Monday, July 23, 2012

[LOABkw] Signalling. Also, black pickup trucks?

Nothing is ever simple. For instance, signalling on a bike.

A cautionary tale

Last year, I was biking up Bridge St. in the bike lanes that weren't officially bike lanes yet, approaching my right turn onto Labrador. I sensed someone coming up behind me, and I made a proper right-turn signal (left arm out, forearm bent up) before starting my turn.

The driver in the black pickup truck (why is it always black pickup trucks?) must have seen my signal, because the alternative doesn't bear thinking about. As I banked into the turn, trying to hold speed, the truck turned with me, also with speed. I was probably doing 20kph on the inner turn, and the truck matched me positionally right through the turn, but at much higher speed on a wider turn. Probably around 40kph. His tires were squeaking as he roared off. One wobble and I would have been under them.

The lesson is that the information you convey by signalling may be used against you. Particularly with right turns, I have seen many situations where maintaining the appearance that you are going straight is the best way to guarantee you'll get to turn without conflict.

Friday's theme

On Friday morning's commute, I biked up Regina towards the Bridgeport intersection. I was passed by (you guessed it) a black pickup truck, who turned his right turn signal on. This gave me pause, and it took a moment for me to realize what felt wrong... Bridgeport is one-way and he was signalling against it. I took my standard defensive position behind the right-turning vehicle though... after all, his destination may be a driveway beyond the intersection. Not to mention that it's usually just a good idea to avoid filtering up the right.

This is one time the air horn was useful. As the light turned green, he began his turn onto Bridgeport, and I started blasting the horn and gesticulating a very non-standard "don't go that way!" signal. Not sure if he reacted to me or not, but he straightened out and roared off. I could almost taste his embarrassment, but all's well that ends well.

No such thing as an overabundance of caution

There was an incident later that same ride that served to remind me that I can still learn to cycle safer. It worked out okay, and whether I was within my rights or not is ambiguous, but I put myself at risk. A new lesson learned.

I crossed the expressway at Lexington, and prepared to shift left to turn at Davenport. I had to wait longer than usual because of a passing heavy truck, but behind him I had plenty of room to clearly signal and make my lane switch. Or so I thought.

The next vehicle was coming up at a speed that had to be close to 80kph. I signaled left, shoulder checked, judged that I had room (but didn't pick up on the rate of closure.) I started angling left, glanced again, and saw that the vehicle was much closer, coming up fast, and planning to pass me on my left. I yanked myself back to the right, the driver realized what my intent was and slowed right down, and after I was sure he was leaving me room, I made my lane switch.

(No, the vehicle was not a black pickup truck. But it was a black SUV.)

Reviewing the incident in my head, I have realized:
  • Lexington is a speedway, with dangerous speeding commonplace; I know this and must not forget it
  • I didn't have to take advantage of that gap: there are other ways across the intersection
  • Signalling and shoulder-checking caused me to veer left earlier than I wanted.
It's not clear I was in the right in that situation, but even if I was: I can be right, and still dead.

Yes, the driver was coming up dangerously fast, but that is the fault of Lexington's road design as much it is that of the driver. Waterloo City Council can fix Lexington, if they choose (but so far they have waffled.) It would enable cycling for a lot more people for whom it is too intimidating now. I don't think less of anyone who refuses to bike through this corridor, but there are no alternate routes when it comes to Waterloo's great cycling gulf.

Irony and Irrationality

Friday afternoon, while working through the another miserable gap in our cycling network I must cross on a daily basis (Forwell Creek to Regina via Weber and Columbia), I apparently made an impression on the driver behind me with my signalling (lane-claiming, right turn, left turn.) She called out "nice signalling, buddy!" as I was preparing to turn onto Regina.

I waved, but I was peeved. She may have said "nice signalling, buddy!" but what I heard was "I will allow you to use the road!" I felt the same way I did when another chatty driver said she would give me a pass to go bike on the sidewalk because I was a nice guy. It's the idea that drivers own the road, and it is at their sufferance that those not in a motorized vehicle are permitted.

In retrospect, my reaction was completely irrational. This motorist was probably expressing simple appreciation that I was doing everything I could to be predictable and safe. She gave me room and time and was totally not driving a black pickup truck. So when I compare the morning's incident to the afternoon's, there is no good reason for me to be unhappy about that.

And yet...

The risks of signalling

The best way to be safe on a bike is to be predictable, and signalling is an important part of avoiding surprise. On the other hand, I have mentioned three risks of signalling from a bike:

  • There is a cost: taking a hand off the handlebars robs some of your control.
  • You may think your signal has bought you room to move, while a motorist may not have seen or has ignored it.
  • Your signal may remove ambiguity from your actions, which may cause someone to be less cautious.
(The last one must be balanced against the fact that removing ambiguity is usually a good thing!)

For me, signalling is about making the best use of the small amount of control a cyclist has to influence the behaviour of other road occupants. It is a tool to be used in moderation, and always with a mind towards unintended consequences.

Black pickup trucks??

Early this spring, the driver of a black pickup truck-- whom I delayed for about three and a half seconds at an intersection-- yelled at me to get the hell off the road and onto the sidewalk.

I should acknowledge the possibility that there is only one very confused black pickup truck driver in KW, who perhaps owns a black SUV as a second vehicle, and I have the bad fortune of running across him time and again. It seems unlikely that one style of vehicle should attract less attentive drivers.

And yet...


  1. I prefer signalling right turns with my right arm. It's more intuitive. It's also legal for cyclists in Ontario ( The silly left-arm signal is useful for cars with broken turn signals, since it's hard to stick one's right arm out of the car while driving, but I see no reason to use it while cycling.

    1. I too use point in the direction of my turns. It's the international standard and I learned the rules of cycling in my early high school years in Amsterdam :)

      And now on the rare occasion I go cycling in a group, theres a whole new set of hand signals pointing out potholes, slowing down, moving around obstacles etc ...

  2. The two times that I have nearly been shmucked over the past month have been thanks to a silver Sienna and a navy Corolla. So it's clearly the Toyotas that are out to get me.

    Then there was the cabbie who yelled at me to get out of the intersection as I was crossing Columbia at Albert on foot, with the light. Still scratching my head over that one.

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