As if we hadn’t had enough disturbing news about distracted driving and the upward trend in bicycle and pedestrian traffic fatalities, last month the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that fatal hit-and-run crashes have reached the highest point on record in 2016, having increased by 61 percent since 2009 (more than 7 percent every year during that span). And nearly 65 percent of the victims are bicyclists and pedestrians.
Experts attribute the increase to a combination of factors, including a stronger economy propelling more cars onto the road; a growing number of bicycle commuters; and a steady increase in the number of drivers distracted by their smartphones. And while there is general agreement that these factors logically would increase crashes, experts still puzzle over why there has been an increase in hit-and-run crashes.
Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, agrees that the increasing rate of fatal crashes could be a result of more bicyclists on the road, but says there is no acceptable explanation for hit-and-run crashes.
“That affects the crash rate,” McLeod says. “It shouldn’t affect the hit and run.”
However, some experts do see distracted driving as a possible culprit. According to some safety advocates, drivers can become so absorbed in their phones they might not even be aware they have hit a bicyclist or driven them off the road. And a driver who is distracted enough might not realize the seriousness of the crash—and might not want to risk or bother to stop and acknowledge it.
Safe Cycling: Minimize Your Risk
Bicycling advocates including the New York Bicycling Coalition have pushed the New York State Legislature to enact a 3-foot passing law, so far to no avail; current law states that a car must pass at a “safe distance.”
The best bicyclist defense strategy against distracted driving is to ride with as much awareness of their surroundings as possible, follow the rules of the road, enhance visibility with bright clothing and lights/reflectors, and try to anticipate and protect against danger before it happens.
Here are six common types of car-bike crashes, and some suggestions on how to avoid them:
- The Right Cross
This is when a car or truck turns right out of a garage, alley, parking lot, or side street and hits a cyclist, or leaves no time for the cyclist to avoid crashing into the side of the car. Drivers are supposed to be very careful while pulling into traffic, but they’re often looking for other cars and are less likely to spot bicycles. For maximum visibility, use a headlamp or flashing light. Riding on the sidewalk exposes you to considerable risk for this type of crash; use the roadway if at all possible and be aware of garages and alleyways where a car might suddenly appear.
- The Right Hook
It occurs when a vehicle slightly ahead of a bicycle traveling in the same direction suddenly turns right into the cyclist’s path, often without a turn signal or other warning. Avoid this crash by slowing down as you approach an intersection in traffic—even if you have a green light—and paying attention to the car(s) just ahead of you to watch for signs that they are about to make a right-hand turn.
- The Left Cross
This happens when a car or truck driver makes a left-hand turn but fails to see a bicyclist traveling in the opposite direction on the other side of the road. This common car-bike crash is especially likely when the bicyclist is using the sidewalk, as the driver might not see the bike coming through trees, pedestrians and parked cars. A bicyclist defense method of avoiding this crash is by riding on the roadway if possible, following traffic signals and preparing to stop or slow anyway if a vehicle fails to yield right of way.
- The Door Surprise
It occurs when the driver of a parked car suddenly opens the car door as a bicyclist approaches. “Dooring” a bicyclist is almost always the fault of the driver, who should have been checking for approaching traffic before swinging the door out. (If only more American drivers employed the “Dutch Reach”—swiveling to open the door with your right hand, positioning you for a better view—many of these crashes could be avoided.) That said, it is up to the cyclist to be vigilant of the dangers that may be lurking inside parked cars. A good bicyclist defense tip is to make a mental note of anyone who has just parked ahead of you and leave as much space between you and the lane of parked cars as safely possible.
- The Rear End
This happens when a car or truck hits a bicycle from behind. Again, this one is usually the driver’s fault, although less so if the bicycle is hard to see. A core bicyclist defense tactic is to have a red rear light and wear a reflective vest when riding at night. In general, it’s a good idea for cyclists to wear bright colors even in the daytime for maximum visibility.
- The Side Swipe
It occurs when a car passes a bicycle too closely while traveling in the same direction, either colliding with the bike or forcing it off the road. Visibility is often the issue here, especially at night, and the importance of lights and bright or reflective clothing can’t be stressed strongly enough. In some cases, especially on roads that don’t have bike lanes or wide shoulders, it is safer (perhaps counterintuitively so) for a bicyclist to ride to the left of the shoulder and actually inhabit the driving lane at least until a car approaches, so the driver is more likely to see you.
What Driver Psychology Tells Us About Crashes With Bicycles
Psychological scientists Nadine Chaurand and Patricia Delhomme of the French Institute of Science and Technology for Transport used an online survey to research how cyclists and drivers perceive traffic safety, finding key differences in their risk perception.
Responding to questions about bike-car interactions, cyclists saw their own traffic violations as being riskier than drivers did. Cyclists also reported that they believed the greatest crash risks came from bike-car interactions, while drivers saw more danger in their interactions with other cars, rather than bikes.
“The fact that car drivers perceived an interaction with a bike as less dangerous than cyclists did could imply that when in interaction with a bike, drivers are not as careful as they should be in avoiding a crash,” Chaurand and Delhomme wrote in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, “or at least less careful than cyclists are.”