Driver urges common sense at intersections


A cyclist makes use of the bike lane along New Hampshire Avenue in Northwest Washington. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
Robert Thomson
Columnist October 24, 2012

Our continuing discussion of what drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are supposed to do when they meet each other [Dr. Gridlock, Oct. 14] took travelers in many different directions.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

The discussion of this issue seems mostly to illuminate the dismal level of driver education and awareness in this country.

Of course, drivers should not stop suddenly to accommodate people waiting patiently to cross the road. Drivers should not do anything suddenly except in an emergency. It is the responsibility of a driver to make sure, when he or she is stopping for a non-emergency reason, that other road users have time to see and react.

Of course, following cars might have to stop suddenly if they have inattentive drivers who follow too close or don’t pay attention to brake lights in front of them. That’s not a special problem with trail crossings.

Of course, one driver stopping does not guarantee that drivers in other lanes will stop, too. Courtesy is not very contagious, especially between cars. One might question the wisdom of transportation planners who let trails cross multi-lane roads without stoplights or refuges.

And of course, a wise pedestrian or cyclist would wait for a gap in the traffic or a courteous driver before stepping into the road.

But I don’t think you can be serious with your statement that drivers have no responsibility to stop for people waiting at a marked crossing. Imagine the alternative: if the only way to get across the road were to step into the path of traffic. Pedestrians (and many bikes) can’t cross a road nearly as quickly as cars can pull out of a side street, so they would have to wait for a much larger gap in the traffic, which might not happen for a long time.

The rule that English drivers are taught — and, observation suggests, in other places in Europe, too — is that drivers should give way, when they can do so safely, to pedestrians waiting at an uncontrolled but marked pedestrian crossing.

No requirement to step into the road. I’m not sure whether it is the law, but it was a safe-driving practice required in my English on-road driving test. I don’t remember anything like that for my Maryland license, which just tested for knowledge of law. A sensible American driver might modify the English rule by not stopping if there is no traffic behind her, so the stop is not necessary.

What, you don’t know what’s behind you? See first sentence of this letter.

Bob Dennis, Potomac

DG: I’d feel pretty safe traveling if I knew I were surrounded by people such as Dennis, with his common sense and good training. But I do, of course, look at the first sentence of his letter and fear that he’s right about that, too.

Because I’m surrounded by strangers when I walk or cycle, I don’t know whether the person behind the wheel of the oncoming car is Dennis or someone of dismal awareness. And I hate being out of control of my own fate on the road, so I’m often tempted to handle a crossing just as the next letter writer describes.

cyclists, be coy

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I agree, for the most part, with Rhonda Krafchin, who wrote that many times bicyclists are ill-served by motorists who stop to let them cross a busy street. What she left out was that the bicyclist is in almost total control of what happens.

If you, on your bike, don’t want cars to stop for you, don’t hover at the curb. Stop five or 10 feet back. Don’t eyeball each car as it approaches.

In other words, don’t give any signals to drivers that you actually want to cross.

Or, if you want a more active role, wave your hand in the “keep moving” motion.

Krafchin wrote about making and keeping eye contact with the driver. That advice is sound only when actually crossing, not before.

Alexander Fraser, Kensington

DG: Do you avoid confrontation at crossings by hanging back or do you actively engaging in some sort of nonverbal communication with the drivers? Which strategy do you think is safer?

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