Intersections & Biking: The Rules of the Road

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Intersections & Biking: The Rules of the Road

Two Minneapolis bicyclists have lost their lives in hit-and-run collisions so far this year: 24-year-old Jessica Hansen and 28-year-old Elyse Mary Stern. Both incidents occurred at intersections.

In Minneapolis, 41% of crashes occur at intersections, and another 40% occur within 50 feet of them, according to a recent study by the City of Minneapolis. (There are about 300 bike/vehicle accidents a year in the city, despite the vast increase in bicycle commuters over the last decade.)

WHY ARE INTERSECTIONS SO DANGEROUS?

Simply put, intersections are confusing. They’re bustling with cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicyclists, walkers, and joggers, etc., all going different directions – often quickly. Add in a little rain, the glare of the afternoon sun or a night sky to impair visibility, and a couple of confusing street signals and you have a recipe for disaster. Also, because cars and bikes move at such different speeds, it can be difficult to judge each others’ true speed while moving.

To reduce the risk posed by intersections, bicyclists and motorists should remain aware of their surroundings at all times, know the rules of the road like the back of their hands, and be aware of the types of hazards that intersections are known for.

In the state of Minnesota, bicyclists are treated the same as motorists, and as such they must obey all the same traffic control devices and rules. The Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota (BikeMN) website has a full overview of Minnesota’s bike laws and statutes.

STATISTICS

Cyclists and motorists alike share blame in causing accidents. According to the City of Minneapolis’s study, “inattentive driving or failure to yield the right of way accounted for 40 percent of the crashes in cases where motorists said they could not see the bicycle riders. Bicyclists not riding in a predictable manner — failing to yield right of way, ignoring a traffic control device, or improper lane use — accounted for about 40 percent of the accidents attributed to riders.”

SAFETY TIPS

Here is a list of precautionary measures you can take to stay safe at intersections:

For Bicyclists:

Wear your helmet. (Neither of the two women killed this year in hit-and-runs were wearing their helmets. Perhaps it could have saved their lives.)

Ride in a predictable manner. Shaun Murphy, the city’s bike and pedestrian coordinator, lists weaving through traffic, ignoring stoplights, and failing to signal turns as common cyclist offenses.

Wear brightly colored, reflective clothing so you are easily seen even on rainy days or at night.
Be sure your bike is equipped with reflectors and/or front and rear lamps for visibility at night and in foul weather.
Learn emergency maneuvers to increase your chance of avoiding an accident. (A free pamphlet that contains this information can be found here.) The League of American Bicyclists also has information on classes that teach such maneuvers.

Teach your children the rules of the road, and supervise them until they are old enough and experienced enough to ride on their own.
For Motorists:

Remember that bicyclists have a right to be on the road, too.
Always keep a safe following distance, giving cyclists enough room to feel safe and maneuver their bikes.
For Both:

Always be aware of your surroundings.
Know and follow the rules of the road.
Be aware that vehicles have blind spots. For drivers, this means driving with the assumption that there is a bicyclist there.
For bikers, don’t assume that a driver (especially a large truck) can see you.

AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE

Also of note: in 2010, BIKESAFE (Bicycle Countermeasure Selection System), a project sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, successfully altered a statute — originally written for motorcycles — to provide affirmative defense for bicyclists charged with entering or crossing an intersection against a red light. The new law requires that bicyclists meet the following conditions (reprinted here from BikeMN’s website) to gain exemption:

Come to a complete stop.

Take the time to determine that the signal is not going to change.
Proceed when no motor vehicles or person is approaching close enough to constitute an immediate hazard.

Keep in mind, this law does not make it legal to run a red light. Instead it addresses a contributing factor to the hazards of intersections — lights that fail to be triggered by a bicyclist when no motor vehicles are present — essentially stranding them on one side of the street and often creating confusion. This law simply permits a bicyclist to make a reasonable judgment about when it is okay to cross against a red light in this specific circumstance.

It can get pretty brutal out there on the street with everyone rushing to and from work. Taking a moment to remember that we are all human and that commuting is not a fierce game of cars vs. bikes might help in getting everyone home safely.
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