Beware the ‘right hook’: safe cycling and experience

Right hooks, a car or truck cutting you off with a right hand turn, are a somewhat unique problem for cyclists.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “expertise” amongst bike riders in the last few years. The United States has had a persistently higher bicycle accident and fatality rate that many other nations for more than two decades now and I’m convinced that our rider profile has something to do with that.

Rider profile isn’t the only factor, poor cycling infrastructure, anti-cycling prejudice, territorialism (on the streets, trails, and sidewalks), equipment, and inexperience with a new mix of traffic (i.e. the number of cyclists on the roads has exploded in the U.S. over the last two decades), all contribute to the accident and fatality rate. Nevertheless I think rider profile plays a significant role.

What do I mean by: “rider profile?”  When I talk about profile I’m referring to a comparative level of rider experience and expertise. One can quickly acquire the physical skills of riding, but it takes years to acquire the expertise. Basically I think we have fewer expert riders in the U.S. than they do in a place like the Netherlands. I know a lot of U.S. cyclists will bristle at my suggestion but let me flesh it out a little.

Look at who’s riding bicycles in the United States today. Basically we have four generations, seniors, middle aged, 20s-30s, and children. None of our age groups contain a majority of lifetime riders. Amongst seniors we have a group that rode as children, on very different bicycles, in very different circumstances as children, and then didn’t ride again for decades. Many of our middle aged riders, people in my age group, rode bikes as kids and maybe teenagers, but then stopped riding bikes almost the very day we got our provisional driver’s license. Many riders in their 20s and 30s had bikes when they were kids, but they were just another toy in the garage that didn’t get much use because parents shuttled them around in the SUV’s all the time. Then we have the children of today, many of whom don’t ride unless they’re riding with their parents as a family activity of some kind… which means they don’t ride very much compared to say, my generation.

Compare the U.S. profile with that of cyclists in the Netherlands where almost everyone riding a bike no matter what age has been riding continuously since they were 4 or 5 years old. Very few cyclists in the Netherlands ride multi-gear or road (racing) bikes, and almost no one wears a helmet, yet they have much much lower accident and fatality rates per capita. One difference is that they’ve been riding continuously for years if not decades and presumably have acquired more actual riding skill. Americans have the gear, and they read the magazines, and ride in groups and clubs, but they lack years of acquired experience. So you’ll see U.S. cyclists all geared up in groups, flashing hand signals, drafting, and shouting out: “clear!” when they get some intersections in groups, but they’re all riding way too fast for the conditions, or entering blind intersections and curves side by side instead of in single file, etc. etc.

Part of the problem is that we don’t actually share experience in the U.S., we kind of have a weird way of talking about cycling safety. We have arguments about who’s responsible for accidents instead of talking about what riders can do to avoid accidents. Some Americans see cycling as a “movement” of some kind rather than a form of transport or enjoyable activity.

A good example is an article about “right hooks” recently published on the “Fair Warning” website, a website devoted to safety issues.  The “right hook” is the problem of cars and trucks turning “right” at intersections and cutting off cyclist who are riding in the same direction- on that right-hand side. These turns can take cyclists by surprise if the drivers don’t signal and it can lead to tragic results when cyclists get pulled under the wheels.

The article discusses the need for special equipment maybe laws requiring special guard rails on the sides of large trucks that can prevent people ending up underneath the vehicle — and that’s fine. However in typical American fashion there’s absolutely no discussion about what a cyclist can actually do to avoid right hook accidents. They talk about training truck drivers, but there’s no mention of training cyclists.

I’ve decided that given the gaps in experience amongst U.S. cyclists it might helpful to share some practical experience on occasion here on my blog, to wit: let’s talk about right hooks.

Right hooks, a car or truck cutting you off with a right hand turn, are a somewhat unique problem for cyclists. Car drivers never really face this dilemma because they’re never on the right hand side of another vehicle making a right hand turn unless someone is making an illegal turn from the wrong lane. With the right hook in theory both the cyclist and the driver making the right hand turn are where they’re supposed be.

Unfortunately there is no “safe” place to ride next to a street that can eliminate the possibility of right hook accident; that’s one reason they’re so dangerous. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a dedicated bike lane, or bike trail, or even a sidewalk, if a vehicle makes that turn in front of you, you have a problem. The best way to reduce the possibility of a right hook accident is to approach every intersection with caution, survey the traffic as you approach the intersection. It doesn’t matter if you have a green light, or no stop sign, whatever; you need to look at the traffic.

