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Friday, February 8, 2013

Driver: "Is It Okay If I Kill That Cyclist?"

Posted By on Fri, Feb 8, 2013 at 7:45 AM


The nice thing about being one of the few people at my office who regularly shows up to work on a bike is that whenever one of my colleagues is puzzling over which bike route to take to the Mission, or needs some advice about basic bike maintenance, or wants to tell someone about an especially fun weekend ride, I am the go-to guy.

The not-so-nice thing about being one of the few people at my office who regularly shows up to work on a bike is that whenever one of my colleagues wants to complain about how cyclists always blow through stop signs, or feels like venting about bike traffic on Valencia Street, or needs someone to provide moral justification for Critical Mass at 10 a.m., I am the go-to guy.

Which is exactly what happened yesterday morning when a coworker called me over to the water cooler to ask a question on road etiquette.

"So if I'm driving down Divisadero," she said, setting the scene from her previous afternoon, "And there's a bicyclist pedaling in front of me, and she's going really slowly along the entire length of the street, and there's a line of cars forming behind me, and there's traffic speeding by to our left, and the bicyclist has planted herself in the middle of the lane, and there's a perfectly good bike lane just a few blocks over -- it still my fault if I accidentally run her over?"

I like to think of myself as a fair-minded person and, in any event, I am conflict-averse above all. So, after careful consideration, I responded to her question as dispassionately as possible, with one of my own:

"Do you mean, legally or morally?"

The answer to both questions is pretty straightforward: Yep, it's the driver's fault.

My coworker, who by the way is not a sociopath, was joking (mostly). But it bears repeating: Yes, driver, it is still your fault if you slip up and inadvertently mow down a cyclist who is making legal use of the lane. And as unfair as it sounds, claiming the cyclist is being a total jerk by making things inconvenient for you won't hold up in court.

The law is pretty clear on this point. From the California DMV:

"If there is no shoulder or bicycle lane and the traffic lane is narrow, ride closer to the center of the lane. This will prevent motorists from passing you when there is not enough room."

As for those motorists:

"Be patient when passing a bicyclist. Slow down and pass only when it is safe. Do not squeeze the bicyclist off the road. If road conditions and space permit, allow clearance of at least three feet when passing a bicyclist."

In other words, try really, really hard not to kill the person on the bike, not just because it's the nice thing to do -- it's also the law.

What about a rider who would for some reason opt to pedal the 30-block Frogger level that is Divisadero at rush hour rather than enjoy the serenity of the Steiner bike lane just four blocks east ("and this bicyclist didn't even look all mean or bike messenger-y," my coworker insisted)? I put it to our local authorities in an e-mail: "Is it legal for bicyclists to use streets without bike lanes?"

The SFPD's reply, in all its legalistic and jargon-laden abstruseness, was prompt: "Yes."

But putting aside what is and isn't formally permitted or prohibited, I'm on board with my coworker on this one. Not so much in her casual contemplation of vehicular manslaughter, but in her frustration at a cyclist who was doing something that was -- while unquestionably legal -- questionably wise. Just because something is legal doesn't mean that it smart or logical or (God forbid I should even suggest this in a discussion on politics of the road) courteous.

It is possible to acknowledge and appreciate a legal right without exercising it thoughtlessly.

Obviously, I don't know the cyclist who was slowing down my coworker. Maybe she had a perfectly good reason to be moseying down the full length of one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. But given that she had the alternative of a quieter street with a bike path within a few blocks ride and given that there was a line of cars cropping up behind her waiting to get by, I will join my coworker in pronouncing that choice to be both absolutely within a cyclist's legal rights and kind of a dick move.

Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffeeshops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.

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