COMMUTING SAFETY
Part Three

 

Intersections

Whether you are in a car or on a bike, intersections are among the most dangerous places on the road. Irrespective of who is at fault, as a biker you are at greater risk at intersections than any other road user.

The most obvious risk is that another vehicle will violate your right of way by ignoring a STOP sign or red traffic light. As always when you’re riding a bike, defensive driving is your best safety mechanism. Slow down for every intersection, even if the traffic light is green for you, or the STOP sign is for the crossing road. My favourite riding safety advice applies: “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” Assume that every vehicle you see will do something that will endanger you, and be prepared to take evasive measures.

This includes checking your rear view mirrors to ensure that, should you suddenly have to brake hard, the vehicle behind you is far enough to slow down without hitting you. If he isn’t, my suggestion is to slow down gradually – nine times out of ten, the driver behind you will become impatient and overtake you if you’re going too slow. There’s no shame in letting him pass you – he’s less of a danger in front of you where you can keep an eye on him. Slowing down for every intersection may be tedious, but so is spending months in hospital.

One of the sad facts of driving in South Africa is that some people tend to ignore road markings. Consider this: you’re in the right-hand lane on a multi-lane road, your lane is discretionary (you can either turn or go straight), and the lane on your left is a compulsory turn-lane. It often happens that a car in the left lane will go straight across the intersection, despite the road markings (left-hand image below). If you want to turn left, make sure that the cars on your left are also turning. I prefer to rather turn from the leftmost lane – after all, I have enough acceleration to get into the correct lane after I have turned. Likewise, you could have the situation of the leftmost lane being discretionary, and a car in the right-hand lane wanting to turn while you intend not to turn (right-hand image below). This could result in the car (which has slowed down for the turn) cutting in front of you, or colliding with you.

Remember that at a STOP sign, the vehicle which has stopped first has right of way, even if he intends to turn. So, if the oncoming car has stopped before you and wants to turn, you have to wait for him to turn before you pull off. Unfortunately many road users seem not to know this rule – if you want to turn and you have stopped first, they (wanting to go straight across) will often pull off under the assumption that they have the right of way. Again, in the spirit of defensive riding, rather let them go than try to force the issue at the risk of a collision.

Oncoming cars turning across your lane at traffic lights are also a potential risk. Car drivers often assume there is enough time for them to cross before you get to the intersection, and to be fair to them, it is hard to judge a bike’s speed head-on. So again the key is to assume the car will cross and have your evasion plan ready in case he does. This includes ensuring that you can safely brake hard if needed, being aware of any traffic around you that might prevent you from swerving, and identifying your escape route beforehand.

“Blind” intersections are especially perilous. I consider an intersection “blind” when a truck, minibus, SUV or any other tall vehicle or object prevents me from seeing the entire intersection. Take the scenario from the previous paragraph and a truck on your right, and now you have a disaster waiting to happen. The light-shaded area in the illustration above represents your field of vision. The driver of the yellow car, who can’t see you either, may believe the road is clear and turn. In a situation like this, where you can’t see past the truck, assume there’s a car just itching to turn and spoil your day. My advice is to slow down and (if the traffic allows it) move to the extreme left to increase your field of view around the truck. Keep going slowly until you’ve verified that no car is about to turn.

Considering that most accidents happen at intersections, it is obvious why bikers should consider them extremely dangerous. Always approach intersections with caution, try to predict what other road users are going to do, and rather yield to offending cars than risk getting yourself killed. The ultimate aim of biking should not be to prove your point at all costs, but to live to ride another day.

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© Dries van der Walt, 2008. Click on 'About' to see copyright information.

 
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