Most vehicles cannot make a sharp right hand turn without slowing down, so that’s what you’re watching for, not a turn signal (drivers frequently neglect to use signal turns, or do so at the last second). Whenever you’re approaching an intersection next to a vehicle on your left-hand side you need watch that vehicle for signs of slowing down, in preparation to make a turn, and you need to slow down or be prepared to stop if they make the turn. In stop and go traffic it’s a little dicey because a vehicle may already be going slow enough to make the turn.  My advice, whenever entering an intersection next to a slow moving vehicle, slow down, almost to a stop of need be, until you’re absolutely sure that vehicle isn’t going make that right hand turn. Unfortunately you can’t just blow though intersections assuming that no one will do anything they’re not supposed to do. Sure, drivers are supposed to see you, they’re supposed to signal, they’re supposed to do a lot of things.  People don’t always do what they’re supposed to do, and it can get other people killed on occasion.

This post was written by Paul Udstrand and originally published on Thoughtful Bastards.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/10/2015 - 11:39 am.

    A refreshing take on this problem.

  2. Submitted by Joseph Totten on 07/10/2015 - 01:18 pm.

    Merging

    We actually always discuss with kids, and others learning to ride, drive, etc. Slow down. Be defensive.

    So maybe we need a reminder, but a vehicle is supposed to merge into the bike lane before turning right, they’re supposed to look for me in their mirrors before turning across a bike lane. So YES, bicyclists should be careful and avoid an accident even if it’s not their responsibility, but the fault of any of these accidents is on the driver for two infractions at any intersection. For a bicyclist to get by on the right, the driver cannot have moved over (improper turn, right turn from left lane), and they also did not properly yield right-of-way.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/10/2015 - 03:58 pm.

    The sound of brakes

    I forgot to write this into the blog, but another helpful suggestion is to listen, use your ears as well as your eyes. Frequently you hear trucks and traffic before you actually see them, and when trucks and some buses deploy their brakes the hydraulics produce that: “pshsssss” sound. If you’re riding with one of those big boys to your left and you hear that sound, brake and slow down because it probably means they’re preparing to turn or there might some other issue you don’t want to ride into.

  4. Submitted by Dan Berg on 07/10/2015 - 04:42 pm.

    Updating rules too

    Another issue is that there is a lot of ambiguity on how the rules are supposed to work. Many people, both on bikes and in cars, aren’t sure how they are supposed to act in any given set of circumstances. This is made especially difficult when there are so many types of bike lanes, crossings and conditions.

    Downtown Hennepin and 1st are especially problematic. The alternating of the bus/bike to bus/bike/right-turn lanes is a nightmare that has never been enforced properly. Technically bikes are supposed to pass on the left of cars making a right but I have never had that happen and often get angry bikers who pass me on the right as I am turning. Likely not realizing they don’t know the rule. I always watch for it since it is so common but it is still frustrating and doesn’t add to good will between cars and bicyclists.

    Bikes on sidewalks in another issue in that it is confusing to many if they should be treated as a vehicle or a pedestrian. I always figure that if I am riding my bike I need to follow the rules of a vehicle, if I am walking it I am a pedestrian. The fact that so often bicyclists seem to want to have it both ways isn’t just annoying it is dangerous as it is hard to predict what is going to happen.

    I wonder if changing the law so that unless you are under a certain age (16 maybe) riding on sidewalks would be illegal. That way cyclists and cars can better predict how they interact and gain a little respect for each other. Better signage that includes bicycles would be a good reminder as well. Basically if bikes are vehicles they need to follow the same rules of the road as everybody else (don’t pass on the right included) and need to be respected as such.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/10/2015 - 09:31 pm.

      Rules and sidewalks

      “Another issue is that there is a lot of ambiguity on how the rules are supposed to work. Many people, both on bikes and in cars, aren’t sure how they are supposed to act in any given set of circumstances. This is made especially difficult when there are so many types of bike lanes, crossings and conditions.”

      Absolutely. As far as I can tell they just roll out new lanes with little or no public outreach or notification. Might be a good topic or an or blog.

      Sidewalks and cycles are funny. We had something of a kerfuffle on a Blog Cabin post about cycling a few weeks ago. I pointed out that there are some situations where a sidewalk can be a better/safer option for cyclists and that triggered a big debate.

