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Common Mistakes Drivers Make That Put Cyclists in Danger

Each year thousands of cyclists are injured on California roads because of drivers. The vast majority of those crashes happen in urban areas where traffic is heavier, and while the San Francisco Bay Area is seeing more cyclists than ever, it can still be a dangerous place to ride on two wheels.

Common mistakes are often to blame for such devastating accidents. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 96% of cyclists killed in 2019 were killed in single-vehicle accidents and about 90% of cyclists killed were struck by the front of the vehicle. It’s hard to know just how many non-fatal accidents there are, since so many often go unreported, especially when the cyclist isn’t badly injured — although as bicycle accident lawyers, we get calls nearly every day.

Still, many collisions can easily be avoided. Education is the biggest tool in correcting these mistakes. More often than not, avoiding a crash requires staying alert, being courteous and following the rules of the road.

These are a few missteps drivers often make that could lead to crashes and injuries. Not all are intentional, but they can be easily corrected to increase safety for all road users and make the road a welcoming place.

Not Fully Merging Into Bicycle Lanes

Even if you have the best intentions as a driver, simple mistakes can have a big impact for cyclists. Among the most common happens when making a turn when a bicycle lane is present. A lot of drivers don’t fully merge into the bike lane before turning. Instead, they opt to cut in at the last minute.

The intention might be to give cyclists using the lane as much room for as much time as they can, but for cyclists, it can cause confusion and less time to react to the car ahead of them. The driver is also more likely to cut off or run right into a cyclist by turning across the lane at the last second.

Drivers should fully merge into the bike lane before turning. This increases the amount of reaction time for any present cyclists and makes it clear where the driver is going – and complies with California Vehicle Code 22100, which requires that “[b]oth the approach for a right-hand turn and a right-hand turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb.”

Drivers should also make sure the lane is clear before merging into it and use their blinker to signal their merge and turn.

Ignoring the Three Feet Rule

For a decade it’s been California law that a driver shouldn’t overtake a bicycle traveling in the same direction on a highway or roadway at a distance of less than three feet. If that wasn’t possible, the law said a vehicle should slow down to a reasonable speed. The rule, however, has been notoriously hard to enforce.

Typically, law enforcement would have to make a judgment call about whether the driver met the three feet rule – which meant that many drivers went unpunished for putting cyclists in danger. Now, after passage of the OmniBike Bill, drivers must completely switch lanes when feasible before passing a cyclist on a roadway, even if the cyclist is using a designated bike lane.

This new law is encouraging news for anybody who frequently bikes through urban or congested areas, but it doesn’t completely eradicate the possibility that a driver might side swipe or rear end a cyclist. Drivers must stay alert so that they have enough time to prepare to switch lanes, slow down or give the three feet of space.

Treating Cyclists Like they Don’t Belong on the Roads

In many ways the San Francisco Bay Area is becoming a friendlier place for cyclists. Local leaders are prioritizing infrastructure like bike lanes and more parking options to cater to the growing community, but there’s still a sense of resentment from some drivers even though cyclists have equal rights to use the road.

In February, a rash of doorings left two cyclists seriously injured in East Bay. Cycling advocacy group East Bay Bike Party say that 14 cyclists were targeted in a matter of days. In a video captured of one incident, the passenger of a silver sedan opens the door of the moving vehicle into a cyclists using the bike lane.

Not only is this dangerous behavior from drivers, it’s illegal. Cyclists have the same rights to use roadways. Everybody should feel safe to use streets, and drivers can make it a better place simply by following the laws and exercising patience for other road users.

Opening Car Doors Without Looking

Even after you park and your car is turned off you can still pose a threat to cyclists. Being doored is a common way cyclists are injured (usually causing clavicle fractures) by drivers, and it’s almost always unintentional.

Opening a car door into a bicycle lane should be done carefully. Drivers (and passengers) should always make sure the lane is clear and no cyclists are coming up from behind the car when a door is being opened.

Driving experts recommend using the “Dutch Reach” — which instructs the person in the car to reach toward the door handle with their opposite hand, forcing them to turn to survey the road for cyclists. The maneuver was established in the Netherlands in the late 70s and has since been adopted by driver’s manuals all across the world, including in the U.S.

To help the habit stick, try tying some string to your door handle or using a sticky note to remind you when you park. One expert in Massachusetts, where the Dutch Reach is taught, recommends teaching your kids about the move. Then they’ll keep reminding you to do the Dutch Reach.