Monday, January 11, 2016

Mixed Signals


Cycling up a long, steep stretch of the main road, I noticed a car emerge from a narrow side road ahead. The driver was just about to turn across traffic, when he spotted me and stopped, mid-maneuver. He was now positioned awkwardly, both the main and the side roads being steep and meeting at a strange angle. At the rate of my huffing and puffing, there was plenty of time for him to turn before I would reach the intersection; he would not be cutting me off. So, after checking traffic was clear, I gestured, waving him through. He promptly raised his hand in acknowledgement and made the turn, while I proceeded uphill past the now-empty intersection.

Shortly after, I heard the unmistakable swoosh of knobby tyres behind me. And sure enough - a gentleman on a mountain bike pulled up beside. We chatted for a couple of minutes about this and that, quite pleasantly. And then, just before peeling off, he said "You shouldn't do what you did back there you know, waving that fellow through when you've the right of way. It only confuses things. Be safe!"

And with that he was gone - before I could even feel amused (he had clearly been building up courage to say this to me at the last moment!) or defensive. Before I could explain that ordinarily I do not do that, but that in my judgment, in this particular situation, given the road conditions and yada yada, it made sense.

Still it's hard to argue with a point that I myself agree with. More often than not, these situations have a similar feel to them, as when someone holds open the door when you are too far away to take advantage of this gallantry gracefully - and are forced instead into an ungainly jog, arriving to accept the favour you had no need for with a forced, breathless "thank you."

As a cyclist I particularly dislike it when drivers attempt to yield to me or wave me through when it is their right of way. First, I do not quite trust them not to change their minds should I take them up on the offer. After all, who hasn't taken part in that silly dance, where a driver seems to signal for you to proceed, only to proceed themselves once you start to move. And then, once you stop, they too stop. Repeat ad nauseam!

But even should the driver wave me though very clearly, experience tells me it is not necessarily safe to proceed on their command. There can be hazards present the well-meaning yielder is not aware of - for example, a car in the adjacent lane driving on, not realising why the other driver has stopped. So whenever a driver yields to me out of turn, I have to conduct an analysis for things like that, rather than blindly accepting their offer - which makes the whole ordeal longer and more awkward than had the driver just taken their turn and, subsequently, cleared the way for me to take mine!

In short, I find it easier, safer and less stressful to stick with the rules of traffic, than to enter into ambiguous negotiations. Which of course, still does not mean there can never be exceptions. In the end, it is our judgment call, and it is context dependent. As a road user, I try to be predictable and consistent. Mixed signals are to be avoided.

25 comments:

  1. You also get the "dance" with pedestrians at a zebra crossing where according to UK law, the oncoming vehicle should stop once a pedestrian has put their foot on the crossing but people are understandably reluctant to do this unless they are sure the vehicle is going to stop.

    So I slow down to a crawling pace in the anticipation they will have crossed by the time I reach the crossing and I won't need to stop but they just stand there...

    I totally agree about the dangers of being waved on.

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    1. Heh. Cars do not stop here on zebra crossings unless the pedestrian is directly in front of them and unwilling to backtrack! Even if said pedestrian is heavily pregnant woman pushing a stroller with twins.

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    2. I lived in Hong Kong for a while prior to the hand over. As I had no intention of getting a car, I did not take the time to learn the rules of the road.

      There was a zebra crossing near my mini-bus stop.

      It was about a week before a civic minded local advised me that my absent minding standing by the zebra crossing was creating traffic problems with all the equally civic minded motorists stopping under the assumption I meant to cross.

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  2. One thing that drives me nuts not only when I ride my bike but also when I drive is when other drivers try to merge with traffic and enter the road, blocking half the traffic, but then pause, waiting for the approaching vehicles to pass by. Seriously, if you had guts to block the road anyway why would you then try to be polite and let others (with right of way) to go first? Just finish your maneuver and keep going. Don't block the road. You are causing more commotion by pretending you are "nice" and play by the rules even though it's obvious you weren't in the first place.

    What does "geill sli" mean?

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    1. In Ireland, the "Give Way" sign (a downward pointing triangle) reads Yield or Géill Slí in Irish speaking regions.

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  3. I've been in the predicaments you describe many, many times. I agree that sticking to the rules of traffic is the safer solution.

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  4. I disagree with the notion that your interaction with the car driver is in any way "mixed signals". It sounds like you and the car driver saw each other and clearly communicated your intents to each other. That's model road-user behavior. It's what most driver's education books try to teach. It's one of the things that I remember most my driver's ed days.

    I'd rather have an interaction like that one, where I know for certain that the car driver saw me, than blithely rolling through under the assumption that I have the right of way.

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  5. Yup. My solution is to affect an air of nonchalant "not-noticing" of approaching cars when I arrive at a stop sign and am (properly and generally happy to be) waiting until an opening arrives to go. My sense is that drivers will often stop to "help" me by stoping in the main thouroughfare to let me move through the intersection and get on my way, as though I need a special hand that patience wouldn't provided. "Not-noticing" passing traffic at an intersection doesn't allow a driver the opportunity to catch my eye and gesture to me, and it works pretty well. Of course, the truth is I know they are there and I am fully cognizant and aware of all the cars and the dynamics at play, but drivers don't need to know that, right? When we randomly decide on different rules, things get weird.

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    1. Ah yes. I used to do the nonchalant "not-noticing" thing in Boston.

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  6. What you describe seems to be in the middle of nowhere, where rules seem less applicable. Two people meet on the road, one a female on a bicycle, and understand each other and no issues. Simple. If this were a more populated place, where cars and bikes are more frequently interacting, things are different. From the photos you show, cars and traffic seem to never be an issue during your rides.

