(Disclaimer, in case I need one… this does not constitute legal advice…)
We all know about blind spots – as drivers, when you want to change lanes or turn and are surprised to find someone already there, and as cyclists, when you find yourself slamming on the brakes when a car or truck turns across your path.
Here’s the thing with blind spots, though: unless you are in a sufficiently large vehicle, you don’t actually have one, so let’s deal with that first.
The mythical “blind spot”
Blind spots have been accepted as an excuse for collisions as long as people have been driving.”But I didn’t see you”, is your get out of jail free card in this world. The old SMIDSY hard at work.
In a vehicle of the sort that very nearly everyone drives (passenger vehicles), you are surrounded by clear stuff made for the express purpose of seeing through, and in addition to that, you have a set of mirrors that give you a view of what is behind you and beside you to a certain degree. Without much effort, you can see most of what is around you with no problems. For the few areas that the mirrors don’t cover, there is a solution, but you may want to sit down for this, as it’s complicated (you can learn how to make the most of your mirrors here, and here).
You know that clear stuff that is beside you? That stuff you sometimes roll down in order to receive your KFC at the drive-thru? Yeah, that stuff can be used for seeing-through just like the clear stuff in front of you, by engaging certain muscles in between your shoulders and head which causes your head to engage in a pivoting motion, and as long as your eyes are open and your brain is connected to the rest of your body, you can reveal a whole new and previously undiscovered landscape of which the inhabitants can now be discovered.
Now, I know. You’re thinking, “but how can I tailgate the car in front of me and quickly glance to the side?!? Couldn’t that send me into the back of the car in front if it decides to stop for no reason?”
Unfortunately, the answer is yes, so the next part of this process is to remain a safe distance away from the vehicle in front, which needs to increase as your speed does, or as conditions become worse.
In the end, though, you will find that there is no such thing as a blind spot in the vast majority of cars on the road. There are only blind people. Usually perceptually, and sometimes morally…
What about those vehicles that do, actually, have blind spots? Large delivery vans and trucks have astonishing blind spots that most people don’t fully appreciate.
In these situations, the onus of responsibility shifts depending on where you, as a cyclist (or even a car) happen to be.
See, if you are already in moving traffic and a vehicle or even a large truck approaches from behind, they should have no excuse for not seeing you, presuming you are not playing the bike-ninja in rain or snow or fog or something. You will have been in their view for quite some time before passing you, so if they decide to turn across you, there is unfortunately little that you can do but hit the anchors, but they are completely at fault.
In these cases, the onus of responsibility for your safety is on the driver and not the cyclist, providing you are riding in a predictable enough manner, etc, etc.
Once that vehicle has passed you, or you are approaching a vehicle with a legitimate blind spot, the responsibility unfortunately lies with you to not put yourself in it.
It’s really not that complicated. If it’s a large vehicle that will have trouble seeing all angles – and let’s be honest, we all know what kinds of vehicles these are – then quite simply, don’t pass it on the inside.
Done. That’s it. That’s an incredibly dangerous situation dealt with.
If the large vehicle is moving very slowly then your best option is to go around it on the far side (not the kerb side), even if there is space on the kerb side. In many cases though, your best bet is to wait for it to get up to speed (if that is what is happening), because it will just have to pass you again, and we all know how unnerving that is for us cyclists.
One of the most dangerous situations is when a large vehicle is stopped at an intersection and you pull up beside it, both waiting for the light to turn green. The problem here is that the driver really can’t see you, although with these additional mirrors (standard across Europe, I believe) can solve that problem. Without these additional mirrors, for all intents and purposes, you are not there, so here’s what you do: don’t be there.
If it is moving slowly enough for you to comfortably pass it, and there is a bike lane with enough space, then feel free to continue on your way along the kerb side. However, I would strongly caution against this when this occurs in close proximity to an intersection, as a vehicle turning across you is the precise situation that we are trying to avoid. In general, the more time you spend in the blind spot – even if you are mid-block and passing – the greater the chances that the driver will behave as it you are not there. Act accordingly.
I suppose I operate on a mixture of basic awareness and intuition. If it’s a large vehicle that is unlikely to be able to see me in its mirrors, I don’t tend to take any chances. If it is a regular sized vehicle that should have no excuses for not seeing me, I actually operate under the same assumptions, but more so because I don’t trust the driver to be competent enough to be looking for me.
Basically, if there is opportunity for a vehicle of any type to turn across me, I assume that they could, and act accordingly. If I sense a car approaching from behind and I am near an intersection, I am mentally prepared for the chance that they could decide to drive right through me, as has happened, which has saved me more than once.
Don’t see an indicator being used? Is the vehicle slowing down or slow enough to turn? Assume it will. Don’t pass it. Instead, move into the lane behind the car to put yourself out of harms way.
So most of the time, a collision caused by the fabled “blind spot” should never really happen. The motorist really has no excuse to not be checking their “blind spot”, and a cyclists really shouldn’t be getting themselves into a position where they are in an actual blind spot. That image above where there are a dozen cyclists next to a turning truck? Never put yourself in that position near an intersection, or anywhere, if you can help it.
Shades of grey
Are there situations that are a little more difficult to read? Yes. Let me give you a an example from my own experience:
On my way home from work, there is a signaled T-junction. From the direction I am traveling, cars can go left or right, but cyclists can continue straight on through a park. The lights include a short phase where turning left is prohibited, allowing cyclists a safe opportunity to continue onto the path in the park from the cycle lane on the road leading into the intersection. One day a few weeks ago, the light turned green while I was still approaching the intersection and the cars in the left lane were stopped at the lights waiting for it to allow a left turn. As I was approaching, the red light prohibiting left turns turned off, but I was close to the intersection, was in the cycle lane with cars on my right (couldn’t move into the lane, which I should have done), and going fast enough that I had to make a split-second decision whether or not to proceed, as the cars on my right had not started to move yet. I thought I could make it, but as I was about to enter the intersection the car turning left proceeded, and I slammed on my brakes (locking the back wheel up) and the car turned in front of me.
Now, this was one of those borderline situations that had numerous factors at play. The first is design – the signal really needs an amber phase to let cyclists know that they need to be slowing down and that cars will be turning. The second was that I was knowingly pushing the boundaries with how much time I had left with the lights in my favour. The third is that it was impossible for the driver of the car to not have seen me just level with their front wheel, and had decided that their right of way trumped what was happening in real life. The fourth is that there is a fair amount of misunderstanding regarding how cycle lanes are meant to be treated by cyclists and motorists. When do turning cars have the right of way and when can cyclists proceeding through intersections? The answer can be found here, but some Countries or States may have a different ruling, so check your local laws.
My point is that there are some occasions where it may not be all that clear on who has the right of way, but that’s where cyclists quite simply need to prioritize caution over speed. The fastest and most efficient route to your destination is not via a hospital bed.
These situations are the minority, given all the possibilities, so with these aside, there should be no excuses for “blind spot” “collisions” to be occurring as far as drivers are concerned, nor for actual blind spot collisions to be occurring as far as cyclists are concerned.
Any other factors that I’m missing?
Header image: source