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Jane Ahlin, Published August 11 2012

Ahlin: Cyclists, motorists must change their bad habits

Now that Fargo has made the commitment to stripe major downtown roads with bike lanes, it’s time to get serious about education for motorists and bicyclists. What we need is nothing short of an education blitz to make drivers and cyclists comfortable with one another’s expectations for courtesy on the roads. Put another way, the right to share the road requires changing the bad habits of both groups, although it’s the bad habits of motorists at intersections that are most threatening to safety.

My perspective on safety comes from my own experiences driving and cycling – more to the point, my own tendencies toward bad habits as a driver and a cyclist. When on my bike, I mostly stick to bike paths; however, even bike paths cross busy roadways and require riding a distance on city streets to get from one section of path to another.

Here’s the good news: On Fargo streets where bike lanes already are delineated, I’ve noticed a marked difference in the awareness of motorists, as if the visual cue of the bike lane is a major safety feature in itself.

Unfortunately, intersections are a different story, and the conduct of motorists at intersections lies at the heart of educating the driving public. The biggest problem to be addressed is that Fargo motorists don’t pretend to obey the laws when they are making right-hand turns. And the problem is every bit as serious whether intersections are regulated with traffic lights or whether they aren’t.

Let me describe the behavior as it affects cyclists using bike paths where the paths cross many streets. (A good example is the bike path along South University Drive.) Let’s say that a motorist is coming from the east with the intention of turning north, a right-hand turn. In the example – because the law allows motorists to make a right-hand turn after stopping at a stoplight or a stop sign if no traffic is coming from the left – the driver approaches the intersection looking only to the left. Without bothering to so much as glance to the right, the driver pulls up, obscuring the crosswalk, and, if there is no traffic coming, rolls right on through. If there is traffic from the left, the motorist stops there, entirely blocking the way of cyclists (or pedestrians) on the bike path coming from the right. Indeed, a cyclist in this situation has the right of way but must slam on the brakes or run into the car blocking the crosswalk. I don’t think I have taken two bike rides all summer where this has not happened to me. (Yes, I have longed for rotten eggs to throw.)

For cyclists in the bike lanes on streets and roads, this careless approach to right-hand turns poses an even greater threat to safety. Using the same scenario as above but putting the cyclist in traffic alongside the car – and imagining that the cyclist is going straight across the intersection traveling east to west while the motorist is turning north – a driver’s careless right-hand turn could be fatal to the cyclist, who, by law, has the right of way.

Frankly, I would like to see Fargo police take the same kind of active attitude toward motorists making rolling right- hand turns as they have toward texting and driving. No driver should be allowed to obscure the crosswalk area without coming to a complete stop first and certainly not when looking only one direction. Motorists – even if they lack a good sightline towards traffic to the left or right – should stop before entering the crosswalk and should look both ways. At that point, if the motorist needs a better view, moving forward can be done slowly and safely. Cyclists and pedestrians will have been seen, and if the right of way is theirs, the motorist won’t have compromised it.

For cyclists, bad habits stem from an unwillingness to acknowledge that traffic laws apply to us the same way they apply to motorists. (A stoplight is a stoplight even when cars aren’t coming.)

It’s human nature to be impatient whether in a car or on a bicycle, and all the education in the world won’t change that fact. Attitudes, however, can be changed. First, there has to be goodwill between drivers and cyclists; then, we have to agree that sharing the road improves our community. Or, as Fargo Commissioner Brad Wimmer put it in a recent meeting, “It’s the wave of the future.”

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.