From the Cambridge Institute of Urban Cycling Lecture: 1. How to overtake a cyclist

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 106.

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Many people don’t cycle. Not yet.They believe cycling is dangerous. But those who do cycle know that it is a very safe activity if you are alert, observe the rules, and actively engage with traffic. Obviously, people on bikes are very vulnerable road users. When two cars ‘touch’ on the road, often no great harm is done. But if a car ‘touches’ a cyclist, especially at higher speeds, serious injuries will ensue. To avoid such collisions, both cyclists and drivers need to have their full attention on the road at all times.

Cycle trainers recommend ‘driving’ your bike towards the middle of the lane. The gutter can present sudden hazards. Moving towards the middle the cyclist is able to avoid pedestrians who may step into the road without warning, and doors of parked cars which may open suddenly. Driving towards the middle of the lane makes the cyclist more visible, helps to engage with traffic and to stay alert. Sometimes you will see cyclists who try to stay between the double yellow lines (‘No Parking’). This is not recommended. ‘Hugging the kerb’ actually endangers the cyclist and invites dangerous overtaking (‘squeezing past’) by cars. Cyclists are often afraid of cars and some primitive instinct tells us that ‘hugging the kerb’ may keep us safe. The challenge for the person on the bike is to become part of the traffic, and take their place in traffic, in the lane, in an assertive and confident manner.

The first rule about overtaking cyclists is: Don’t do it. Don’t do it because the cyclist will catch up with you within the next block and at the next traffic light. If you drive a car, never squeeze at speed past the person in front of you. Always allow at least three feet of distance, more at higher speeds. O-v-e-r-t-a-k-e d-e-l-i-b-e-r-a-t-e-l-y. Indicate, move into the opposite lane as you would when overtaking a car.

Make sure you only overtake when it is actually beneficial. In urban areas bicycles often reach higher average speeds than cars: overtaking may only be the beginning of a pointless game of cat and mouse. Many people using bikes complain that cars overtake them dangerously close, only to come to a stop at the next intersection. How would it feel to take your place behind a bicycle? Not so bad? We all want to get home safely, and nobody likes a close and pointless overtake. It is also important to remind riders that they must always engage with traffic, through hand signals and eye contact, but also by making sure they are visible at all times.

Taxi overtaking dangerously.
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As the driver of a car, you are this cyclist’s keeper. You have seen the person on the bike, you know how to treat this person safely and with respect. Remember, the car behind you may not yet have seen the bike. Ask yourself: will the driver behind you see this person on the bike? Would he squeeze past instead of overtaking deliberately?

Some drivers like to honk their horn when they encounter a cyclist. Don’t. Ever. The sudden sound may lead the cyclist to lose control. If you do not understand the behaviour of the cyclist, just assume that she or he is acting out of concern for her/his safety. Attentive drivers and alert riders can share the road very effectively.

Understanding the needs of vulnerable road users on two wheels also means that you always look out for bikes when opening a car door. ‘Dooring’ can have devastating consequences, especially when a cyclist passes a stationary vehicle too closely.

Michael Cahn