The Marine View Driver: A Few Notes on Bicycle Safety (From a Bus Driver’s POV)

In which the author gets a few things off his chest.

by Mike Smith

How to drive.

In my daily travels as a bus driver, I’ve been encouraged by my astute observations that a few tips on how to properly operate an automobile, motorcycle, or bicycle in traffic are in order. For that matter, maybe just some recommendations on how to drive defensively might be helpful.

I know that, for my part, before I started driving a bus I had some very bad habits. If Metro Transit does anything well it is in the driver training department. They have taught housewives who were afraid to drive anything larger than a minivan. They have trained immigrant drivers to navigate a sixty-foot-long bus, which they probably never even conceived of while in their home country. I know that one of the students in my class was so afraid to drive the bus even with the instructor, she was physically sick the night before. She now drives a sixty-foot articulated bus and has never had a mishap.

So I am now well trained. I don’t take any special credit for my driving since all I did (and still do) was what I was taught. I figured Metro’s instructors knew more than I did about driving a bus. And by golly, I was right. So with a humble heart and excellent training I offer the following.

elephantAs you might have guessed, the first category I’ll tackle is the bicyclist.

Most everyone knows how to ride a bike. And it is axiomatic that once you learn, you never forget.

(I wonder if elephants could ride bikes? Hmm… I guess they can. Pictures don’t lie.)

Actually this brings up a good point. If elephants rode bikes in Seattle the biggest fear of the bus driver would be solved. You see, the normal bicyclist is very hard to see. They are slender and quick. The image at right, on the other hand, would be a welcome sight in my rear-view mirror.

Welcome mainly because I am certain I would see it.

givethreefeetSo on to today’s lessons. We are taught as bus drivers to give a bicyclist at least 3 feet of space.  And the local bike advocacy groups agree.

This is one of their cardinal rules, and it is, of course, quite reasonable.

In the spirit of good sportsmanship I’m going to give a sorting of rules of the road which I believe are easier to inculcate into practice because they are not only practical but realistic.

Rule One: A bus cannot comply with the three foot rule while stopped at a light and you scrape by only 3 inches away from it. Hence breaking your own cardinal rule.

Rule Two: Rear-view mirrors are a tool for the bus driver to assist him or her in navigation. They are not tools for the bicyclist to use as locomotion, or for balance.

Rule Three: At the speeds we travel in downtown, drafting a bus is a complete waste of effort. In Seattle, many of the traffic lanes in the downtown area have a little stencil of a bicycle on the ground. This is to indicate that bikes are allowed and that they “share the road” with cars and buses. Share, not dominate or have preference; to wit:

Rule Four: Compared to almost any other vehicle, you are tiny and insignificant. Bikes are quick and nimble in traffic and are terrific ways of getting around town. But there are other legal vehicles on the road with you. All of which are easier to see by gobs and gobs. Bikes are also the lightest of the other “road ready” vehicles by a factor measured in tons.

Rule Five: Don’t argue with mass. This should be both visually and philosophically obvious. But put some people on a bicycle and the ageless rules of physics are tossed around like a helmet under a bus. A good rule of thumb, though, for any bicyclist is to try to avoid danger. Most cyclists heartily endorse this life-saving tip. A few don’t, making things dicey.

Rule Six: Traffic lights and crosswalks: When on a bike, remember, you are in the traffic lane and are to obey the laws as though you were a car. Many cyclists do not adhere to this additional life-saving rule. In fact, many riders actually run red lights routinely simply because they can. A bicyclist thinks he can see better because he can look all around him. But they cannot see very far in any direction and I have observed many a close call to which a bicyclist was completely oblivious.

Sidebar: When you got your driver’s license in Washington State you will recall that a free right turn is legal at most intersections. Unless, of course, a bicyclist is standing on the cross walk precariously perched in that middle ground between pedestrian and motor vehicle. The bike rider wants to go straight, blocking other motorists from making their right turn thus increasing the constriction of traffic. Not good!

oopsRule Seven: Look straight ahead more often than side to side. Most bicycle / vehicle accidents look like this:

An innocent bus is struck by a bicyclist. In fact, I don’t think a bus has actually ever “hit” a bike. It is always the other way around. So don’t let this happen to a vehicle near you.

Rule Eight: Your little flashy headlight and tail light are not protection or a guarantee that you will be seen. In downtown Seattle, especially, there are millions of little flashy lights. Yours is just another flicker in the firmament.

Rule nine: Be Careful. Your lack of blind spots is completely nullified by the myriad obstacles built into a bus.

You know what? I’m going to talk about car safety later. I’ve done heaps for mankind right here.


