Friday, February 18, 2011

Situational Awareness vs. Right Turning School Bus

It was an unusually quiet commute in on Diamond Drive this morning, perhaps because a lot of LANL employees decided to make this a four-day weekend. Maybe that was part of the problem.

Riding West on Diamond Drive and approaching Range Road on my right, I noted that a school bus was approaching the stop sign as it drove south on Range Road. That bus normally makes a right turn onto Diamond Drive and heads West towards the rest of its route.  I mentally did my "what-if drill" as the driver slowed to a stop. The driver was looking past me at that point and I didn't know if I had been noticed at any point, so I kept up my guard. The bus stopped.
Bus driver's view, approximately, looking east. I took this picture at the same time of day (~0745) a few days later. I ride in the inboard part of the bike lane, slightly to the right of the motorcycle. I noticed, while taking the picture, that a lot of the motorists pulling out of this side street were squinting or shading their eyes while checking for  westbound traffic. That might have been part of the problem.

At least burial would have been convenient
Unfortunately, my first indication that the motorist had not seen me was as I was "crossing the t" in front of the bus and noticing it had started out and was heading straight at me. Note that one of the problems with bike lanes is that they position you closer to side street stop lines than traffic in the travel lanes, giving you less time to react and potentially, making you less obvious to side street motorists looking for cars in the travel lanes. I've discussed that here. Hmm....Also, its funny how much slower one can accelerate a loaded commuter bike, including panniers (35 lbs) when compared to an unladen Six-Thirteen with race wheels on it (17 lbs).

Looking over my emergency options at that point, a Quick Stop would likely have put me under the front of the bus, and an instant left turn might have put me in front of overtaking inside lane traffic (I had no chance to even notice if there was anyone coming up on my left from behind) so being a certified BombTown conehead, I was accelerating (as much as an old man can accelerate a heavy bike), calculating the bus turning radius, yelling at the top of my lungs, and trying to stay ahead of and slightly outside the radius of the bus as it turned while not moving any farther left than I had to, to avoid being potentially clipped from behind. With the bus slightly off my rear fender and to my right, the driver finally saw me and stopped.
Crossing the T.  
Me as white ship on Diamond, 
bus as black ship on Range Rd. 
Bus has stop sign.

The driver was obviously mortified and pulled alongside, apologizing profusely. Learning experience, I guess. I smiled, waived, and said OK, its all right. No fingers, no Southern Italian blessings. Try to put a positive spin on this....whew...funny how these things can seem so analytical as they are happening.

A few take-home lessons:

One, if you are making a right on red or a right at a stop sign, PLEASE don't rush it. Look carefully for cross traffic (both vehicle and pedestrian) in both directions. Don't assume nothing is there unless you VERIFY THAT IS TRUE. I found the following bit of info one day after hearing yet one more complaint about bicyclists running stop signs: “…Another popular, but illegal, California driving habit is the legendary California Stop, the act of slowing down but not fully stopping at a stop sign. The dedicated staff of wanted to see how prevalent this behavior was in our fair city…In a sample of 300 cars, the dedicated staff only saw 50 full stops (16.67%)…” Let's face it, we are ALL getting sloppy and that creates risk. I recently saw a ped dive for safety when a motorist did a "California Right on Red" at the Diamond intersection with W. Jemez road. Ouch.

Two, if you are a bicyclist, this is yet one more example of why SITUATIONAL AWARENESS is your friend. I was mentally doing a what-if drill as I closed on the intersection, and was mentally prepared to act when the shit hit the fan. Although I often think of this part of Diamond Drive as the safest section of bike lane anywhere in Los Alamos county due to its few intersections and excellent sight lines, one cannot let one's guard down--anywhere. Where I failed was that I did not take into account the position of the sun in anticipating a potential problem with motorists pulling out of side streets. Situational awareness means not only being aware of other operators, but aware of the totality of conditions.

Perhaps in a defensive move, I should have moved farther left, so as to be more in the side street motorist's field of consciousness, i.e., be riding with the cars, which is what other motorists are looking for. As it is, I usually ride the inboard side of the bike lane to be more obvious to overtaking traffic. That the bus driver would have therefore seen me is a hypothesis, obviously. I think a cyclist is pretty visible here. The sun, however, was most likely the big problem. A strategy of moving left may mean leaving the bike lane, but one has to ask of what use the bike lane is if it puts you so far right that you are not in a side street motorist's attention. But I'm not sure lateral position was the problem. One doesn't always know what the problem really is.

