Accepting Responsibility : MUP Etiquette

Background Reading


3 Feet Please! League Cycling Instructor training in Portland, Maine, by Jeff Scher

3 Feet Please! League Cycling Instructor training in Portland, Maine, by Jeff Scher

Nothing really amazes me much anymore concerning the unwillingness of cyclists to take responsibility for their own safety. There are few groups that will clamor as much for attention when decrying calls for them to dress in bright and reflective clothing as will cyclists. They even have made a cult out of riding in ‘ninja mode‘.

The theory is that if you accept the notion that you must personally announce your presence to other traffic participants that you have opened yourself up for a share of the responsibility when a collision occurs. The same goes for wearing helmets.

And what makes this doubly curious is that people (who should know better) like Mikael Colville-Andersen are peddling the notion that helmet wearing is a notion cooked up by the automobile industry and places an undue personal burden on a group that should be allowed to simply wander through life in as carefree a mode as possible.

In fact the entire notion of ‘Desire Lines‘ is a fancy way of capitulating to the whims of cyclists who do not wish to obey traffic signals or signs. The notion is that when they do it is not out of laziness, indifference or simple arrogance but rather because the infrastructural layout is ‘not user-friendly’.

Well I am here to ask that we stop the silliness and get around to outgrowing the tendencies we have to emulate our high school freshman selves and instead function as adults. Adults who are old enough to have children who need our guidance.

The Rules of Engagement for MUPs (and streets)

Strava's logo.

Strava’s logo.

One of the things that is sorely missing in the absence of actual Vehicular Cycling Training is an understanding of who is responsible in various situations. So let me spell out what I think are the basics:

  • In any situation the traveller approaching from the rear is the one who assumes responsibility. In a situation where a bicycle is overtaking a pedestrian (regardless of whether they are wearing earphones or pushing a stroller or roller blading or squatting in the middle of the trail) the bicyclist is the person who must assume the responsibility for both their safety.
  • The same holds true for pedestrians passing other pedestrians. The person approaching from the rear has to take responsibility for passing safely.
  • Never abbreviate your warnings. Yelling out something as cryptic as ‘Left‘ or even ‘On Your Left‘ is not sufficient to warrant being able to pass at speed. Instead you must announce that: ‘I am passing on your left‘ and if possible add ‘with others following me‘ to alert the person being passed that persistence danger is possible.
  • Bells are great! A high pitched bell is best. It is far less aggressive than an electronic horn or yelling out.
  • Of course the same etiquette rules apply to passing another cyclist from behind. Announce yourself, and if necessary ‘slow down‘ top avoid a situation where a startled rider might veer into your path. This is especially true of small children and those hard of hearing or wearing headphones.
  • SF Bicycle Coalition Right Turn Diagram

    SF Bicycle Coalition Right Turn Diagram

    Overtaking automobiles from the rear is the same as passing a pedestrian. Lots of blather has erupted to attempt to make the case that riders who are in the ‘Door Zone‘ need not warn those they are passing. We have developed a mythology that says that any pedestrians who exits a vehicle is suddenly harming us by doing so. Wrong!

  • Mirrors on vehicles are not designed to see the entirety of what is approaching from the rear. If you cannot see the eyes of the pedestrian exiting a vehicle, assume that you are ‘invisible‘ to them. You have the entirety of the responsibility here because you are the only one with a forward view of the situation. Slow down and move far enough to the left to give the pedestrians the same 3 Feet you request of them when they are overtaking you from the rear.
  • Trucks and buses that are moving cannot see you once they begin to execute a right turn. When that happens you must ‘slow down‘ or ‘come to a near halt‘ to allow the rear end of the vehicle to pass you. Continuing to ride forward will only needlessly endanger you. Always assume that the driver simply cannot see you.
  • There is never a time when your attention should be occupied with ‘best time competitions‘ over the welfare of others. That makes our blather about motorists who ‘text and drive‘ or for that matter ‘drink and drive‘ seem self-serving. Driving a motor vehicle or one that is human powered is a full-time job while you are underway.

Riding a bicycle is a bit like learning to use the proper eating utensils at a formal dinner. Or even more so like learning how to dance with a partner during a waltz. It takes a bit of time to master the steps so that you seem graceful. What is not permissible is to assume that your dance partner is always wrong!

We have made a habit of the latter. That is largely a situation borne of the need to try and win monetary compensation from the insurance company of the person with whom we have collided. But that is the worst way to think of things.

Your health and well-being have to supersede any money you might win. Of what value is a $1.5 million payout if you have to use that money for in-home care for the rest of your life? Likewise when you are the person who is responsible, why not take the time to treat pedestrians in a manner that is like unto that you demand of motorists who are overtaking you from the rear?

The Golden Rule is in essence what should apply to all situations.