The Davis Enterprise: Mar. 27, 2009
Davis Bicycles! column #13
Title: Bike dilemma at four-way stops
Author: John Whitehead
Bicyclist John Whitehead, at a stop sign near his home, has often dealt with the bike versus car dilemma at four-way stops.
Are we glad that many people and perhaps especially Davisites drive their car with extreme caution and extra courtesy when they see a bicyclist? Absolutely!
Do we routinely expect motor vehicle drivers to relinquish their right of way to cyclists? We had better not.
A wide range of behaviors and expectations brings complexity to car-bike interactions. One situation, unusually prevalent in Davis, is the four-way stop.
In order to preserve forward momentum and conserve time and energy, some cyclists (and even a few motorists) don’t always stop completely. Bicyclists have less impeded sight and hearing, with more time to look and listen when approaching an intersection at lower speeds. They may feel that this gives them license to take some liberties to preserve momentum.
When cars and bicycles approach a four-way stop from different directions at about the same time, no one can be sure what to expect. It is not simply a matter of taking turns in the order of arrival as typically happens for cars only.
Many cautious and courteous drivers often wait for a cyclist and wave “go ahead,” even if the car was there first. Cyclists usually appreciate the courtesy, but an unfortunate side effect is to reinforce the tendency for cyclists to not always stop. As a result, there can be dangerous surprises when such cyclists meet drivers who aren’t extra courteous. Perfect predictability might be nice, but we can’t realistically expect everyone to behave the same way when driving a car or when riding a bicycle.
As a mostly law-abiding cyclist, sometimes in a hurry, I do my best to avoid the kind of awkward encounters described above. Consider a situation that arises when my bicycle is heavy with groceries, and I try to be nice to a sore ankle and other road users at the same time. A car is approaching a 4-way stop sign at right angles to my path. I slow down to erase any doubt about who arrived first. Some drivers will stop and proceed through the intersection before I arrive, then I can avoid pushing on the weak ankle to get going from a complete stop. I would bet Davis bikers with kids in trailers often do the same. Once the cyclist commits to arriving second, the car would ideally proceed first.
In other cases, however, a person in a car will just wait and wait, seemingly concerned that a cyclist who is trying to yield will suddenly appear in front of the car. Not yet at the intersection, I wonder in such situations whether I’m inconveniencing others by not forging ahead to take advantage of the courtesy being extended to me. Putting my feet on the ground, or even removing a foot from a pedal as I coast could send a clearer message to the driver.
A variation on this theme is that I might coast slowly into an intersection after a car has entered first and is moving faster than I am. We are not on a collision course and the motorist has the right of way, but the car sometimes screeches to a halt nevertheless.
Among our population, there is a wide variation in reaction times, and a range of experience at judging the speed and future position of moving objects. There is even a wide variation in people’s understanding of the rules of the road.
There can be unintended consequences when a driver stops and waves “go ahead” to a cyclist at a crosswalk. Another car approaching from the opposite direction should not be expected to stop, because only pedestrians have the right of way in a crosswalk.
Unexpected behaviors from people driving or cycling are not going to go away any time soon, so my own conclusions from all the above experiences are threefold. I definitely appreciate the planners, traffic engineers and police who strive to keep cars and bikes moving safely about Davis. Second, despite the unpredictability, it’s a good thing that many people are very cautious and extend extra courtesy. Most importantly, it is always appropriate to constantly look around and listen in all directions when using the road.
John Whitehead has been bicycling for most of his local transportation since 1982, and he has also worn out a couple of cars. He is a member of the Davis Bike Club board of directors.