding a bicycle on a sidewalk is one of the most common contributing factors in car vs. bicycle collisions, in cases in which the cyclist is found at fault.
That’s because riding a sidewalk places cyclists, who are classified as operators of vehicles under state law, in areas of the streetscape where motorists don’t expect to see other vehicles. This is particularly dangerous at intersections, where the majority of collisions occur.
Predictable and visible are two things cyclists should strive to be, but seldom are when riding on sidewalks. The results are often expressed in statements by motorists such as, “I didn’t see him” or “She came out of nowhere,” which the investigating officer will record in his or her report at the crash scene.
Here’s an easy way to remember this important safety concept: Sidewalks are for walking. See, it’s right there in the in the name of the thing. It also explains why it’s not a good idea to park your car on a sidewalk.
If we can agree it’s unreasonable to expect cyclists to place themselves in physical and legal peril by riding on sidewalks, where in the street, exactly, should they be? Certainly not out there in the middle of the lane like a bunch of fools, right?
Well, sometimes, yes.
State law allows cyclists to move away from the right side of the roadway for several reasons. Bicyclists are permitted to move left and “take the lane” when they are preparing to turn left, when they need to avoid hazards (including the doors of parked cars, which can be flung open suddenly), when they are moving at the same speed as other vehicles, when they are passing slower or stationary vehicles, and when the lane is too narrow to safely share with a car.
I encounter these scenarios every single day, and after looking over my shoulder to make eye contact with operators of any following vehicles and signaling my intent, I begin riding right down center of my lane like a fool. But a safe fool. I move right again, just as soon as it is clear to do so.
Sadly, this prudent and legal practice occasionally causes a fellow vehicle operator to blow a gasket.
We are all, from time to time, required to endure minor inconveniences. It’s part of our daily lives as citizens. For some people, however, the idea of driving behind a cyclist, if only for a moment, is positively excruciating.
The urge to pass someone on a bicycle, even when there is not enough room to do so, gnaws at them. It causes them to make poor decisions that could cost lives.
Others really don’t understand how much room is required between their car’s right fender and a cyclist’s left elbow.
The good news is we now have guidance on this in the form of a new state law that goes into effect July 1. It requires motorists to leave a safe distance between their vehicles and bicycles they are overtaking.
That distance, codified in Georgia House Bill 101, is “not less than three feet.” Motorists, please jot that down for future reference.
(But don’t jot it down while you’re driving. As a matter of fact, if you are driving, stop reading this!)
When you encounter cyclists on the streets, please don’t yell or honk your horn at them. Please be patient if you find yourself behind a cyclist who has taken the lane.
If you still have trouble sharing the road with bicyclists, think about it this way: Every person you see on a bicycle equals one more available parking space for you.
Now, doesn’t that make you feel better?
John Bennett is vice chairman of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign, at bicyclecampaign.org