A couple of years ago I read some letters in our local newspaper from irate drivers complaining about the bad behavior of cyclists on the road. As an avid bicyclist, I was outraged at the charges in the letter. My fellow riders and I were — it seemed — an arrogant bunch of scofflaws.

Later I was grateful for the assertions in the letter, which set me thinking. I am not only a cyclist. Like almost everyone, I drive a car too. From time to time as both motorist and cyclist I have, through misjudgment or circumstance, cut corners, run red lights, failed to see stop signs, failed to stop for pedestrians, failed to signal, and drove faster than is safe. It seems that the bad behavior of cyclists is not much different from that of car drivers.

Consequences though are vastly different. Today an average car weighs 3 to 4,000 pounds — my Honda CR-V comes in at about 3,300. My GT Grade road bike, admittedly on the light side, weighs around 25, including accessories. It takes little imagination to know who will come off worse in a collision between a motorized vehicle and a bicycle.

Anyone who has lived in the Princeton area for more than a few years will tell you that traffic is vastly increased. This alone makes accidents more likely. In these fast times, bicycle safety is much more of a challenge than it once was.

Of course we all, driver and cyclist alike, try to obey the law and ensure control of our vehicles in a safe manner. But I suggest that the rules of the road are not widely understood, especially as they relate to cyclists.

White stenciled renderings of a bicycle with inverted chevrons have been painted on the center right of roads all over town. These “sharrows” (share combined with arrows) promote the idea that motorists and cyclists should share the road. They are a good and well intentioned idea and, properly adopted, may go some way to ensure safety. Sadly, research recently presented at the Transportation Review Board annual meeting suggests that they are not effective. This is, at least in part, because their purpose is not clearly understood or that they are believed to be merely advisory.

New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle and Traffic Regulation laws, Title 39:4-10.11 — operating regulations concerning bicycles, are not terribly helpful either:

“Every person riding a bicycle on a roadway shall ride as near to the right roadside as practicable exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction. A bicyclist may move left under any of the following conditions: 1.) To make a left turn from a left turn lane or pocket; 2.) To avoid debris, drains, or other hazardous conditions on the right; 3.) To pass a slower moving vehicle; 4.) To occupy any available lane when traveling at the same speed as other traffic; 5.) To travel no more than two abreast when traffic is not impeded, but otherwise ride in single file. Every person riding a bicycle shall ride in the same direction as vehicular traffic.”

I ride daily and year round. Experience suggests that many motorists seem barely aware of the rules of the road. This is partly due to our laws and regulations, which lack the legal requirement to maintain a fixed distance between bicycles and passing motorized vehicles. Twenty six states so far mandate a distance of three to four feet. Although attempts have been made, as of now there is no such legal requirement in New Jersey.

Of course, most motorists intuitively give bicycles a wide berth, which is arguably good. But all too often, drivers are possessed of a mad willfulness to pass. These drivers hit the gas, swerve across double yellow lines, playing a crazy game of chicken, forcing oncoming traffic to slow down or stop. Worse yet, following vehicles pull out behind them assuming that the lead driver knows what he’s doing.

Don’t take my word for it. On any day you can travel on Quaker Road and see it. At such times I can almost hear the screech of tires and the slam bang metallic crunch of car hitting car. Although I have yet to witness a crash, this reckless behavior endangers all vehicles in the vicinity.

Many motorists behave as if cyclists’ sole intent is to disrupt the movement of cars. As a sometime motorist myself, I understand the need to get to our destinations as rapidly as possible, but not at the cost of endangering other road users. Cyclists have a clear right to the road and should be treated like any other vehicle.

The law agrees and spells it out clearly in Biking Regulations Title 39:4-14.1 Rights and Duties of Persons on Bicycles: “Every person riding a bicycle on a roadway is granted all the rights and subject to all of the duties of the motor vehicle driver.” This has emboldened some cyclists to ride three abreast with complete disregard for the traffic (and anger) building up behind them. Showing motorists that “bicycles are traffic” is a good point to make, but when it is done in a hostile, antagonistic way the point is poorly made.

