Some Hard Truths About Right Turn Ignorance

Background Reading


Another tragic death has taken place in San Francisco. A young woman cut down in the prime of her life because apparently neither she nor the driver of the truck which crushed her was aware of how to execute a right turn. I know you are probably saying what nonsense is this, “everyone knows how to make a right turn!” Well apparently not. And in fact when the reporters for a news outlet covering the tragedy approached the SF Bike Coalition about the problem they like the policeman being interviewed set the record straight. Few cyclists or motorists have a clear understanding of how to make a right turn, especially when a bike lane is involved. I know when I read more carefully I realized that I was wrong about the practice. And I want to share that with you now. Maybe as cyclists and motorists (at alternate times) we can bring more safety to the roadways this weekend.

The first big misconception is one that was argued by an attorney on the ChainLink Forum. His claim was that the bike was solely the province of bicycles who were the only intended and permitted users of same. You would think this made sense but it does not. And in fact in California the legislature has taken great pains to spell out those times when bikes, cars and pedestrians are to ‘share the lane‘.

The next big misconception is that when making right turns cars should not be stopping in front of riders (who are pedaling down the bike lane) before executing a right turn. Wrong again! In fact it is the failure to do this simple maneuver which might have cost this young lady her life.

Think back to the last time you have read an irate comment on the ChainLink from a cyclist who was ‘cutoff‘ by a taxi or motorist making a right turn. As the description usually goes the cyclist is making good time (probably trying to make the light before it turns red) and suddenly a vehicle ‘swerves‘ into the bike lane comes to a complete halt and then proceeds to execute a right turn!

Meanwhile our erstwhile cyclist has been forced to jam on the brakes before plowing into the rear of the offending automobile. Sound familiar? It should I have read accounts like this a half dozen times or more and it never occurred to me that the motorist was doing anything other than being a ‘pig‘. But let’s reconsider this right turn thing from the point of view of Vehicular Cycling.

Using The Lane

In a Vehicular Cycling setting there are no designated Bike Lanes. Bikes and cars are using the same lanes. A bicyclist is riding along the street and the car in front wants to make a right turn. We the very first thing is that because the cyclist is riding BEHIND the vehicle in front he only has to slow and allow the vehicle to make the turn. In fact even if the driver should forget to signal the turn itself the cyclist is still protected because he is riding BEHIND the automobile.

The practice of having bicyclists hug the right side lane or the roadway often leads to them not being BEHIND the vehicle in front and encourages the practice of trying to pass other vehicles on the right. This practice is deadly and is what leads more often than not to serious injury and death when cyclists are where they should be (in a bike lane) and cars are trying to turn from their lane.

Proper Right Turn In Bike Lane

Proper Right Turn In Bike Lane

The single most important thing to remember if you are not acting as a Vehicular Cyclist is that anyone wishing to make a right turn should move as far right as possible to make that turn. If that means converging on the bike lane, so be it. It cannot be stressed enough that the Bike Lane is not simply the lane ONLY for cyclists. Bike lanes are if you will the place where you should be able to  concentrate on forward progress by pedaling but intersections are always places for your awareness of your surroundings to reach great heights.

Vehicular Cycling emphasizes ‘Taking The Lane” precisely because you should never, ever be in a position where a right turn made in front of you occurs from your left. Le me repeat. When any vehicle is turning right in front of you, your position should always be BEHIND them or if the lane to your LEFT is free you can pass them on the LEFT.

This simple maneuver is exactly what you usually execute on the Chicago Lakefront Trail. You always pass slower traffic on the right and you announce your intentions before doing so.

So in essence what the SF Bike Coalition is doing is adopting a Vehicular Cycling strategy as Best Practice when a Bike Lane is present. When viewed in this manner everything makes complete sense to me. So again the Bike Lane is not yours alone. It is to be shared. This is especially true when you are approaching an intersection. You the cyclist should be prepared to have automobile move into the bike lane when they are attempting to make a right turn. So be prepared to slow or even stop while judging whether you can or even should pass them on the left.