This week I was riding along Michigan Avenue in Chicago on my blue Miyata bicycle. It was a beautiful day, and as I passed a bicycle shop I noted the, "Gas sucks. Ride a bike," sign, I was happy to think that I was getting green points for doing something that I enjoy anyway. As I approached the intersection with 13th street, a car traveling in the other direction -- which had stopped at the intersection stop line -- suddenly bolted forward and made a left-hand turn into my lane, and instead of passing through the intersection, the vehicle suddenly stopped, blocking my entire lane. I tried to brake but did not have the time to respond and ended up plowing into the automobile wedging my front tire underneath the rear car tire, and going head first over my handlebars and onto the trunk. Fortunately, by the time I hit the car I managed to slow enough that I didn't even get bruised, but I still managed to destroy the fork on my bicycle, and scratch up the car a bit with my handlebars. I was mad, since it is illegal to make a sudden turn into traffic when a bicycle is approaching, for this very reason. To quote the Illinois Rules of the Road:
"When a motorist is turning left and there is a bicyclist entering the intersection from the opposite direction, the driver should wait for the bicyclist to pass before making the turn. Also, if a motorist is sharing the left turn lane with a bicyclist, stay behind them until they have safely completed their turn."
I probably would have lost my cool with the driver, but I then looked at the vehicle I hit, and it was a Chicago police car! Yes, a police car without sirens or anything suddenly pulled into my lane. The officers were first a little angry at what happened, as if I had deliberately run into them. But it probably dawned on them fairly quickly what had happened, and one of the officers became quite apologetic, explaining that they had to stop since a pedestrian had just stepped onto the crosswalk. They both then became very conscientious about whether I was alright, and spent some time looking after me, which I appreciated. I also appreciated that there was a bike shop right there at the scene of the accident that was able to replace my fork in about an hour.
But this underscores something that many people already know: bikers rarely get the privileges that the "Rules of the Road" are supposed to afford us. When a bicycle is on the road, it is a vehicle just like any other vehicle, and it has all the rights and privileges of a car. This means that if you are driving a car and there is a bicycle in the middle of your lane slowing you down: that bicycle has the right of way, and although most bicyclists will pull toward the side of the road to let you pass, a driver has no right to demand it. But I can't count the number of times that a car has honked at me, or intentionally passed me as closely as possible as if to punish me, or yelled at me as if I shouldn't be on the road. And I am someone who actually uses hand-signals, and tries to yield to automobiles whenever possible. The assumptions many drivers in Chicago make seems to be entirely based on relative size: autos, just like SUVs seem to announce to the world "I'm bigger than you, so get out of my way." The problem for cyclists is sometimes you just can't.
Ironically, a few days before hitting the police car I was outlining some basic rules of politeness. I reproduce the sections pertaining to bicycles and cars, since they seem pertinent to this entry.
When biking on a major road, a cyclist generally stays as far as possible to the right-hand side of the road. However, there are specific circumstances when a biker will not do this, and automobile drivers should recognize these circumstances.
(1) For instance, when there is a line of parked cars on the right-hand side of the road, the cyclist will generally bike three to five feet from the line of cars. Rest assured, this is for good purpose, and there is no need to honk for the biker to get over. The problem is that it is often difficult to tell when a car is occupied or not, and if an occupant decides to disembark from the vehicle, a door will open. This door, although perhaps posing less danger to an automobile, can pose a significant danger to a cyclist, and bikers have been killed both by having to suddenly sway into traffic, and by actually slamming into that opened piece of metal and glass at 30-40 miles an hour. Please respect the cyclist's space.
(2) If a biker is going to make a left-hand turn, whatever happens, the cyclist will have to cut across the lane, and should signal to do so. I realize that letting a cyclist cross your lane may sometimes be inconvenient, but it is far more inconvenient if you deliberately prevent the cyclist from doing so. Not only will the cyclist possibly be injured or killed, but in such case the authorities may prevent you from getting to your destination for a very long time.
(3) Finally, a cyclist will often get into the middle of the road before stopping at a red traffic light when there is a right-turn lane. This is because in many states automobiles can make right-hand turns before a red light. The cyclist is being polite and lawful by allowing the cars to do so. Again, if you harass a biker for doing this, you may end up suffering the next time you need to make a right-hand turn.