The issue of courtesy often comes up when bicyclists discuss traffic, especially when motorists are part of the conversation. Most bicyclists want to be respectful of others and to set a good example. However, different assumptions, experiences and knowledge about traffic bicycling can result in different opinions of what this means.
Courteous means “marked by respect for and consideration of others.” Courtesy is voluntary social behavior that exceeds our obligations under the law (such as stopping for red lights). Police cannot write traffic tickets for being rude; they are limited to the statutes that prohibit unsafe movements. When it comes to courtesy, we self-police according to our own judgment.
The Golden Rule
As socially conscious travelers we try to apply the rule “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” We appreciate favors from strangers and try to do the same for them. But how big a favor should be expected? One example is holding a heavy door open for a stranger entering a building behind us. How long should we wait? If the stranger is right behind us, we feel rude for letting the door swing shut. If the stranger is too far away, waiting a long time makes both parties feel awkward. Our minds calculate a threshold by comparing estimates of our cost of holding the door and the other person’s cost of re-opening it. We usually extend favors when the cost to ourselves is less than the cost we save for others. When everyone does this for everyone else, everyone wins.
First Come, First Served
We often hold the door open to let another person in first or let a person with one item go first at the checkout counter when we have a full cart. But what if there is a long line of people behind us at the door or checkout counter? If we give up our place in line, others will benefit, but our individual cost may become too burdensome. Such a large sacrifice is not expected of us; people understand that sometimes the first come, first served rule is the only fair and practical way to limit every individual’s burden to a reasonable level.
In the Traffic Cycling class we discuss when a bicyclist should move to the right edge of the road to assist faster drivers in passing versus when they should maintain control of their lane by riding in the lane center. For safety, cycling instructors encourage cyclists to control the lane when the usable lane width is narrow because this reduces the risk of sideswipes caused by unsafe close passing. Bicyclists in NC have the same legal right to use a full lane as other drivers. However, we also encourage cyclists to voluntarily move right at safe location when the pavement is wide and it will help drivers pass by letting them do so without changing lanes. Moving to the right can also communicate to drivers that you expect them to pass once sight distances and lack of oncoming traffic make a next-lane pass acceptably safe. In traffic cycling classes, we refer to moving between lane-control positioning and deferential positioning as “control and release.”
Oftentimes one encounters marginal cases where the lane widens for a limited distance before narrowing again, and sometimes traffic backs up on narrow two lane roads. In these cases, a bicyclist may elect to pull over where safe and wait until traffic disperses before continuing. This is where comparison of relative convenience is useful. For instance, if only one car is following the bicyclist on a narrow road, and a safe opportunity to pass via the next lane will appear in several seconds, there is no net advantage to the bicyclist pulling off the roadway and stopping to facilitate the pass. But if multiple motorists are waiting at substantially reduced speed with no foreseeable opportunities to pass safely in the next lane, the bicyclist who pulls over at a safe location for a brief time provides a substantial benefit to the other road users at a low personal cost.
So how often should a bicyclist do this? Pulling over too frequently creates an unreasonably high cost for the bicyclist in return for maximizing motorists’ convenience. Every bicyclist must decide for themselves on a case-by-case basis how much burden to shoulder for an inadequate road design, and how much to rely on the first come, first served rule to get to their destination in a reasonable time. In the case of a group of cyclists, the logistics of moving everyone off of the roadway in a safe and coordinated manner can be particularly challenging. Usually a passing opportunity opens up and following traffic disperses long before a group can find a good place to pull over. One way that a group can make passing easier on a narrow two-lane road is to shorten the length of the group. This can be accomplished by riding double file within a single lane, thus reducing the length of the group by half, and by riding in separated platoons of a dozen or fewer cyclists instead of in very large groups.
Some roads in North Carolina feature paved shoulders, which are legally optional for bicyclists to use. The width, surface condition, and continuity of such shoulders varies greatly, so bicyclists who consider using them to assist others with passing must continually evaluate the risks. Helping another road user pass a few seconds earlier is not worth a flat tire or crash.
