Why Can’t They Signal

Would it hurt to signal

Mischief was afoot on the roads this morning. It seemed that every second driver had forgotten the simple requirements for making a safe turn. I don't have to tell any of you it's dangerous out there, but it bears repeating. A few weeks ago, my pal and Rapha videographer Dave Christenson, was knocked down for the second time in 2009. This time it was a right hook, earlier in the summer it was a left cross. He rolled up to a light in the bicycle lane, a right-turn only lane and an island to his right, and through lane(s) to his left. He almost came to a stop as the light changed to green, riding alongside the van immediately to his left one moment and then he was on the pavement seeing stars, the next.

The driver of the van had just turned right from a through-traffic-only lane and Dave had no chance to react. Concussion, bloody chin, cheek, knee and damaged bike are bad enough but he's lucky he wasn't dragged under the vehicle.

If you ride long enough, you'll eventually witness every kind of driving distraction imaginable, and perhaps a few x-rated variations that shouldn't be physically possible in a Toyota Prius. While these ill-conceived attempts at multi-tasking happen every day, they're dwarfed by the overwhelming number of drivers who've forgotten the basic requirements for turning safely.

I say forgotten because I assume that they would have failed their road test if they drove this way during the examination. Turning safely and responsibly is simple... check your mirrors, indicate, brake in a straight line, check mirrors, turn.

Here in California the percentage of drivers who actually indicate is no better than 50%. That includes the small fraction of dyslexics who indicate right, and turn left and the selectively deaf who drive for miles signaling they're going to turn at some point... presumably when the music stops. The fact that half of the state's drivers don't signal supports the idea that one or both of their hands is engaged in a non-driving activity (tuning the radio, holding a cell phone, coffee or sandwich). When you first learn to drive, indicating becomes so ingrained, so automatic, not indicating requires a conscious effort or a distraction.

If not indicating is dangerous, the picture doesn't necessarily get better when they do. Many times drivers brake before, rather than after they signal, giving riders and other motorists no insight into why they are braking. The turn indicator comes on almost as an afterthought when the car is adjacent to the cross street they intended to turn on. Its often a nasty surprise for those of us in the bike lane.

19 Responses to Why Can’t They Signal

  1. mark says:

    my beef with drivers isn’t the not indicating but with them not stopping after they have hit me. Hit 3 times but only one stopped and I assume he only did that because I ended up in his way and it was peakhour so there were lots of witnesses.

    • Mark,

      I’m thankful that’s not happened to me, but we had a female cyclist knocked down right outside our office a couple of weeks ago. Driver drove straight off with her lying in the middle of the road. She was badly shaken but OK. No one got the license plate.


  2. philippe says:

    CA needs to get this message out in a mainstream way. I just moved to CA and, as a biker, it’s been horrid.

  3. huphtur says:

    The reason is poor education. Yes, basic rules were mentioned in that little DMV booklet, but people were never really instructed and tested on them. Obtaining a drivers license in USA is an absolute complete joke. For my CA road test, I drove around the block twice and that was it. There needs to be better education and stricter testing.

  4. PdxRunner says:

    Here in Portland, Oregon the percentage of drivers using their turn signals hovers at 10%. This is no exaggeration. I’ve driven all over the country and Portland drivers are courteous,slow and clueless. They’ll turn to and from anywhere and look about 15 feet in front of the car, if at all. I commute 16mi by bike each way and have devised a route that takes almost no major oads even those with bike lanes for fear of my life. Bike boxes that put me right in front of cars, Yea Right!

    • One of the things I notice most when commuting are drivers approaching from sidestreets fixated on where they’re going to go and not paying special attention to their left, where through traffic is coming from. When they do look left, its usually very late, and they’re often still moving. It’s very easy to completely miss a cyclist in that quick glance, and we can be hidden behind the driver side roof pillar. As huphtur noted driver education seems to be sorely lacking.

  5. Chris says:

    One of our club members was hit and killed last Saturday…I don’t know any of the details yet but I can’t imagine it’s good.

  6. kurt says:

    Maimi’s signaling percentage borders on non-existent. When I queried co-workers they admitted to delibrately avoiding use of their signals. If you use a signal to change lanes, the car in the lane you are merging into will speed up so that you cannot get into the lane. This happens with such frequency that using the signal does not even occur to anyone as necessary…. ever.

    I hope Dave is OK and returns to the road soon. His work is inspirational to riders and to our pleasure has inspired you to expand your skillset. I have been taken down three times by vehicles, each time was a right hook…. but never from a through lane… that really takes negligence.

    I am saddened to hear about your fellow club member.

    Ride on

  7. tyler says:

    my girlfriend does the no-turn signal all the time, it bugs me to no end.

  8. I don’t like reading about close calls like this. Makes me shudder. Glad he’s ok.

  9. Stephen says:

    The same right hook happened to me, but I can’t help blaming myself since there was no designated bike lane at this point, just signage as a bike route. Traffic was stacked up at the red light and I continued to the right of traffic rather than as a car. I slowed looking specifically for turn signals, but got smeared anyway.

    The driver did stop, insisted that he signaled, and also admitted that he cannot see out of his right eye.

    I much prefer to line up behind the cars and cross the intersection that way now.

  10. kurt says:

    Agreed, take the lane I say!

