The law may stipulate who yields to whom, but there are times when the law doesn’t work as well as it should. This is a post about one of the real rules of the road. If you are not in the habit of paying especially careful attention to cars turning left, please keep reading and find out why you should be.

I have always been abnormally comfortable with risk. 

Before cycling, my passion was white water kayaking and it was a passion that I did not pursue gently. As my skills increased I took on more risk; paddling backwards, paddling at night, paddling backwards over waterfalls, paddling rivers full of ice, etc. I was always aware of the dangers -- and fairly comfortable with them -- but I didn’t ignore them and I finally stopped when my wife was eight months pregnant with our first child. That spring, I took up cycling, assuming that it was less dangerous.

The river gave me many gifts; including rich friendships and memories that I carry to this day. It also gave me a gift that I did not expect and one that I cherish dearly; the constant contact with risk and consequence spurred me to start thinking about risk in a more scientific rather than anecdotal manner.  When the community leaders heard I was handy with a computer, they asked me to analyze some mortality data (data was being collected by some forward-thinking members of the white water community, but it wasn't really being deeply analyzed at that time). During that exercise I realized that not only was the community’s well intended conventional wisdom incorrect, but that the advice was probably putting people at risk by encouraging them, in certain situations, to trade a strategy that accounted for 15% of the deaths of skilled boaters for one resulting in 40% instead. It was a stunning realization and started my progression to becoming a data-driven decision maker.

After a year of cycling in Maine, with an average population density of about 14 people per square mile, I moved to Atlanta which at that time featured a population density of about 3,000 people per square mile. My mostly solo rides with few cars were replaced by a large fraternity of riders and the constant presence of automobiles. It was also my first experience with death in the cycling community, when a young woman I was acquainted with from my Monday night ride was killed by a teen driver. Then one of my friends was struck from behind and killed while riding in the bike lane close to his home by a woman returning from a methadone clinic. In the first incident the paper emphasized that the young driver’s inexperience was a contributing factor, and that he had not seen her when he turned into her path while executing a left hand turn [Readers from the current and former British Empire, you will need to substitute 'right turns' for 'left turns' in this narrative]

A new constellation of data points was launched in my mind; one type of star for a driver turning into a cyclist’s path, a different type of start for a cyclist struck from behind. After a couple of years I moved to Seattle, then Oregon where I continued to ride. The constellation of data points grew with time, sometimes from friends relaying news of an accident involving riders they knew and sometimes the result of accidents in my area. In 2010 I moved to The Bahamas and the constellation set while my bike remained in storage, but it rose conspicuously when I returned to the States and settled in Boulder, Colorado. I was only there for three weeks when I saw my first ghost bike.

Photo: Rachel Woolf, Daily Camera

While reading about that accident, where the cyclist was killed by a motorist turning left, I noted that another cyclist had been killed at the same intersection a few years earlier, also by a motorist turning left. 

Then the paper ran stories about a cyclist killed in Left Hand Canyon by a motorist turning left. About a year later, another cyclist was killed on Valmont Road by a driver turning left. In October, a Boulder cyclist was struck down while riding in Ft. Collins by a driver turning left. The constellation in my mind was filling with data points, but the stars kept landing in the same part of the sky. In June of this year a Boulder cyclist and friend of mine was severely injured in a hit-and-run when a driver failed to yield while making a left hand turn. Then in October, a young woman was seriously injured when a driver turning left pulled his car into the roadway, directly in her path, and then stopped.  While I was observing and taking notice of these tragic accidents I was sometimes working with a simple machine learning algorithm called kNN or k-Nearest Neighbors which made me painfully aware of the common thread upon which the events clustered, but nobody needs computational aid and classification algorithms to see a pattern emerge from the incidents that I cited above.

Many experienced and older riders are familiar with the danger of cars turning left. It is always one of the first things I try to impress upon anyone that I bring into the sport or meet during their entry. And for me it’s not just talk. There is one stretch of road, less than a mile from my house, that I only ride northbound because the southbound direction is intersected several times to the west and presents too many cars turning left for me to feel comfortable -- I circumnavigate around that situation on side streets. The last time I rode it southbound was when I was participating in a local Thursday ride and the group took that route. As we approached an intersection that has already claimed the lives of two cyclists, a car in the oncoming lane signaled a left hand turn. Much to my pleasant surprise a rider at the front of the group rose out of the drops, sat straight up and started to slowly wave his hands over his head, drawing the driver’s attention. You have a great group ride when you see something like that. 

My point here is simple. Regardless of the literal laws of the road, you as a cyclist need to own a driver’s left hand turn . . . for your own good.

Cognitively, drivers turning left are not looking around to see who they threaten, they are trying to cross the road safely and they are scanning for threats to themselves -- oncoming cars and trucks. While their eyes may see you, their brains may not. That is probably the reason for the all too common road-side comment, “I didn’t even see him.” So if you are in the drops approaching an intersection where a driver might turn left, please sit up and make yourself visible. Look at the driver, make eye contact if you can, and prepare to ride defensively if you cannot. Do not assume that you have been seen and the right of way that is legally yours will be yielded without some sort of acknowledgement from the driver.

Sadly, there isn’t anything we can do about careless drivers that hit cyclists from behind and many other situations. But exercising more caution when you encounter cars turning left is entirely within your control. And when you encounter cars turning left, your actions can make a difference.

April 2015 update

Bruce Hagen of Bike Law published an article explaining why drivers do not "see" cyclists when turning left. Read it here.

About the Author

The author lives in Boulder, Colorado where he is routinely beaten to a pulp by bigger, stronger, younger riders who think it's funny to attack skinny climbers on the flats. The only thing that sustains him is plotting the sweet revenge that ultimately comes when Mr. Gravity comes calling and the road starts rising. Then he can hold his own provided that; it ain't too steep (damn you Lick Skillet), he has a tailwind, faster guys aren't around, the sun is shining, and he isn't tempted by a beer and bacon hand-up. He employs an advanced training system that guarantees his legs are neatly torn off twice a week; once on Thursday afternoons and then again on Saturdays mornings. While fond of literature and history, his real passion is napping after the Saturday ride. If your life is in desperate need of "enrichment" you can follow him on Strava.