On roads with more than one thru lane in the bicyclist’s direction of travel, drivers can move into the left lane to pass with relative ease. On such roads, traffic almost never builds up behind bicyclists for more than a few seconds, so bicyclists need not concern themselves will pulling off the roadway to assist passing. In urban areas with significant traffic, multi-lane roads are often the most advantageous routes for bicycling, offering everyone more convenience than narrow roads.
Passing on the Right
Where traffic queues up at traffic lights and stop signs, bicyclists can occasionally be seen squeezing past the queue on the right and moving up to the intersection. State law prohibits passing on the right when not in a separate marked travel lane. This law is designed to prevent right-hook collisions between right-turning and overtaking traffic; right turns are to be made from the right lane and overtaking should only occur left of right turning traffic. But beyond legal prohibition, filtering forward usually creates a greater burden for the queue of motorists than it saves for the bicyclist. If the travel lane is narrow, it may be unsafe for motorists to pass the bicyclist again without moving into the next lane. Each motorist may wait behind the bicyclist, pass when safe, and stop at the next light, only to have the bicyclist squeeze past them again and repeat the whole process. The safer and more courteous approach is for bicyclists to get in line with queued traffic and pass through the intersection on a first-come, first-served basis.
Stopping in Groups
Groups of cyclists traveling together must sometimes stop for a short time to rest, re-group, or make route decisions. When a group stops in the roadway, however, other road users must figure out how to get around them in order to proceed. This is especially problematic if the group has stopped to chat at an intersection, where moving into the next lane to pass would be hazardous. If a cycling group stops and waits for a reason other than waiting for traffic ahead to clear, it is a simple courtesy to move the bicycles off of the roadway temporarily, and return to the roadway when the group is ready to continue.
Courtesy to Pedestrians
Some locations, such as greenway paths, are shared with pedestrians. Pedestrians value these spaces as safe and relaxing places to walk with their children and pets, and will sometimes make unpredictable movements. This requires bicyclists to slow down and give pedestrians lots of space when passing, just as bicyclists need motorists to do for them on roadways. When a path is congested or pedestrians are otherwise spread across the width of the path, the bicyclist must often slow down to pedestrian speed and alert the pedestrians to the bicyclist’s desire to pass. Although a bell can be an effective way to alert pedestrians who are not facing the bicyclist, a friendly voice may be better appreciated.
Disagreements about Courtesy
Debate often arises about courteous cycling when different people have different perceptions of the costs of the available options. A motorist may not see and appreciate the broken glass, gravel, broken pavement, rumble strip, door zone or other hazards present at the edge of a road. Some people are unfamiliar with the effective safety benefits of riding near the center of a narrow lane to deter unsafe same-lane passing. A bicyclist may not appreciate the challenges a driver pulling a trailer may face when preparing to pass safely on a two-lane road. Some debates will never be put to rest, and sometimes all the options seem equally bad. But by making an attempt to understand the genuine difficulties faced by travelers other than ourselves, we can all promote civility.
A markedly different kind of debate results when one participant believes that another has an inferior right to a shared resource because they belong to a lower caste or class of users. This type of prejudice often fuels motorists’ complaints about bicyclists using roadways, and sometimes anti-car advocates for increased bicycling can be similarly afflicted. While there are solid legal arguments supporting equal rights to traveled ways, the most persuasive approach to resolving prejudice usually involves an appeal to humanity and development of mutual understanding.
It’s important for bicyclists to view themselves as equally entitled users of our public roads, which means being equally entitled to safe travel. A bicyclist should never compromise their safety to increase convenience for another road user; that is too high a sacrifice to make. The prudent approach is to trade time and effort in an equitable manner to help everyone get to their destinations safely and in reasonable time.
Dealing with Harassment
Occasionally a motorist who feels slighted by a bicyclist’s movement or simply their presence on the road will harass the bicyclist by yelling or horn honking. This can be very upsetting, and it may be difficult for the bicyclist to keep calm. Understand that the greatest danger in such situations usually occurs when the bicyclist escalates the situation by retaliating with their own yelling, obscene gestures, or other expressions that can be interpreted as hostile. Such exchanges can result in assaults. But if the bicyclist simply ignores the harassment, the motorist will usually continue on their way without incident. Suppressing the urge to argue can be difficult, but it is unlikely that a motorist’s mind has ever been changed by a yelling match. If a motorist behaves in a threatening manner, however, stop and report the incident to police as soon as possible. Take note of the license plate, driver description, and location, and be prepared with any witnesses or video that may be available. Note that video can be a very compelling and unbiased witness, and will also show any unlawful or escalating behavior on behalf of the bicyclist. Whenever interacting with other members of the public on our roadways, the most successful long term approach is ultimately to take the high road.
