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Who Taught YOU to Drive?

For bicyclists, cutting in line makes sense for safety

Bike boxes painted on the road at intersections provide a visible place for cyclists to wait for lights, ahead of the vehicles, essentially legitimizing the practice of cutting in line.

Toole Design Group

Bike boxes painted on the road at intersections provide a visible place for cyclists to wait for lights, ahead of the vehicles, essentially legitimizing the practice of cutting in line.

Last fall, while I was waiting for a red light, a pair of bicyclists casually zipped around my car and positioned themselves at the front of the line — even though I was there first.

I’d seen bikers do this before, but this was the first time I’d been cut in line, and I was a little miffed. Shouldn’t they have waited their proper turn like everyone else on the road?

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This spring, with bicyclists returning in full force, I thought I’d find out the answer.

State law says bicyclists are supposed to follow the same rules of the road as motorists, with a few exceptions. Cutting to the front of the line on a multilane road, as far as I know, isn’t one of those exceptions.

At the same time, you have a strong argument that the more visible a bicyclist is to a motorist, the safer the bicyclist will be. And there’s no better way to be seen than by moving to the front of the line, which is what those cyclists did.

“There’s a whole moral order that goes with driving a car,” says Pete Stidman, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union, a cycling advocacy group that encompasses Greater Boston. “You have street signs, lanes, and lines that everyone follows. If that was a car cutting you off, you’d be going ballistic. But when you’re a cyclist, your only imperative is to survive, and you do it however you can because no one out there is looking out for you. We want to get to the front of the line because we want people to see us.”

Let’s revisit an important but often contentious topic: sharing the road with cyclists.

Out in front

If anything, I should have been more sympathetic to the cyclists who cut in front of me because I also own a bike and sometimes ride on that road. I know how unpleasant it is to be sitting on a bicycle behind an idling car, sucking in exhaust fumes while waiting for a red light.

I fell into the trap of viewing the road from a “me-first” perspective, which is never a good thing. But my question is valid: Were those bicyclists breaking the law by cutting to the front?

“There are no laws that say they can’t do it,” said Sergeant Kathy Murphy, the Cambridge Police Department’s bicycling expert. “A lot of times they come up so they can be seen.”

Bicyclists are allowed to pass cars on the right, which is what those cyclists did when leapfrogging my car. Are they allowed to ride between my lane and the right-hand lane to do so? Not if traffic was in motion, Murphy said. But with everyone stopped, it’s hard to argue they posed a danger by doing so.

Still, to me, there’s a difference between having a law that allows the maneuver and leaving it an open-ended question. Massachusetts made a strong attempt to clarify bicycle laws in 2009 with the passage of the Bicyclist Safety Bill, but even that was silent on the subject. Maybe it could be addressed in the next update.

There is another point to consider, and it is also in favor of the cyclists. Over the past few years in Boston, “bike boxes” have been painted at some intersections. The boxes are, in fact, waiting areas at the head of the line for bicyclists to congregate in while a light is red.

“Bike boxes basically legitimize the maneuver,” said David Watson, executive director of MassBike, the state’s largest bicycling group. “They’re not appropriate in every situation, but I think they will become more common.”

Had there been a bike box at the intersection where I was cut in line, it would have seemed natural for the cyclists to have gone in front of me.

Turning trucks

Five cyclists died in the Boston area in 2012, according to the Cyclists Union. One of them was Christopher Weigl, a Boston University graduate student who collided with an 18-wheeler while riding on Commonwealth Avenue before class one December morning.

The accident is still under investigation, according to the Boston Police Department, so we don’t know who was at fault. But the general circumstances — a large vehicle turning right, with cyclists on the street going in the same direction — are worth discussion. (Right turns by regular-sized vehicles are a separate mattter, which I’ll address in a future column.)

Long vehicles, be they tractor-trailers, moving trucks, or city buses, can’t make right turns the way smaller vehicles can. To expand their turning radius, they need to swing to the left first, often into the left-hand lane, or sometimes across a double-yellow line, before cutting to the right.

The drivers of longer vehicles are allowed to do this, said Lieutenant Thomas Fitzgerald, of the State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Section. “This is the conflict between the length of the truck and the roadway geometry,” he explains.

Still, the maneuver often catches other motorists off guard. When they see a vehicle moving to the left, the natural expectation is that it’s going to turn left. Drivers and bicyclists think they can pass the truck on the right, only to be surprised when the truck swings right and cuts directly in front of them.

Truck drivers are well aware of this danger. The state’s Commercial Driver’s License Manual tells truckers that they should try to block all lanes of traffic as they swing to the left to make it physically impossible for anyone to pass them on the right. (The next time you’re cut off like this by a trucker, remember, they’re actually doing it for your own good.)

Bike lanes, however, are a big loophole. Even when a trucker or bus driver dutifully blocks all motor vehicle travel lanes, a bike lane remains open. And truck drivers often can’t see a bike lane because their side-view mirrors become significantly angled while turning.

“You’ve seen the signs on the back of trucks — if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you,” said Boyd Stephenson of the American Trucking Associations.

“Like with passenger cars, there is a blind spot. But unlike passenger cars, you don’t have the ability to look over your shoulder to see what’s coming,’’ he said.

Stidman said that some cities, such as London, are experimenting with mirrors on street poles to help truckers see bike lanes. Watson, of MassBike, says his organization has been training MBTA bus drivers about bicycle safety since 2010.

He’d like to expand the training to all commercial drivers in the state, but even if that happens, bicyclists always need to be aware of large, turning vehicles whose drivers might not see them.

On that note, Watson, Stidman, and Fitzgerald offer the same advice: Whenever you bike alongside a large vehicle, assume it’s going to turn in front of you at the next intersection, and slow down.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.
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