Thursday, June 21, 2012

Avoiding right hook collisions

I'm posting this long version here, and a short version in the LANL Reader's Forum page. An intermediate version appeared in the Sunday, 1 July Los Alamos Monitor (subscription required) and in the Los Alamos Daily Post (free).

In the last few months, there have been two crashes on Diamond Drive that occurred when a right turning motorist crossed  the new bike lanes in close proximity to a bicyclist riding in the bike lane. Without going into who did what to whom ( I wasn't there), I’d like to offer some suggestions on how to manage this facility.

Regarding sharing roads equipped with bike lanes, and turning across bike lanes. Some of the law is not exactly clear (at least to me), but the law on changing lanes is clear. When turning right across a bike lane, which is a lane designed for the exclusive use of bicyclists and part of the traveled portion of the street, you as the motorist are moving out of your lane and across the bike lane and must do so safely. The same applies to a bicyclist leaving the bike lane to make a left turn or moving out of the bike lane to merge into a regular travel lane. Here is the code, followed by some comments.
Sec. 38-257. - Driving on streets laned for traffic.
Whenever any street has been divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic, the following rules in addition to all others consistent herewith shall apply:
(1)   A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety; 
The law is in black and white and reinforces best practice. Some of the recent scary interactions leading to close calls and crashes on Diamond Drive south of Orange/Sandia are in the shades of grey area of applying the law, or are caused by inattention.  Safe, alert, defensive driving and biking can keep you out of harm’s way.

So if you are the motorist:
  1. When making a right turn on a road with bike lanes, make sure you have safely overtaken a cyclist before going into your turn. The act of turning causes you to slow down and that cyclist you passed may have caught up to you; you may turn directly into the cyclist.
  2. Signal your turn in advance and check your blind spot before turning to make sure there is not a bicyclist on your right or about to overtake you.
  3. If you see a cyclist slightly in front of, or along side you as you approach your right turn, let the cyclist proceed through the intersection and turn behind the cyclist. Speeding up to pass the cyclist and then slowing down to turn can result in a crash.
  4. Cyclists and motorcyclists are more vulnerable than you are. Train yourself to be aware of these smaller vehicles.

If you are the cyclist
  1. Watch for motor vehicles slowing down and signalling to turn as you approach intersections and driveways. If a motorist is slowing down as he approaches an intersection or driveway, he may be preparing to turn right across your path.
  2. If you are overtaking a motorist on the motorist’s right, you are in that motorist’s blind spot. That could result in a crash if you are passing on the right at an intersection or driveway and the motorist indeed turns. Don't expect people to have eyes in the backs of their heads; mistakes are indeed made.
  3. If motor vehicle traffic is slower than you are, and you are overtaking the motorists, be aware of locations where a motorist can turn across your path.  Ride defensively at an appropriate speed, keep your head up, and be observant.
  4. If you are traveling at the speed of traffic in a busy area or one where the bike lane may be screened from side streets or parking lot entrances by visual clutter, one can signal and merge out of the bike lane (safely) or slow down to a prudent speed in the bike lane.
  5. You are more vulnerable to injury than motorists and not as visible as a car. You must take this into account and ride your bicycle (or motorcycle) with extra awareness for your own safety. Stay alert, practice situational awareness, and always wear a helmet to protect your head in the unlikely event of a crash.
There is a good video here demonstrating the right turn problem.

Video acknowledgements to Mass Bike Vids. 
The safe and lawful cyclist is demonstrated by John Allen

An optimal commuter is not an optimal time trialer.
Here, handlebars are level with seat. It helps to sit up 
so you can easily keep track of traffic.
Deep drop bars can be installed 
and used when appropriate. 

 There is no easy, quick, and foolproof fix to having bike lanes next to driveways, side streets, and other midblock curb cuts. If there were, we (i.e., the County and its traffic staff) would have thought of it already.  For example, one commenter reminded us "...Some time back, I (the anonymous commenter) posted an anonymous comment to a thread saying that it seemed to me that the safest course for a car driver on turning right, was to merge into the bike lane and thereby avoid right hook configurations by filling it up and making it impossible for bikes to be there. I got confirmation responses from folks here that that was indeed the correct thing to do. Unfortunately, the legal quote above "entirely within a single lane" seems to go against this conclusion. It is impossible to be entirely within a bike lane when you are driving a car..."  Assuming for the moment the motorist properly merges without cutting off a cyclist or blocking the bike lane as well as part of the regular travel lane for half a block if traffic stalls, it indeed results in a conflict between two laws: one, that says to keep your vehicle entirely in a single lane as much as is practicable, and another that says to make right turns from as close as practicable to the right curb or road edge. The more basic law is that you don't leave a lane until it is safe to do so, which should be one's basic guidance regardless of what one is driving or riding on.
The problem seems to be that bike lanes were created with the simple concept that bikes will be to the right of cars and this will reduce conflicts. Unfortunately, and especially in urban areas, that is not always the case. What I've done here, after considerable discussion with LAPD and Dept. of Public Works, is provide some safety guidelines but not tell people how to make turns. That will be determined by what is going on around you at time zero.