James Krug says
In the section titled “Assisting Overtaking”, the 3rd sentence you stated “Bicyclists in NC have the same legal right to use a full lane as other drivers.” Unfortunately for us bicyclists, this is an incorrect statement. According to the ncdot.gov website, which contradicts itself, states the following:
20-146. Drive On Right Side of Highway; Exceptions
(a) Upon all highways of sufficient width a vehicle shall be driven upon the right half of the
highway except as follows:
(1) When overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction
under the rules governing such movement;
(2) When an obstruction exists making it necessary to drive to the left of the center
of the highway; provided, any person so doing shall yield the right-of-way to all
vehicles traveling in the proper direction upon the unobstructed portion of the
highway within such distance as to constitute an immediate hazard;
(3) Upon a highway divided into three marked lanes for traffic under the
rules applicable thereon; or
(4) Upon a highway designated and signposted for one-way traffic.
(b) Upon all highways any vehicle proceeding at less than the legal maximum speed limit
shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for thru traffic, or as close as practicable
to the right-hand curb or edge of the highway, except when overtaking and passing another
vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn.
It first states that you must ride on the right half of the lane, which would be from the center of the lane to the white line. It then states that you must ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the highway. I personally ride right of center, where I am most visible to drivers and have room to move to the right when they decide to pass too closely. I cannot find anything in NC law that gives us legal use of a full lane.
We disagree. The “right half of the highway” is everything right of the center line, or where an imaginary center line would be on an unmarked roadway. The law applicable to low speed positioning in NC is § 20-146.(b): “Upon all highways any vehicle proceeding at less than the legal maximum speed limit shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for thru traffic, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the highway, except when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn.”
Note the _or_ in the law. If there are no marked lanes, and a bicyclist is traveling slowly, the bicyclist shall operate as far right as practicable, meaning safe and practical. If there are marked lanes, a slow bicyclist shall use the right hand lane; faster drivers may pass in another lane. No driver is legally compelled to allow another driver to squeeze by them in their lane. If the lane is wide, i.e. over 14 feet wide, a bicyclist can ride to the right as a courtesy, and other drivers can legally pass you within the bicyclist’s lane. But a 14′ lane is barely wide enough for an SUV to pass a bicyclist at safe distance, it isn’t wide enough for a truck or bus to pass n the same lane safely. Most lanes in NC are at most 12′ wide, most downtown lanes are narrower than 12′. A car driver cannot pass a bicyclist safely within a 12′ lane; they must move at least partially into the next lane. It is safer for them to make a full lane change by looking for and yielding to traffic in the next lane before moving over. This is why we instructors teach cyclists to ride in the center of narrow lanes. This is incredibly important in urban traffic, especially in downtown areas, where most utility bicycling occurs, and on some narrow rural roads.
For more information see Bike Law North Carolina / Ann Groninger’s bike law book available for download at http://www.bikelaw.com/state/north-carolina/
I’m slightly surprised you didn’t include a discussion of what courtesy involves at 4-way stops! The discussion of “first-come first-served” seemed to me like a natural place to point out that sometimes courtesy demands that a cyclist *not* stop at a four-way stop, if she has right of way, and another car is about to reach the intersection from the side – when a cyclist stops, it causes a long delay while she gets back up to speed, and so it’s sometimes better to proceed through carefully without a full stop.
Though obviously, only when the cyclist has right-of-way and it’s absolutely clear that the cyclist will not interfere with any legal motion of the car.
Bicyclists are legally required to stop at stop signs like any other driver. If other drivers think you aren’t prepared to stop and yield to them, you’re doing it wrong. However, you don’t have to stop for long, nor do you legally have to put your foot down. (And if you find yourself creeping very slowly to keep your balance, we forgive you.) If you find starting from a full stop to be difficult and slow, some practice at using the “power pedal” technique shown in the video at this link may help. http://bikeleague.org/content/starting-and-stopping