Of course, my only experience with road rage in Los Alamos was the day I moved out of the bike lane on that same section of Diamond and ended up in a near-brawl with a motorist who was outraged that I was taking up his lane. But the bottom line is that you are only required, when riding slower than the speed limit, to ride "as far right as is practicable" and given this lesson, I would conclude that as far right as is practicable may not always include the bike lane.  A good move may be to scan, signal, and safely move left into the travel lane whenever you are approaching a potentially risky intersection (my most worrisome ones are descending Conoco Hill headed north, riding downhill past Quemezon on North, and riding north on Diamond past Sandia/Orange). Alternatively, slow down and prepare for a right of way violation by a motorist.

In this video, John Allen is approaching an intersection in the bike lane, as I was. In John's case he does an instant turn to the right. I was already in front of the side road vehicle when the vehicle accelerated off the line. Would me being in the travel lane have helped?

Three, if you are trying to impart a positive learning experience during such a situation, try to retain some composure, command, and control, at least while the incident is unfolding. Although I have to admit, once it was all over, I waited till no one was around and then yelled !%$#@ at the top of my lungs a couple times.Just to let off some tension.

Now, what was it I was supposed to be doing this morning?

2/19 Postscript: Last night while riding home, an Atomic City Bus pulled alongside me on my left and then merged into the bike lane, with me in it, in order to make a stop at a bus pullout. Rather than yielding until I was past the facility, he simply forced me towards the curb. I stopped and talked to him. He thought he had left me "enough room" even though the bus was straddling half the bike lane. I told him that was not a good idea. It might terrify a less experienced cyclist and left me two choices, brake to a stop or be headed directly for bus customers in an attempt to shoot the gap. Nothing malicious intended, just a typical misunderstanding.  Bombtown cyclists have some work to do.

But really. Was there something about the way the stars were aligned yesterday?


Steve A said...

Two observations:

With potential threat identified, moving over is even better advised than usual and less likely to be met with jerk behavior by following motorist. Pointin at the threat further suppresses the jerk.

Don't they dash the bike lanes near the intersection in New Mexico?

Two other lighter (read semi-humorous) points. You were supposed to be going to work, which also suggests you ought to consider ways not to lug so much stuff to work that your riding resembles an overladen freight train. Buddy weighs in around 25lb in full commute trim once the water bottle has been drained. IMO, you've been reading Carbon Trace too much!

Mike said...

As a former bicycle courier, passing through intersections became an everyday exercise in defensive cycling. I've made a habit of a quick check behind me to estimate an exit strategy into a travel lane if I see a car ahead preparing a right turn at an intersection. This has saved me so many times. Plus it allows me a quick "hey, how's it going-you almost killed me" look to the driver if they do pull out. If travel lane was not an option, just standing up a bit sometimes helped get me noticed.

johnc said...

CA's vehicle code 21208 allows bicyclist to leave a bike lane "when approaching a place where a right turn is authorized". Well worth considering for NM's code. On approaches with a bike lane and no RTOL I routinely scan or mirror-check and then move left, slightly or significantly out of the bike lane, when preparing to proceed through.

BTW, you were proceeding west during a morning commute -- was the sun perhaps behind you as the bus driver scanned left (i.e. to the east)?

John Ciccarelli

Khal said...

Hi, John.

I went out there at about ten this morning and wondered the same thing about the sun. I'll go back out in the morning (assuming it is not completely overcast) and take a look at the sun angle. That is a definite possibility.

Khal said...

I went by the intersection this morning, but sans camera. But John is right. The sun would have been right behind me.

Khal said...

Updated the picture with a time-and weather relevant one.

fred_dot_u said...

I like the way you think. Building a "what-if" situation in your mind is not particularly difficult and sometimes can be an enjoyable activity. In this case, it was far more than that. I don't recall such a concept being presented in the LAB course I took many moons ago, but I do recall such things being part of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course even more years in the past.

Creating the "what-ifs" on a regular basis may turn into an automatic or reflexive thing for riders, since one can expect only a limited number of different conflicts over your regular routes. Even a hundred different conflicts can be stored in the human brain, I believe.

I avoid at least that many pavement discontinuities from reflex on my daily rides, although the consequences are much less severe if I miss one.