To quote Keri Caffrey (as posted on Carbon Trace) "Bike lanes, which are promoted as being safe, generate a lot of manufactured conflict in urban areas—because channelizing traffic by vehicle type, rather than speed and destination, violates the principles of movement and breaks an otherwise functional system" But many cyclists (not to mention motorists) want them, so we all have to work with the compromises to travel they require.

Both motorist and cyclist are responsible for being observant, aware of each other’s presence, understanding and working within the system as it exists, and negotiating safe passage to their destinations in an area which is busy, such as Diamond Drive south of Orange/Sandia.

Some other information tuned to Los Alamos is here.

Thanks, and keep it safe and away from the ragged edge out there.

Khal Spencer

Chair, LANL Traffic Safety Committee
Co-Author, 2005 Los Alamos County Bicycling Transportation System (i.e., “bike plan”) as adopted by County Council


Steve A said...

I heart #4 and 5.

Anonymous said...

Re: "entirely within a single lane"

Some time back, I posted an anonymous comment to a thread saying that it seemed to me that the safest course for a car driver on turning right, was to merge into the bike lane and thereby avoid right hook configurations by filling it up and making it impossible for bikes to be there.

I got confirmation responses from folks here that that was indeed the correct thing to do.

Unfortunately, the legal quote above "entirely within a single lane" seems to go against this conclusion. It is impossible to be entirely within a bike lane when you are driving a car...

Khal said...

That problem was pointed out during a meeting with the police. Cars would have to lane-straddle.

MikeOnBike said...

The entire phrase is "as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane". That gives you some leeway if the lane is narrow.

The specific rules for turning aren't listed here, but a right turn is generally made from the right-most lane, or as close as practicable to the curb or edge. If there's a bike lane, that would mean fitting as much of your car as practicable into the bike lane before turning.

mnature said...

The most sensible way for a car to turn through a bike lane would be to merge with that lane, after making sure they are not running over a bicyclist. Since it has been legally mandated that a car should not drive part-way in the bike lane, perhaps the bike lanes are being made incorrectly.

When cars are not supposed to change lanes, such as just before
a traffic light, the lines on the road are solid. In places where it is appropriate to safely change lanes, the lines are dotted.

I would suggest that the bike lanes be made the same way, except reversed. Most of the time the lines will be solid, indicating that cars should not cross over except in an emergency. A certain distance before an intersection, or public driveway (like at a school), the bike lane lines could
be dotted, indicating the areas where bicyclists and cars could
interact. This would cue drivers of the area where they should, with careful consideration, merge with the bike lane in order to make their turn. This would also cue the bicyclists that cars could be doing this, and to be more observant and perhaps drop their speed.

Khal said...

The lanes meet recognized traffic standards. The problem is the laws were written long ago and bike lanes added after the fact. While it might be possible for motorists to merge into the bike lanes, that doesn't solve the entire problem. A cyclist has to be properly overtaken in either scenerio (turning from the curb or from the bike lane line. Clearly, if the car moves to the curb the cyclist can either slow down or overtake on the left. But the cyclist can do that anyway, as demonstrated by John Allen in the short video.

If we dash the bike lane south of Orange/Sandia due to the large number of curb cuts, I see the possibility for the law of unintended consequences to create other problems, and said so to Chief Torpy.

Based on discussions last week, the County Engineer is studying whether to change any of the striping, but that has to be done comprehensively through town. Might take a while if it is done.

Paint stripes don't replace thinking. If anything, they might encourage non-thinking. Bike lanes lull cyclists into complacency in traffic, while making traffic patterns more complicated. That is not a good thing.

mnature said...

In that case, Khal, perhaps putting in bike lanes was actually a bad idea. If there have been more mishaps and close calls since putting the the lanes, it begs the question of bike lanes being safer than just riding in the street. If bikes have to truly "share the road" perhaps that keeps bike riders more aware of their surroundings, and might make drivers more aware of the bicyclists.

I keep thinking about draining swamps, and something about being up to your neck in alligators. Primum Non Nocere.

Khal said...

A competent rider can ride either in the lanes as they now exist or in the street as it existed. For those cyclists who think bike lanes immunize them from having to deal with traffic, they are in for a rude surprise. For those willing to ride alertly with their situational awareness hats on, they are a convenience.

Its obviously a trade-off. Many riders will not venture forth without the encouragement of bicycling-specific facilities, and if these had ended at Orange/Sandia, the road would be looked at as incomplete. The lanes south of Sandia provide continuity of the bike lanes to the DOE boundary (i.e., the bridge) but require an alert and aware rider (and drivers) to negotiate safely.

Finally, this is a new situation for Los Alamos. Like anything else different, it requires a learning curve. For example, roundabouts.