Am I invisible, or did you just not look long enough?

If you ride your bike on the public streets, it is inevitable that someone will pull out in front of you.   Sooner or later, you’ll be forced to grab a handful of brake lever (or worse) as someone darts out of their driveway or turns in front of you into a parking lot.

Ever since my previous post on car/cyclist interactions, I’ve been thinking about this more and more.  To be very honest, I ride in the flow of traffic quite a bit, and I’ve never really had any major troubles.  I’ve had a few close calls, but nothing really more significant than the countless close calls I’ve had behind the wheel of a car.  I did get into a tangle with a car that pulled a right turn directly in my path, but neither myself, my bike nor the car was significantly damaged, and the driver was apologetic and basically just made a mistake.  In short – I’m not hostile to cars, nor do I feel particularly threatened while I ride on the roads (perhaps just my naivety.)

However, I had one of these near misses just the other day.  I was traveling along (in a marked bike lane, for the record) when a driver approaching from the other direction turned on her left turn signal.  She stopped, preparing to make her left turn into a parking lot, and clearly looked right at me.  I continued at my current speed (maybe 15-18 MPH)  Then … she turned right in front of me.  It was when her car was completely blocking the bike lane that she again looked out of her passenger window and saw me.  Unfortunately she did the absolute last thing I wanted her to do.  She slammed on her brakes, completely blocking the bike lane I was riding in and stared at me with a completely startled and bewildered expression.

I managed to swerve around the back of her vehicle without incident, but I considered how this may have happened for the rest of the ride home.  Coincidentally this general situation was brought up on episode #158 of The FredCast.  In that podcast, David Bernstein describes “being invisible”, attributing situations like the one I experienced to motorists not even seeing cyclists.

However, I’m not so sure that is always the case.  In my situation, I clearly saw her look right at me.  Is it possible that she looked at me without actually seeing me?  Did she just look right through me as David Bernstein suggests?  Or is there possibly something else going on here.

Obviously we all (all of us that drive cars, that is) make turns in front of other cars.  However, usually we do this in a way that ensures we’ve completed our turn before the other car comes anywhere near us.  In other words, we look at oncoming traffic, judge their speed, and make a decision to proceed if we believe that we can complete our maneuver safely without getting in the way of the other car.  Usually this is done automatically – watching the other car for a period of time long enough for us to determine the relative speed.

I propose that a good deal of these “invisible cyclist” incidents are actually more of a “poorly judged cyclist speed” situation.  And why would drivers be prone to misjudge a cyclist’s speed?  I think it may just be due to assumptions about how fast most folks ride their bikes.  I don’t think that she didn’t see me – but rather she saw that I was on a bike and immediately made the assumption “slow” without taking the time to actually watch me and accurately judge my rate of speed.  Maybe this woman’s only experiences with bikes include spinning along at 5MPH on her beach cruiser, or watching the grandkids riding circles in the driveway.  Perhaps the possibility of a cyclist traveling at 15, 20, 30 or more miles per hour is just not within her realm of expectation.

Interestingly enough, I first came up with this idea not related to cycling – but rather while driving an old 1971 VW Bus.  It seemed that folks tended to pull out in front of me a whole lot more driving that big green bus then they did any of my other cars.  I couldn’t figure out why for the longest time – I mean, it is a lot easier to see a VW Bus that most sedans and sports cars.  However, it occurred to me one day that those Volkswagens just look slow.  They’re boxy and have a reputation for not going very fast.  There are a lot of different inputs that us humans use to judge our environment – and many of them are based on past experiences and memories.  If you are used to riding slowly on a bike, or seeing others ride slowly on a bike, you are more likely to assume that all bikes go slow.

Ultimately it really doesn’t make any difference why someone pulls directly into your path (either on a bicycle or in a classic VW) as the end result is the same – you’ve got to be ready to take some quick evasive actions.  However, if there is any validity to this “y’all just think I’m slower than I am” theory, it can mean that you become more likely to run into these situations as you become a stronger and faster cyclist.

Just something to think about as you’re spinning along our highways and byways.

From Used with permission.

Addendum: Now I’m not so arrogant as to assume I’m the first person to think of this, but it was interesting that almost as soon as I’d saved this post I ran across a mention of a similar idea on in their description of the “right hook” car/bike accident:

A car passes you and then tries to make a right turn directly in front of you, or right into you. They think you’re not going very fast just because you’re on a bicycle, so it never occurs to them that they can’t pass you in time.