Overall though, cyclists understand the necessity of ceding the greater part of the road to motorists. Most of us move at the fastest speeds our bicycles and bodies can manage — as an older man I usually pedal around 10 to 15 mph. Many serious cyclists routinely move at 20 mph and faster. Perhaps it’s understandable that drivers commonly honk impatiently at having to slow to such speeds, but it ain’t right! I have been honked at, shouted at, cursed at, and given the finger just for riding my bike at the side of the road.

Cyclists need to be constantly on the watch for threats to their well-being. Sometimes safety and self-preservation are almost at odds with the law. Title 39’s Operating Regulations (see above) state that a cyclist “shall ride as near to the right roadside as practicable.” They continue “a bicyclist may move left to avoid debris, drains, or other hazardous conditions on the right,” thereby acknowledging the special difficulties cyclists have.

It’s nice to know that a cyclist may move left if there are hazardous conditions in front of her, but in the roaring traffic, with no legal requirement for separating distance she may not be able to do so safely. Many times the obstruction is not even visible until a rider is within a few feet of it, affording little time to take evasive action.

With the exception of daredevil stunt drivers, balance is not an issue for cars. They are far more stable with four wheels and having a total of 60 square inches of tire surface in contact with the road. A road bike has less than one square inch. Drivers may signal with a flick of a finger, steer easily with one hand, and stop with a simple press of the foot, all with the background assistance of a computer.

Balance is central to cycling and is maintained through the coordination of hands, feet, and body position. The most dangerous place a cyclist can be is in the middle of busy intersection while turning left. It is something of a circus act to signal with one hand, steer AND brake with the other, all the while maintaining speed and balance and watching for dodgy moves from the traffic around you.

When whizzing along in a car, one does not notice that the side of the road along which cyclists are enjoined to keep themselves can be a very dangerous place. Fortunately in and around Princeton, the roads are reasonably well maintained.

But it’s a never-ending project and there are always deteriorating roads on the municipalities’ fix list. The edges of roads are ipso facto the least well maintained. Here is where sunken drains, cracked and crumbling tarmac, and potholes reside. There is debris of all sorts at the roadside — a patch of gravel, a boggy area of mud, standing water of uncertain depth, twigs as small as a quarter inch in diameter. These and many more can cause a rider’s bike to skid out from under him. By contrast, a car holding the center of the road easily survives hitting a pothole, even a very deep one.

Long term riders know that coming off the bike once in a while is almost inevitable. Sometimes it’s an error of our own judgment, sometimes a mix of judgment and circumstance. But many times it’s none of the above.

Here are some examples from 50 years of riding a bike. I have been cycling (as legally required) on the right of slow moving traffic only to have a motorist open the passenger door in front of me sending me over the bars as if I were a circus performer. I have hit the ground hard through sliding on twigs, wet leaves, and gravel. I have been unseated by a sudden flat caused by riding over broken glass, metal debris, nails, pot holes, deep fissures in the road, and sunken drains, some of which are designed so that a bicycle tire fits neatly into its slots. I have been knocked unconscious twice in the fall and have paid with some blood almost every time.

Going forward roads are not going to become less busy, or be repaired on a more intense schedule. The reverse is more likely. So what is to be done?

Sharrows have a place in this but the message they proclaim (share the road) needs to be more widely committed to. Bike lanes, much used in Europe and some cities in the U.S., would be grand but would take a considerable commitment of resources. To be truly effective, we would need to widen roads such as Nassau, Witherspoon, and Hamilton. Without doing so lanes would cut off a larger slice of the road width and further hinder the flow of traffic.

Bike paths are another possibility, but they share the same problem of cost. They also tend to be out of town, where land is more available. But they are also fall into disrepair quickly are not maintained as well as roads, which may not be an issue for the casual rider or the mountain biker, but is a discouragement for road bikers.

A panoply of British tchotchkes declare “Keep calm and carry on.” But we need to carry on in a different way. Those of us who are both drivers and cyclists should find it easy to adopt an attitude of tolerance and courtesy. We are all in this together and need become more aware, more forgiving, and more patient of those we share the road with.

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