Another Safe Cycling Myth
      by Avery Burdett

      Myth rather than reality seems to be the basis of anything provincial authorities from Ontario and Quebec embrace in regard to cycling.

      In June 1994, Chantal Malard, a Montreal cyclist was killed when a motorist opened a car door into her path. The ensuing collision between bicycle and car door caused the cyclist to be thrown into the path of a truck. She died on the road. In August 1994, an almost identical fatality occurred on the streets of San Francisco. Clearly in both of these tragedies, the individuals who carelessly opened car doors were negligent. However, as in the case of most car/bike collisions, it is rare that a single factor is the sole cause.

      The report on the Montreal fatality stated that Ms. Malard was staying to the right, as the rules of the road say. The reporter, himself a cyclist, added the qualifier that cyclists should ride 1.5 metres out from parked cars as a self-protection measure.

      What the reporter could have added was that the "stay to the right" rule of the road is one of the great safe cycling myths, and has no basis in safety or otherwise. Provincial transportation authorities, sometimes with endorsement from so called "bike safety experts", help perpetuate such myths.

      Riding too close to parked cars is not the only dangerous "stay to the right" practice. Look at the dangerous options Ontario cyclists following this rule create for themselves every day. Observe them when they come across sewer grates, potholes, or debris in the right one metre of the roadway. If the road is kerbed, they swerve left, into the path of other vehicles. If the road is unkerbed, they likely go to the right, risking loss of control on a gravel shoulder or worse, ending up in the ditch.

      What do these same cyclists do when proceeding straight through an intersection where there is a "right turn only" lane? Some ride the painted line between the lanes, thereby giving up their right of way in either lane. Some ride in the "right turn only" lane, and some to the right of the "right turn only" lane. In both latter cases, they put themselves in conflict with right turning vehicles!

      What do they do in a lane too narrow for a bike and motor vehicle to safely share? Why, they stay to the right, effectively invitating motorists to squeeze by. No wonder cyclists fear being sideswiped from passing cars!

      Oh yes, then there are left turns. Stay to the right and leave it to the last minute to turn across the traffic. A young helmeted Ottawa cyclist was killed last year effecting this manoeuvre.

      Let me be clear, "stay to the right" means exactly what it says. "Stay to the right" has little to do with correct cyclist positioning, which normally is in the right half of a lane. A cyclist needs a minimum of 1.5 metres of lateral operating space. Generally, a cyclist should be positioned somewhere between .75 metres out from the right kerb (or lane edge-line or edge of the roadway) and the centre of a lane.

      In a lane too narrow to share, the cyclist limits the ability of a following vehicle to pass by riding the centre of the lane. In all situations, the cyclist needs to remain in the line of sight of motorists. Cyclists should always ride a predictable path of travel (normally a straight line). Actual positioning in any situation depends on road geometry, other traffic, and condition of the road. In many cases, including the sharing of a lane with parked cars, "stay to the left" is a more appropriate rule. Courtesy dictates that cyclists consider the needs of others and not unduly hold up traffic. But this should never be at the expense of cyclists' own safety.

      It is a fact that "stay to the right" is an archaic rule originating in the horse and buggy days of single track roads when carriages meeting in opposite directions had to stay to the right in order to pass each other. The era of two lane and multi-lane roadways made this rule redundant, but the rule has found a new purpose. Like many rules of the road, it is used to discriminate against cyclists. The Cycling Skills Guide published by the Ontario Ministry of Transport states "slower traffic stays right, slower traffic must give way to faster traffic". This says to cyclists "get out of the way of cars". The rule has been adapted for the convenience of motorists!

      A bicycle is a vehicle under the Highway Traffic Act of Ontario, and cyclists allegedly have the same rights as other vehicle operators. But this rule makes cyclists second class road users. There is every justification for dumping the "stay to the right" rule of the road. I'm not holding out much hope though, given the myth-based attitudes of the Province of Ontario's "safety" people, and having seen and heard their views on two abreast cycling, but then that's another story .......

      (This article was first published in the Ontario Bicyclist, Fall 1994 edition)

      September 1994

March 2000
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