It Pays to Pay Attention

Back in the saddle again after almost a week in New York City, where people on bikes share streets with New York cabbies and millions of people, and what happens? Tuesday morning I have possibly my closest call ever with a moving vehicle, reinforcing yet again the importance of mindfulness for safe riding.

The scenario: I am riding northbound on Sherman between Fifth and Third, in a stretch that has two vehicle travel lanes and no bike lane.

I need to move into the lefthand lane because I want to be in the turn-only lane to head west on Second, which is a newly paved street (and a bike route). I always make this lane change in this block because the block between Third and Second is really short. There isn’t much time or room in that stretch so I am making a safer move by executing my lane change here–usually.

I do what I always do for a lane change. I look back to make sure the lane is clear, signal the lane change with an outflung left arm, and move into the left lane.

At the same time I am keeping an eye on a big white SUV a few yards ahead that is waiting to pull out of the Primesource Credit Union parking lot on the left side of the street and into the street on which I am riding.

This is the mindfulness part: Always be scanning your environment. Always.

My Sweet Hubs, who spent years in the Marine Corps (active duty and reserves), calls this “situational awareness.” You need mindfulness/awareness when you ride the way you need tires and brakes: essential equipment for arriving at your destination.

I see the gray-haired driver turn her head in my direction. I can tell from the way she does it that this is one of those fake scans. She turns her head but I will bet you anything her eyeballs don’t fully register what is coming downhill toward her. She doesn’t keep her face pointed uphill long enough to see for real.

I know for darn sure she doesn’t see me because she pulls out directly into my path.

I see this coming and am hitting the brakes, turning in the same direction she is heading because that’s how you avoid a collision.

But she isn’t turning into the closest lane to her—the legal turn—the lane I was occupying when she initiated this game of chicken.

Instead she is turning into the second, farther lane, the haven I’m seeking as I maneuver to avoid hitting her. (Oh, the irony—if we collide it will be me hitting her because she pulled out into my path. Who is at fault here?)

She ends up in the righthand lane. I am behind her, my heart going 60,000 miles per hour. I ride up behind and knock a couple of times on her rear quarter-panel, wanting her to see the cyclist who is now behind her. At least I’m not under her.

She makes the right turn onto Third, driving slowly and looking back to see if I’m following, now that I finally have her attention.

I debate rapidly in this moment. Should I turn behind her and wave her into a parking lot, talk with her, tell her how close she came to injuring or killing me through her sloppy and inattentive driving?

Perhaps wrongly, I decide against this. I proceed on my way, and so does the driver of a late-model white SUV, Idaho plates 7B 533. She’s from Bonner County—that’s what the 7B on her plate signifies. That’s an incredibly low license plate number so she’s had it for many years. (I used to live in Idaho; low numbers are a point of pride because they signify you’re not a newcomer.)

At this moment I am strongly reminded of the near-miss I had as a pedestrian a few years ago in the middle of the campus where I work. That driver, too, was gray-haired and not looking.

I am reminded of my father, whose driver’s license was the subject of years of effort before we could get him off the road and end the danger to others that he represented when he kept driving long after his hearing went and after any belief he’d had in the need to follow instructions on traffic signs (like, say, “stop”) had evaporated.

I am reminded of the bicycle/vehicle collisions in our area–some of which have resulted in fatalities and ghost bikes planted as memorials–and collisions around the country that I read about on biking blogs.

I am reminded—yet again—that mindfulness is the most important cycling skill I have.

Related Reading

Your Turn

  • Do you have a near-miss story?
  • Who wasn’t paying attention?
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