Sunday, 8 December 2013

Cycling and prudence

Winter has set in. This season of the year, apart from ample drawbacks, has also some upsides, such as absence of insects and one group of motorists you should beware of.

Generally, the warmer it gets, the more drivers give up on their cars and swap them for motorcycles and bikes. They share public roads with four-wheel-vehicle users, but often make advantages of smaller width of their vehicles what drives many car drivers, including me, insane.

Don’t get me wrong dear readers*. My intentions are far from decrying cyclists and depriving them of their right to use public roads. Cycling has several merits: keeps people healthy and fit, provides a daily does of physical exercise for those who otherwise would not find time for moving their arses, saves money and environment. But whatever you do, you should do it prudently and not expect others to think and take responsibility for your deeds instead of you, just because you are weaker [than drivers protected by bodyworks of their vehicles] or privileged [cyclists tend to be hailed as such category of road users].

According to Polish traffic regulations, cyclists should attempt to use the road and ride through pavements only when sharing the road with cars is forbidden or impractical. Cyclists are prohibited from moving on motorways, expressway, fast-traffic roads and other roads marked with relevant signage. Cyclists who use pavements should always give way to pedestrians and take off their bikes when they cross a street. This obligation does not apply when a cyclist rides a cycling path, on which they are superior to pedestrians and have right of way over cars if the path crosses the street.

I should not say “law is an ass”, but some regulations do not contribute to increasing safety on the roads. Let’s examine some imperfections of Polish traffic law and some sins committed by cyclists and motorcyclists.

Every candidate for a driver to get a driving license needs to pass a test in order to prove they know traffic regulations. Such requirement prevents people who know little about traffic rules from causing dangerous situations on the roads. A cyclist who is not under 18, subject to the same traffic regulations, as a road user, does not need to prove their knowledge of traffic law. This results in scores of cyclists blissfully ignorant of perils the may cause or they may be caused by car drivers. I opine that any person riding a bike on a public road has its command of basic traffic rules certified. It can take a little hassle and bureaucracy (that can be easily limited – test materials can be available online, test that costs no more than 50 PLN is taken in exam centre, then a cyclist picks up a piece of plastic, if someone has a valid driving license, the procedure is not needed at all), but could prevent many accidents.

The biggest sin of cyclists is taking a busy road, when there is a cycling path running parallel to it. The classic example is ul. Puławska between the boundary of Warsaw and ul. Energetyczna in Piaseczno, the section where speed limit is 70 kmph. The road was widened to 3 lanes and a very decent cycling path along it was built in 2007. Despite dreamt-up infrastructure, some inconsiderate bike enthusiasts refuse to take the cycling path and share the road with cars, risking lives. Is there any excuse for such thoughtless behaviour?

A common sin of single-track vehicle users which winds me up the most, is moving between lanes (to be precise, on lines marking them out) and thus often slaloming between them. This used to be a domain of motorcyclists and scooter-riders, whose engine-propelled vehicles are much faster and thus have edge over slow-moving cars. When weather permits them to get on their machines, even when my car is not in motion I continuously peek at both wing mirrors and if possible move to other end of my lane to let them overtake me in safe distance. The real nightmare crops up when two motorcyclists overtake me from both sides at the same time – this may happen not only on middle, but also on right lane (I tend to use it whenever I can, as the traffic law instructs), when one motor-rider dashes between middle and right lane, while the other moves on the edge of the right one. I then pray there is a few centimetres space on each side of the car…

The warrant to avoid cycling on pavements also lacks common sense to me. Much depends on the situation. The busier the roads and the faster cars move on it, the more advisable it is for a cyclist to give up on taking it. As a cyclist I do use roads, when I feel safe on them and when my common sense tells me I would do more harm than good by choosing a pavement (one nuisance of riding the pavement is having to cross curbs). When there is no pavement, I use roadside, no matter how bumpy it is. A classic example here might be ul. Karczunkowska, where I never share the road with cars, since drivers tend to speed there. Of course I am entitled to use the road, but what’s the value of this entitlement if I end up dead of disabled? When taking the road, I know responsibility for overtaking me safely rests with car drivers. When taking the pavement, I know responsibility for not harming pedestrians rests with me. I prefer to trust myself. The other reason why pavement could be preferable is that accidents on pavements would not be fatal. Have you ever heard of fatalities when a cyclist collided with a pedestrian? Of course, reckless cyclists on pavements can become ‘road hogs’ and the binding traffic law was designed to protect pedestrians. But what protects car drivers from trauma of running down a cyclist clearly violating traffic rules? Surely, after such accident a police could adjudicate the car driver was not guilty, any court would acquit them, but mental trauma could not disappear until the end of their days.

Any constructive strategy?
- Build infrastructure: cycling paths, cycling racks, expand the bike rental schemes.
- Amend the law: put in place regulations that would require road users to be familiar with traffic rules, allow them to use pavements when sharing a road is too precarious
- Punish mercilessly cyclists who slalom between cars or who use road when cycling path is at hand.
- Rely on your common sense, regardless of your role in traffic.

* I actually wrote the post after almost hitting a pinhead on bike on ul. Puławska last Monday. Around 7 a.m. (was still dark) I was driving up ul. Puławska, approaching intersection with ul. Płaskowickiej. I drove some 40 kmph and was on the middle lane. All of a sudden I noticed a cyclist (he had no lights on his bike, nor any flashing elements on himself who unexpectedly decided to veer from right lane to the left. I pushed the brake, peeked in the right wing mirror and without making sure there was no vehicle in the blind spot (fortunately no car was there) I swerved right to avoid running down the cyclist. I was scared out of my wits…


Michael Dembinski said...

I'm absolutely opposed to any form of cyclist registration or licensing. Or compulsory helmets. Even cycling on pavements should be OK - as long as the cyclist does so slowly and always gives priority to pedestrians. The aim should be to get as many people cycling as possible.

If we look at what happened in Sydney, when helmet-wearing was made mandatory, the number of cycle-users plummeted dramatically; the number of cyclists killed per 100,000km cycled actually rose.

Granted, there are many unthinking cyclists out there, as well as unthinking motorists. But given the relative harm the former do compared to the latter (air pollution, congestion etc), I'd give the former the benefit of the doubt.

Bob said...

The drivers here are horrible. For fun, I count the number of obvious infractions I see while driving in Warsaw. Typically they average about 1 per 3km of travel. Basic things too - driving on a sidewalk, driving on the apron against traffic, making a one lane left turn lane into 2 and on and on.

Also, drivers need to be trained in common courtesy. For example, for the most part Polish drivers do not understand the concept of consecutive merging and will do anything possible not to let someone merge into their lane. I learned to drive in New York and know how to force a merge gently and it really pisses them off when I successfully 'force' them to let me in by inserting the nose of my car far enough to make it happen.