RIGHT OF WAY
5:00 am
Wed May 8, 2013

Taking Driver's Ed, with an Eye Toward Cyclists

A biker shares the road with drivers in Allston.
Credit Liz Alesse / WGBH

One complaint Boston-area drivers and bicyclists often make is that neither group follows the rules of the road. But how are drivers taught to interact with cyclists?

Think back to when you were a teenager. Before driving a car, there was driver's ed. Those classroom lectures and crash-filled movies probably challenged your attention span. But one thing that received very little attention in class were bicycles. As Greater Boston has seen a dramatic rise in cyclists pedaling next to cars and trucks, we wondered if today's driver's ed students were getting any better training as to how to share the road with cyclists.

“Most of us are experienced drivers, but it doesn’t mean we’re skilled,” said Dan Strollo, who runs a driving school and is also president of the Massachusetts Driver Education Association. He's pretty close to the action when drivers approach a cyclist: sometimes they freeze, other times they get frustrated. But why is this? How can most of us navigate through Boston's confusing streets, last-second merges and distracted drivers without getting in an accident? What happens to the rules of the road when cyclists are added?

To find out, I asked Strollo to take me out for a drive, to see what I needed to learn, or re-learn.

We met in Lexington …

“You pulled into the spot," Strollo said. "If we look in these mirrors and turn around, we still have a lot of blocked areas. So you really need to look in your mirror and look behind you. And bicyclists are hard to see. You can tell the people who know what they’re doing when they’re in the orange vests and they’ve got bright colors on. But you have a kid in a black spandex outfit who comes flying by …”

We drove down Mass Ave to Arlington.

“There’s a lot of traffic, it’s slightly rainy today," I said to Strollo. "And there is somebody here on a red bicycle. He’s not wearing a helmet, but I’m trying not to be judgmental. What should I do?"

“The objective is to get around them, unless they’re traveling faster than you are," Strollo said. "But to do it in a way that can give them some space. You don’t want to crowd them.”

“Luckily it’s pretty clear," I said. "I can pass him.”

“You as a driver don’t know whether that cyclist is suddenly going to swerve around a pothole or do something that is going to put both of you at risk,” Strollo said.

That's a good scenario: If a bike swerves, what should you as a driver do? First rule: Don't tailgate a cyclist. Strollo recommends drivers give bikes at least 5 feet of space on all sides. Next: if you're in a car, always - always - yield to cyclists. And third, and perhaps most importantly, don't turn immediately after you pass a cyclist.

"Another trick that you really want to be conscious of is if a bike falls in the road, don’t stare at them," Strollo said. "Stare at the safe direction to go. We will start to steer towards what we’re looking at. So look where the safe route is.”

As a driver, you might think one of the safest places is after you park on a road. But think again. The possibility of drivers opening a car door and hitting a passing cyclist is so dangerous, it now carries a $100 fine. Even so, many laws still favor the car driver.

"Right now it’s actually not illegal statewide for motorists to park their cars in bike lanes, which creates a danger for bicyclists who then have to merge into traffic,” said David Watson, head of the largest bicycle advocacy group in the state, MassBike. With so many more cyclists sharing the road these days, his group is pushing for a new law: Reduce the standard unmarked speed limit of 30 miles per hour down to 25.

"I understand that drivers can feel a sense of frustration when faced with having to share space where they never used to.," Watson said. "But I think the reason for that is that they’re not bicyclists. They have trouble putting themselves in the place of the bicyclists and understanding why they’re doing what they’re doing."

One way to understand this is to "walk a mile in someone else's shoes," or in this case, "ride a mile." Watson believes the best way to educate drivers is to get them on bikes. Second? Review the state's Registry of Motor Vehicles driving manual. Remember? That book you studied to get your driver's permit. That brings us full circle to driver’s ed.

“We added a whole new pool of questions to the Class D permit exam that specifically address bicycle safety and sharing the road,” said Rachel Kaprielian, the Massachusetts Registrar of Motor Vehicles.

"Every applicant for a class D permit will receive one of those questions," she said. "And they were asked a total of 156,000 times in 2012 with a success rate of 75 percent.”

Kaprielian and Strollo hope that success rate will go up. And while one question is not in-depth, it's a start.

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