      Here’s the deal: Cyclists are allowed to ride on sidewalks that aren’t in business or downtown districts, so if you’re seeing people riding on sidewalks Downtown, there not supposed to be doing that. Bicycles are classified as vehicles my MN Statute, but they have special conditions. On a street a bicycle has all the rights and responsibilities of any other vehicle, but on a sidewalk or crosswalk the have the rights and responsibilities of pedestrians. Here’s a link to the actual statute:

      https://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/statutes/?id=169.222

      Here are the relevant passages of the statute:

      (d) A person operating a bicycle upon a sidewalk, or across a roadway or shoulder on a crosswalk, shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian and shall give an audible signal when necessary before overtaking and passing any pedestrian. No person shall ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk within a business district unless permitted by local authorities. Local authorities may prohibit the operation of bicycles on any sidewalk or crosswalk under their jurisdiction.

      (f) A person lawfully operating a bicycle on a sidewalk, or across a roadway or shoulder on a crosswalk, shall have all the rights and duties applicable to a pedestrian under the same circumstances.

      I wouldn’t support the laws you suggest because there are a lot of locations where a sidewalk option might be a safer choice for cycling given the fact that dedicated bike lanes and paths aren’t ubiquitous. I have an example of such a scenario on another of my blogs: http://pudstrand.fatcow.com/blog/?p=905

      • Submitted by Dan Berg on 07/11/2015 - 07:48 am.

        I mainly agree

        I guess it wasn’t that I don’t understand that in certain places riding on sidewalks is legal but just throwing out the idea that this inconsistency is part of what makes things confusing and dangerous. I know one area that I sometimes end up, western West 7th, is a terrible spot for bikes and the sidewalk is the best option there but I avoid the area whenever possible.

        The rules that determine whether somebody can ride on a sidewalk are inscrutable in that there is no physical marker to let people know were district begin /end and there is now way to know whether local authorities allow it. Another issue is that there is a huge range of speeds possible on bicycles which is hard to predict and harder still when mixed in with pedestrian traffic. The viewpoint for many drivers is fairly low and fast moving cyclist can come around slow moving pedestrians in to an intersection not allowing drivers much of a chance to react.

        Experienced cyclists naturally understand this but we can’t design rules around expecting everybody to be experienced. I just think that consistent rules will help everybody and giving up sidewalks would be a compromise that would in the end be well worth it.

        This brings up a last thought, route planing. I have enjoyed biking for 30 years and even as a a 13 year old a friend and I would ride our bikes from a norther ‘burb to Lake Calhoun, the U or wherever our curiosity took us. From that point to the days of commuting from NE Minneapolis to downtown I understood that the key to getting places safely was picking the right route. I was always amazed that there were cyclists riding Central Ave. when there are parallel streets on either side with almost no traffic and fewer lights. Cars wouldn’t use them because there were often intersections which had been blocked by sidewalks or other traffic calming measures.

        I love cycling and think cyclists need to decide if bikes are vehicles or toys and then push for rules that treat them as such. We can’t try to have our cake and eat it too by being able to flip back and forth between being treated like a car and then a pedestrian when the feeling suits us.

  5. Submitted by chuck holtman on 07/10/2015 - 04:57 pm.

    Addendum

    If you’re slowing down and allowing the car to turn first, you also should move into the middle of the lane, behind the car, and then either turn or go straight as you intend. Otherwise, particularly in more dense traffic, you will be stuck as one car after another turns in front of you. If you’re going straight, as you clear the intersection you would move back to the right.

    Alternatively, you should speed up before the turning zone so that you’re at least slightly forward of the front end of the car and clearly within the driver’s view before the driver reaches the point of beginning to turn. Ideally also from that position you can turn and establish momentary eye contact with the driver to confirm that he/she is accounting for and intending to yield to you.

    One feature of inexperienced riders (regardless of how fancy their spandex and bicycle, as I’ve observed) is that they don’t position themselves in the right place in advance of the intersection in order to best communicate their own intentions to drivers, reduce risk and provide for a safe bailout if a driver acts contrary to expectation. For example, I see bicyclists all of the time stay in the bike lane up to the intersection, even though they’re going straight, and then at the last minute try to negotiate with right-turning cars, to everyone’s risk and confusion.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/10/2015 - 05:17 pm.

    Merging and “fault”

    I don’t actually think anyone needs to be reminded that drivers aren’t supposed to crush cyclists to death with their cars and trucks. I don’t think cyclists get killed and injured because drivers “forget” they’re not supposed to run people over. Typically the refrain is something like: “I didn’t see him” or “He came out of nowhere!” not: “I forgot I’m not supposed to run people over with my car.”