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    1. The road/situation described is not what's pictured in the photo (I would not stop to photograph on a main road with traffic, blind bends and no shoulders). But still it is rural and relatively light in traffic, allowing for more flexible behaviour.

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  7. Yes, I hate "the Dance" as much as you; unfortunately it's hard to get mad at people in cars, because they are just trying to be nice or considerate!. Still, they don't seem to realize how much of an inconvenience it is; if you are in a car it's a simple tap on the brake of Accelerator, but if you are on a bike and you slow (or stop)to yield the right of way, it takes a lot of energy to get back up to speed and recover from the loss of momentum.
    I often tell people the reasons why old railroad grades make great bike paths; because, like a train, a bicycle is about momentum, you can make good time @ 13MPH+/- or so as long as you don't have to stop and start to much, Rail lines are generally very direct, they have gradual changes in grade and turn gradually.
    Two weeks ago, I was riding on the street near the right side gutter, I sensed a car approaching from behind me so I jumped over to the sidewalk so that I did not impede them in any way and they could quickly glide by, instead of just going by me unencumbered, they slowed!!, as we neared the next intersection I thought maybe they slowed to turn right, so I slowed down, then they slowed down! So I slow again this time almost to a stop!!! They slow down again!! OK, now I am getting HOT! they could have gone by me easily and impeded my progress none at all; now I am basically stopped and they are stopped, So now it's obvious they are waiting for ME, so now I have to get going again from an almost dead stop!
    I have to say in the distant past (when I was younger) I used to say that I rode "offensively" my seemingly erratic (but not really) riding style meant to make sure I got seen! Worked pretty well back in those less bike friendly times! Maybe Flamboyantly is a better description!?
    Anywayz, What really irritates me about all this is those people who go off about Cyclist running stop lights and stop signs etc.! Damned if ya do Damned if ya don't!!!! It's a no win situation! - masmojo

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  8. This is becoming more and more of a problem here where I live in eastern Mass. Not just with bikes but between cars also. I usually refuse to to accept the wave thru. If we have a miss communication and crash I will be liable because they had the right of way.

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  9. Today I sat at a stop sign for a good 30 seconds, ignoring a driver's urging to cross an intersection. She was half-way through it, saw me come to the 4-way stop, and hit her brakes. Then waved me to go through.

    I just ignored her, until she decided to finish going through the intersection. By that time, nobody knew who was supposed to go next.

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  10. Here is some interesting insight into the legal ramifications of waving someone on. Because of this, and the general confusion it can cause I rarely cede the right of way. http://bikeportland.org/2014/09/17/get-legal-nice-dangerous-make-fault-collision-109655

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    1. Wow, thanks for that. I wonder whether this varies based on local laws, or is ubiquitously illegal as in Oregon. I have consulted with Bike Safe Boston about the law in Mass and look forward to his reply.

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  11. There is a related problem in the Bay Area of California. Some cars expect the bicycle to run or roll through the stop signs and when they don't, the car gets confused and will just sit there delaying everyone. So even when everyone is stopped and its the car's turn, the car wants to give the bike its turn. Making things worse, there are multiple bikes of different minds but identically situated.

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    1. Similar situations occur in Chicago as well.

      I'm no saint, but do make a point to obey traffic signals at busier intersections. Many drivers are downright confused by a person on a bicycle yielding the right of way.

      Not positive how to resolve, other than I'm pretty sure ignoring traffic signals is hardly the solution.

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  12. In the situation you describe, I think your actions were entirely reasonable, you were able to 'communicate' your intentions and the driver understood and responded accordingly - as you say, it made sense in that particular situation. As cyclists we are always 'reading' the environment and responding - albeit not always according to the 'rules'. Yes, we have all been in that situation where a motorists 'gives us right of way' but it is not safe to proceed - the poster above, Dave Cain uses a strategy which I also employ at busy intersections - avoid eye contact, then no signals will be forthcoming and everyone just operates as the law directs - on other occasions eye contact is important - different situations require different approaches.

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  13. Legal types may know better than I, but in UK roads legislation I believe there is no "right of way".

    The UK Highway Code (a mixture of actual laws and recommendations) says: "The rules in The Highway Code do not give you the right of way in any circumstance, but they advise you when you should give way to others. Always give way if it can help to avoid an incident."

    I'm assuming that not having an explicit "right of way" in the UK is trying to ensure road users don't think they will be absolved from their responsibility to avoid collisions rather than think "I have right of way so it is OK to collide with you".

    The difference between laws framed around "right of way" or "must or should give way" may seem subtle, but I wonder if they do influence behaviour?

    Or is it just too subtle and "must/should give way" just ends up being a de facto belief in "right of way" anyway.

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    1. This has exercised my brain (too much) from time to time, as well. As I understand it, while there is no "right", there are rules on priority. The thing is, you can conduct yourself in line with those rules, but you have no "right" to make someone else give way to you. Not 100% helpful in heavy traffic, but there you go.

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  14. I often do what you did, as it puts the car ahead of me which is much safer (for me). Were you the car to wait for you to pass, then it would no doubt pass you just a few seconds later in motion on the roadway which (even with bike mirrors) can be more stressfull on especially on a narrow road with oncoming traffic.

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  15. Dome of the bike paths here are comical in the mixed signals they send; if you are on the bike path & you come to a Street there will be a stop sign. If you are on the street& the same crossing it will say traffic is legally required to stop for pedestrians in the cross walk!!!????
    The dance continues!!! LOL

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