4 Responses to “The Marine View Driver: A Few Notes on Bicycle Safety (From a Bus Driver’s POV)”
  1. Jeff Loomis says:

    Good observations, but as someone who is often on a bike, I am wondering where you would expect me to wait when I am in the right lane at a red light, so as not to block your right on red? If a car wanting to go straight is in front, you have to wait. Why is a bike different?

    Often if there is room I will pull up and to the left if I see vehicle behind me, signaling right. I won’t hug the curb on the right because that is a very common way to get hit by right turning traffic when the light turns green.

    • Mike Smith says:

      Hi Jeff, thank you for being a considerate rider. When possible I do the same on free right turns. Buses are discouraged in training from making a free right turn even if it is legal. We often do so anyway to prevent a back up behind us. If I am not making a right hand turn, I try to move over to the lane next to me to keep the lane clear so traffic can flow as well as it can. I had hoped to maybe make riders who are on the cross walk and may not have considered it aware of the issue. Of course I would not advocate allowing yourself to get pinned at the curb. But I would say that if you are not going to turn right, you can always pull in front of me, in my bus, or anyone else for that matter who happens to be in the through lane. I’ve tried to put myself in the bike rider’s shoes. I also know that sometimes there is only one lane. But this is hardly ever the case downtown, where the problem persists. I see that sometimes riders want to get a jump on the traffic light as it changes. If I see the opportunity, I try to leave room in front of my bus at any intersection for what I’ve described. What I see more often though is a bike rider wending their way through multiple lanes of traffic in an effort to stay moving presumably and despite what type of vehicle is in the right lane the bicyclist edges out onto the cross walk in order to view whether they have space to run the red light. This generally results in a rider’s wobbly attempt to stay upright while almost stationary in the cross walk. Often because a run of the light is not feasible, the rider must simply stop where they are. I don’t assume any one does this on purpose. It is simply a result of timing. Hopefully you can see my comments to “Rider” to get a feel for my over all purpose in writing. Humor was my main objective, and in any good joke there is always a bit of truth. There is nothing more enjoyable than a good laugh at ourselves. Thanks for writing, I’ll be watching out for you.

  2. Rider says:

    Your third rule is factually questionable. Sharrows are not permission for bikes to take the lane, in WA state bikes always have the right to take the entire lane when doing so for safety (which includes preventing dangerous passes from impatient drivers or large vehicles).

    Sharrows are not there for the bike riders to know they can take the lane, they are there for the DRIVERS to know that in that area it’s more common for bikes to take the lane in that section of roadway and that the DRIVERS need to be expecting bikes there.

    This doesn’t mean that bikes can only take the lane when they won’t slow you down. Often times they should be taking the lane even when it means slowing you down. “Dominating” a lane in this way to prevent unsafe passes is 100% legit, legal and recommended.

    • Mike Smith says:

      Hi Rider, thanks for commenting. My article should be taken first in my trade mark sardonic humor. Secondly my listing of rules are simply my own private listing of observations in rule form. I made no attempt at delineating what state law is other than to give what we as drivers are told. We’ve been taught to be careful in shared lanes. You are correct in that we are more cognizant of bikes when the sharrows are seen. I did have a slight hope to get cyclists to realize that the roads are actually more dangerous to them than they may think. And as I’ve discovered in my discussions with bike riders on my bus (I’ve had them stand at my side while we drive to show them) they did not realize how hard it is to see a bicyclist from the drivers’ seat of a bus. Drivers are taught to give as much space for bikes as we can. I for one over-compensate for bicycles while on duty. It is not uncommon for me to follow a bike at their slow speed for several blocks until they change course or are safely ahead of me. In my attempt at humor my main objective was to give a little taste of what it is like for a driver to encounter bicyclists. As careful as I am, I am more often than is comfortable surprised by a bike that comes from out of nowhere as it were. Bus drivers have myriad things that we must pay attention to, and our mirrors only cover a narrow band width. So it is very hard to catch a small object moving toward us when we spend on average one to two seconds in any one mirror. Our eyes are scanning. If you add night time driving, our windshield is even less effective as there is reflection from the aisle lights inside the bus. You’ve no doubt tried to see out a window at night into the dark street when there is a light on in the room behind you. I’ve actually had my unloading passengers hit as they exit on a sidewalk by a bike that 2 seconds prior I observed in my left side rear view mirror. Most riders are not this careless but it happens. I hoped my humorous look at things might give riders some tips. FYI, Metro really does drill into us the cooperation we must have. But the reality is, bike riders need to be defensive drivers and must operate as if no one can see them. In the best of humor, Mike

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