    The principles of “fault” or liability actually have little to do with safety, so teaching people who’s at fault in a given scenario won’t prevent accidents. I don’t see a driver who kills a cyclist with a right turn saying: “Well, if I’da known I was gonna be at fault I wouldn’t have crushed that guy to death”.

    Fault is a legal and moral concept, it’s not about safety. Fault may be grounds for your surviving relatives to file a lawsuit after you’re dead or injured, but knowing who’s at fault or would be at fault in any given scenario won’t save lives or prevent accidents. I think if someone is teaching “fault” in a driver’s safety class of some kind, they may well be doing their students a disservice. No matter who’s fault it is, you don’t want to get crushed by a big truck.

    Now we have rules, and to the extent that people follow traffic rules we can prevent a lot of accidents, but we know that for a variety of reason people don’t always follow the rules and rules do not create perfectly safe environments. Teaching people the rules can be about safety, but that’s not really about fault, it’s about… safety. Fault doesn’t come into play until and unless there’s an accident or some other breach of the rules, and those breaches rarely occur because someone is confused about who’s gonna be at fault. No one says to themselves: “Well it’s not my fault if I hit that guy”, we all just slam on the brakes.

    • Submitted by Joseph Totten on 07/13/2015 - 07:44 am.

      True, but my reading of this article is “How to Avoid Drivers Who Are Explicitly Breaking the Law Twice”. If drivers merged into the bike lane and checked their mirrors and blind-spots when turning, that would solve the problem right away. Maybe it’s just waiting for an acknowledgement in the article, and then helpful tips to avoid it, but reading this article says to me the same as “How to Avoid Being Hit by a Drunk”.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/13/2015 - 11:46 am.

        Joseph

        ” If drivers merged into the bike lane and checked their mirrors and blind-spots when turning, that would solve the problem right away.”

        You’re absolutely right, I am suggesting strategies for avoiding drivers who break the rules, because every day thousands of times a day drivers break rules. Sure, if everyone drove the way they’re supposed to… but every day, thousands of times a day, drivers smash into everything from trees to other drivers, and that’s never going to stop because people have accidents. Safe driving isn’t about telling OTHER people what they should do, because ultimately you can’t control what other people do. That doesn’t mean we don’t have rules, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know the rules, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t follow the rules, but the fact is rules don’t eliminate accidents, nor does scolding people for failing to follow the rules.

        So no, your “solution” of having every driver everywhere always follow the rules won’t work because you NEVER have 100% compliance with any set of rules. It hasn’t worked in over a 100 years of automobile traffic, and there’s no reason to expect it will work in the foreseeable future. Automobile accidents are so ubiquitous we’ve actually invented “no-fault” insurance in order to simplify liability and keep the courts from grinding to a halt.

        Yes, one reason I haven’t had an accident of any kind on my bike or in my car in over three decades is I avoid collisions with other drivers that break the rules. Every day someone changes lanes in front of me without signaling, or runs a read light or stop sign, or fails to yield etc. I see it every day in my car and on my bike, if I didn’t drive accordingly I’d have ten accidents a year at least. I don’t care who’s at fault, having an accident just isn’t on my bucket list of things to do.

        So knowing that every day thousands or even tens of thousands of drivers breach the rules, why would you drive or ride a bicycle assuming that no one is going to breach the rules?

        • Submitted by Joseph Totten on 07/13/2015 - 04:53 pm.

          Please Read My Comment Before Responding

          I am only asking for an acknowledgement in the article that this is an illegal motion, and instructing drivers on how to correct their behavior.

          I do not assume that people will follow the rules, and in my first comment I note that we always teach people to be defensive and anticipate others’ mistakes.

          Thank you for actually reading this comment.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/13/2015 - 08:49 pm.

            I read your comments Joseph

            I’m not writing about law enforcement, and I’m not writing for car/truck drivers, I’m writing about safety, and I’m writing for cyclists. As I’ve already written, I don’t think car/truck drivers need to be told that their not supposed to crush people to death… even if it were legal to do so. From a writers perspective I decided to keep my audience clean and focused. Car/truck drivers already receive hours of instruction, I’m sharing experience from a cyclists perspective.

  7. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 07/10/2015 - 10:10 pm.

    Body Language..

    …so to speak. Its all about body language, whether its cars, walkers, other bikers your best defense against a crash is watching what’s around you notice how its acting and adjust accordingly.

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