Cyclist vs. motorist for right of way

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 5:46 PM

How should a cyclist on a city street respond to an impatient driver? During my online chat Monday, a cyclist described such a scenario. Later, a traveler wrote in to question my response. Here's the chat comment that started this:

"I was cycling on the K Street service road on Sunday afternoon when I was approached from behind by a motorist who repeatedly honked her horn and threatened to run me off the road.

"Despite the fact that the main road was clear of traffic, this continued for five blocks. I then made a right turn and watched the motorist accelerate down the service road with no apparent intention of turning or parking. I'm not very familiar with the area - so why was it to the motorist's advantage to drive across the city on the service road instead of K Street? Does the service road allow you to avoid a traffic signal or something similar? If the K Street service road is unacceptable for cycling, then what is an acceptable crosstown cycling route?"

I replied that the situation was just plain weird. We shouldn't be looking for any road rules or for any better understanding of how drivers behave from this incident.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Surely the cyclist must share some of the blame for not yielding the right of way to the motorist who was legally using the service road. The cyclists actions were not only selfish, but even dangerous.

He or she could have taken the moral high ground and engaged in safer behavior by pulling aside, instead of being apparently annoyed and pigheaded by refusing to yield to the bigger and heavier automobile.

The cyclist might follow the example in this anecdote: In the nation's capital before the Civil War, the sidewalks of Washington were mostly narrow wooden boards with deep mud on either side. One rainy afternoon a leading Northern abolitionist senator confronted a prominent Southern congressman on one of these narrow boards with room enough for only one man to proceed. The congressman shouted belligerently, "Move aside, sir, I do not make way for scoundrels!" The senator, stepping gently into the mud, replied with a bow and a wave of his hand, "Ah, but I do."

Hugh O'Neill, The District

If I were cycling on K Street with someone out of control in a car behind me, I would have pulled over. But I was reluctant to offer that as official Dr. Gridlock advice for such situations.

I won't tell my readers they must always get out of the way or pay the ticket or accept the federal pat-down in the airport security line. Generally, that's not how we make progress.

The bike rider on the K Street service road in the heart of downtown Washington had the same legal right to the lane that the driver did. I could no more advise the biker to pull over than I could tell a driver in the right lane of Interstate 95 to pull over to the shoulder if an aggressive driver were honking behind him.

When I said so to O'Neill, he had a good response: "Common sense, and the instinct for self preservation would dictate that the cyclist defer to the car no matter who is at fault. As my mother used to say when us kids were about to take dangerous self-righteous chances, 'You'll be right, dead right, but dead just the same.' "

I turned for more advice to experts on city cycling and safety.

Jim Sebastian, the bicycle program manager for the District Department of Transportation, agreed on the road rule: Cyclists as well as motorists have the right to be in the K Street service lane. In general, cyclists should ride as far right as practicable but can take the whole lane if it's narrow or they are avoiding hazards, such as parked vehicles. Sebastian said he often bikes in that lane without problems.

Glen Harrison, who directs the bicycle education program at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, agreed that the cyclist had the right to use the lane and noted that this person could have used the main travel lanes on K Street. So could the car driver.

Referring to the original comment from the cyclist, Harrison extended the teachable moment: "The key words here are '. . . threatened to run me off the road.' This puts the situation into negotiating with an aggressive driver (instead of a case of usage rules) and the best advice for any vehicle operator, pedestrian, etc. is to steer clear of these kinds of illegal vehicle operators."

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write to Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. By e-mail: His blog: On Twitter: drgridlock.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company