    My first right hook was not at a stop light, an old lady took a right turn into her temple driveway just after getting her front door passed me. How did Velo put it? “passed me and immediately forgot I was there”. Her rear tire ran over my front tire and forks. I watched as her tire passed inches away from my face as my head bounced on the tarmac. No helmet of course. Too young, vain and stupid.
    The second right hook happened from a stop light where I was stopped at the light in front and to the right of the car. We were in a mixed through, right turn lane with clear markings. No signal from the vehicle. When the light turned green I went straight. The vehicle turned right and hit me with the front passenger side of the bumper at an angle wedging my knee into my top tube so I could no longer pedal. Somehow the bike was still upright and he was forcing my bike forward. Still the guy continued to drive “through me”. Shocked in disbeleif, I could feel the bike start to loose balance while still unable to pedal and so began banging feverishly on the hood of this guy’s car. He finally stopped and I continued to roll and road off yelling at him. Luckily only a little scrape on the left side of the knee and no damage to the bike. Phew.
    The third event was about a year ago when returning to the road after about 25 years absence. I did not take the lane as I used to do years prior and was forced into the curb sideways by a young girl in a Mercedes. She did not stop.

    Sometimes old dogs need to relearn old tricks.

    Take the Lane!

    Ride on

  11. Douglas Salteri says:

    Don’t forget that it’s a double edged sword guys. I hear what yu’re saying but have seen all the stunts that cyclists pull as well. I’m in the UK so the roads are the opposite to America.
    Cyclist trundling along in nearside lane on a normal road, trafic in two lanes one going North the other South, all the traffic negotiates past the cyclist, then we come to lights. The cylcist turns into a pedestrian here and cycles across the intersection, then the lights change and the cars start the conga line again trying to pass the cyclist.
    Is this fair? is this what cyclists want? Would you do this? would you expect car drivers to be annoyed at this kind of attitude and behaviour?

    • Dougie,

      You’re right it cuts both ways, and there are clearly some behaviors that drive motorists mad (rolling through lights, stop signs, riding the wrong way against traffic). I’ll hazard the every one of the cyclists chiming in here also drive, and have experienced/watched cyclists do annoying things when they were driving. The problem is that there are enough arses on both sides to spoil it for everyone else. On your Scottish roads where the shoulder is often non existent a cyclist that leapfrogs traffic in the way you describe isn’t thinking clearly if he’s truly impeding traffic. In urban situations where the cyclist may be just as efficient as the cars when it comes to moving speed and timing lights, drivers just have to be more patient and accept that until the road and signals open up to allow it, the cyclist has every right to make good time. If I get into a situation like that on the roads here, I take the lane and make it clear by riding hard at the speed of the cars around me that there’s no need to pass me (and no way to pass me legally). As soon as the road opens up and the cars can drive at more than 25mph, I’m back on the shoulder or as far over as I can get practicably and safely. (“practicably” not “practically” is the actual word that’s used in many North American statutes about how cyclists should position themselves relative to the road and automobiles).

      Bottom line cars and drivers have to follow the same rules of the road, and when they don’t and police see the infraction they should be cited/ticketed.

  12. Karl Etzel says:

    You’d think with state coffers running on empty or worse cops would seize the multitude of opportunities for writing tickets for these infractions. They’re looking for every way they can to take our money, might as well get some public safety benefit out of it.

    I think it says a lot about our society that so many people act out their narcissism behind the wheel, when it can kill someone.

  13. randomactsofcycling says:

    There’s front page newspaper debate here in Sydney about the topic of ‘rules for cyclists’. The roads here are so crappy and narrow and the existence of cycle lanes so rare that commuting here is nearly non-existent.
    A cyclist riding illegally in a bus only tollway recently entered a bus and assaulted the driver, believing the bus had passed him unsafely. The cyclist clearly didn’t know the road rules. Of course this unleashed an avalanche of anti-cyclist publicity. What has become abundantly clear is that Drivers do not know the law when it comes to cyclists and cyclist do not obey the law but expect drivers to do so.
    I am a commuter and a racer and I am annoyed by what I see daily out on the roads from all segments of the road using public and as boring and frustrating as it is, I have literally gone back and read the road rules and now ride to the letter of the law. It might make me the only one that does but at least I can take action with a clean conscience if required.
    I don’t want to come off as ‘holier-than-thou’ but in situations where there is degradation of societies expectations, at some point there has to be a group that takes the high moral ground. If we as cyclists continue to want to occupy that place (which we clearly do given by the number of comments on this article), let’s make sure we’re not living in glass houses.
    Thanks for the writing, it’s certainly thought provoking.

    Mat, Sydney Australia

  14. Charlie Cronk says:

    I was just buzzed today, nobody’s fault, just a narrow road, no shoulder and a large truck with trailer that had to squeeze back into the same lane I was on the very edge of. It is FRIGHTENING when you see speeding metal pass by the bars with mere inches (that’s my personal space) to spare. It comes down to the fact that too many people are in way too big of a hurry to make sound judgement calls while driving. Is the 20 seconds lost waiting for the opportune moment to pass a bike or let a bike clear a turn worth risking some serious injury to another human being?
    I recently did a week of touring in Wisconsin and was shocked by how courteous the drivers were with every last one of them waiting until it was safe to pass, then gave us a full lane berth. First day back in Cali I was buzzed and screamed at by not one, but two drivers. Welcome home!

  15. Sean says:

    Think about what’s at stake for the parties involved.

    For the driver: maybe some scratched paint, a dented body panel or bumper, perhaps cracked glass.

    For the rider: life and limb.