Cycling’s lessons for drivers

Speed limit for the Weaver Dairy Road/Sage Road roundabout exceeds the recommended 18 mile-per-hour standard. Photo credit: Michael Schwalbe.


By Michael Schwalbe

One perspective on roadway safety holds that there are no accidents. The crashes that produce roadway injuries and deaths are, in this view, the results of bad road design. The fix is to build roads that prioritize safety over speed. 

Yet it’s also true that people get hurt and killed because drivers are negligent and make mistakes. Reducing our massive roadway death toll—about 40,000 people per year—will thus require more than infrastructure. It will also require better drivers.  

We know how to build safer roads. Traffic engineers and transportation planners have known how to do this for a long time. What we’ve lacked, and still do, is the political will to spend what it would cost to build roads that might marginally inconvenience drivers but also save thousands of lives.

One way to build better drivers, some cycling advocates have said, is to get more people on bikes. This is often proposed as a way to make drivers more considerate of cyclists, on the assumption that drivers will be nicer toward cyclists if they know what it’s like to be vulnerable out there on the road with motor vehicles. 

But there could also be wider safety benefits if more drivers rode bikes, if only occasionally. Studies have found that people who are cyclists are better drivers than people who are not cyclists. The usual explanation is that cycling teaches people to be more alert for potential hazards on the road, and this alertness carries over behind the wheel.

This sounds right. If there is one thing road cycling teaches, as a matter of survival, it is to pay attention to what’s happening around you. So, yes, it would be a good thing if more people rode bikes and developed a cyclist’s mind for safety.

Unfortunately, few American drivers are likely to pedal their way to a higher state of safety consciousness. Safety, as many drivers no doubt see it, comes from being strapped into as big and heavy a steel cage as possible. Besides, about three-fourths of US drivers think they already possess above average driving skills.

And so it seems unlikely that many drivers will learn cycling’s lessons through firsthand experience. Here, then, is an alternate path. No helmet, no spandex, no sweat, no risk, not even a bike required. Just a few quick lessons, drawn from the world of cycling, that can make anyone a better driver.

Scan and scan again. For cyclists, this is part of what it means to pay attention and ride defensively. “Situational awareness,” it is usually called. It involves looking for potential threats not just once but repeatedly, especially when approaching driveways and intersections. It also involves looking all around, for threats from any direction.

Drivers often look only once, and focus their attention only where they expect to see something. This can produce the “looked but failed to see” experience that drivers sometimes report after a collision. Do what cyclists do—scan and scan again, in all directions—and the likelihood of hurting someone will be much reduced.

Anticipate. From a cyclist’s standpoint, this means instantly assessing the worst thing a motor vehicle driver might do, and imagining the evasive action—braking, fast turning, jumping a curb—that might be necessary to avoid a crash. Anyone who has been a road cyclist for a while develops this self-protective habit of mind.

The same lesson is taught as part of defensive driving courses. The catchphrase is, “Watch out for the other guy,” which is excellent advice. Now imagine you’re on a bike, no protective cage around you, and dial up the watching-out. Anticipate the worst, be ready for it, and you’re more likely to avoid it.

Be neighborly. Cyclists usually wave to other cyclists out on the road. It’s a friendly gesture that affirms membership in a community. Likewise, if a cyclist is stopped by the side of the road, other cyclists who come by will typically ask if help is needed. Many cyclists will say that this camaraderie is part of what makes cycling fun.

But when we cocoon ourselves in cars, we tend to see other road users as in our way, keeping us from getting where we want to go. This attitude, combined with impatience and the anonymity cars afford, can lead drivers to do foolish things. One remedy is to adopt the cycling mindset that other road users are fellow travelers, not competitors.

Take it easy and enjoy the ride. It’s easy to do this on a bike because cycling is its own reward, so why rush? Sure, it’s fun to go fast sometimes. But fast on a bike is slow compared to fast in a car, and this makes it possible to feel the ride—to see and hear and smell the world around you—in ways that are a joy in themselves. Cyclists know this.  

Drivers can adopt a similar frame of mind and enjoy the exercise of alertness and skill that good driving requires. There are also cycling-like pleasures to be found in taking time to notice more about the environment. In a nutshell: think less about your destination and more about the satisfactions that can be derived from the trip.

There is one more lesson, the one I began with and that bears repeating: pay attention. Cyclists do this because their lives depend on it. Drivers, though less vulnerable, can maximize their own safety—and protect the lives of others—by driving mindfully, avoiding distractions (cell phones, for example), and striving for the same level of road awareness.

Of course cyclists aren’t perfect; they make mistakes, get distracted, get ornery, and fail to see what they should. Just like other road users. But the lapses of cyclists shouldn’t keep us from appreciating the wisdom to be found in cycling any more than the lapses of drivers should lead us to throw out the highway safety rule book.

Ideally, drivers would learn what cyclists know by riding bikes themselves. The lessons, in any case, are there for the taking: pay attention, scan and scan again, anticipate, be neighborly, take it easy and enjoy the ride. These lessons are cycling’s gifts to our culture of road use. If practiced, they can make us all safer out there, no matter how many wheels we have beneath us.

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