Sharing the Streets: Bike Safety
Monday, July 28, 2008; 12:00 PM
With gas prices topping $4 a gallon, more bicyclists than ever are sharing the Washington city streets with cars.
Washington Area Bicyclist Association executive director Eric Gilliland was online Monday, July 29 at Noon for a discussion on bike safety in the city. Eric is a certified bicycling instructor and a long-time bicyclist in the city.
Washington, DC: I assume WABA has been in touch with the MPD regarding the ridiculous bicycle stings last week on New Hampshire Avenue. Have they indicated if they'll return to this level of enforcement against cyclists or have they received enough complaints to focus on the actual reasons (like construction and cars) for the congestion in that area?
Eric Gilliland: We are in the process of arranging a meeting with the MPD about the sting operation against bicyclists, as well as the case of Alice Swanson and the pedestrian that was struck last week. Regarding the sting we feel it was both poorly timed and ill informed. Coming so soon after the death of Alice the ticketing operation against cyclists strikes us as blaming the victim. Also, the place where cyclists were being ticketed has had only 4 bike crashes in the last decade. The enforcement should have taken place at a high crash intersection.
Washington, DC: Are their any laws regarding bicycling at night? As a motorist, I routinely come upon a bicycler wearing all dark clothing with no reflective gear or lights. On many streets, they are very very hard to see.
Eric Gilliland: There are no laws that say cyclists riding at night should wear bright clothing or reflective gear, though we recommend cyclists wear both. DC law requires cyclists to use a front light and rear reflector, but WABA recommends using a rear light as well.
Fairfax, Va.: I am an occasional rider who loves to be on my bike, but don't really feel comfortable to do it more often based on the traffic in my area. I've thought about riding longer distances, i.e. commuting to work, however am not sure about bike riding rules in VA. Do I have to ride on the street? Which side? What other things do i need to know? My area has become very busy, and I would love to be able to ride on sidewalks to avoid angry drivers, but I have a feeling it's not allowed. Also, are there any recreational groups that go riding in the Fairfax area? Thanks so much
Eric Gilliland: For newer cyclists out there I highly recommend taking one of WABA's confident city cycling classes. See www.waba.org for more details and a schedule of classes. We always say that cyclists fare best when they act like, and are treated as, motor vehicles. That means riding on the road, not the sidewalk, and riding with traffic. Riding on the sidewalk, while appealing, presents its own unique danger. With parked cars, newspaper boxes, etc. lining the sidewalk drivers have difficulty seeing cyclists as they approach intersections.
For a list of recreational clubs in the DC region, please visit http:/
Fairfax, Va.: Hi there! This is a very timely discussion for me. I live about a 10 minute walk from the Metro, but with small children, it is difficult to take them and all of their gear. I have a 19-month-old and 3-year-old. I would love to bike to work and take the metro with them, but it appears that my only option is a Burley bike trailer. I don't think that the metro will allow me to take up so much space on a train with a bike attached to a trailer...any suggestions?
My only other alternative is that I could try and trek the 17 miles to work using the bike trails, but I have a hard enough time keeping the kiddies occupied for a 45 minute car ride. How do you keep them quiet (and warm in the winter) for a hour? Is it just a matter of time before they get used to it?
Eric Gilliland: Tough question. Trailers are not allowed on Metro, so your trip will be a challenge. The only option I can think of right now would be to rent two bike lockers at the metro stations you use.
I think the kids will get accustomed to it, but packing them in blankets in the winter is a good start. Toys and books are also ways to keep them occupied. That works for me.
Eric Gilliland: My name is Eric Gilliland and I'm the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association or WABA. We are a 7000-member bike safety and educational organization that has been working to promote bicycling for transportation and recreation in the DC area since 1972.
Rockville, Md.: Who (or what body) certifies a bicycle instructor?
Eric Gilliland: Bike instructors are known as League Certified Instuctors that are certified by the League of American Bicyclists. More info at www.bikeleague.org.
Bethany Beach: We are plagued with hundreds of "wrong way" cyclists here every summer, so much so that I've taken to yelling at every one of them. They come in all ages -- from kids to retirees and older. Three cyclists were hit by cars just last week alone in separate incidents. What do you recommend we do when we encounter these suicidal maniacs, and how can we better educate them? They are such a hazard that I really have to plan my trips out to roads where I am not likely to encounter them -- not easy!
Eric Gilliland: Well, I certainly do not recommend yelling at them. I would push your local police department and DOT for better education of cyclists. In DC we have begun to install "Ride with Traffic" signs to counter this behavior.
Washington, DC: I am a District resident who does not own a bike or a car. I walk and use mass transit. I have had some near misses with bicyclists riding on sidewalks in downtown. Can you explain where in downtown Washington it is illegal to bicycle on the sidewalk? I have noticed more biking on sidewalks, lately. Also, are bicyclists required to have a bell on their bike to alert others? I support more people riding bikes, as long as they do it lawfully. Thanks.
Eric Gilliland: It's illegal to ride on the sidewalk in the central business district, which is loosely defined by Mass Ave to the North, 2nd Street NE to the east, 23rd St to the west and C Street SE and Constitution Ave to the south. National Park lands such as the National Mall are exempt from this.
Bicyclist are required to have a bell. In my mind it's one of the best safety devices you can own.
Olney, Md.: One of the big problems with bikes on roads is that drivers of cars are simply unaware that they have a right to be there. I even had a police officer tell me I should find a different place to ride. Have you ever heard of any efforts to educate drivers, especially police officers, about the rights and value of having bikes in a city?
Eric Gilliland: Unfortunately there are far too few effort to educate both drivers and police officers on the laws as they related to cyclists. WABA hopes to begin a Share the Road PSA campaign this fall to help educate all roadway users, and we are also working with the DC Dept of Transportation on getting our Pocket Guide to DC Bike Laws into the hands of police officers. They need additional training as well.
DC: Thanks, Eric, for your and WABA's efforts to make DC safe for cyclists. I commute to work regularly on the Capital Crescent Trail and I notice that while most, if not all, cyclists warn other cyclists when passing, many do not warn pedestrians and joggers. My understanding is that one should warn when passing anyone else, whether on a bike or on foot, and I would encourage all cyclists to do that.
Eric Gilliland: See my previous post about bells. They are great both on the street and on trails. Especially ones as crowded as the Capital Crescent.
St. Louis, Mo.: Do you prefer a front child seat or a rear one? I'm not a terribly strong cyclist, so I'm looking for a seat that will not throw off my balance too greatly and will be safe for my child. Thanks!
Eric Gilliland: Have you considered a trailer? It might help with the balance issue. We are starting to notice more of the front child seats which are popular in Europe, but I dont have any information about which is safer front or rear. In either case both the child and the parent should be wearing helmets. If you fall and get knocked unconscious what happens to your child?
Washington, DC: So what's the issue that bicyclists face? It's lazy police. We can install bike lanes and other measures to ensure vehicles and bicyclists share the road, but ultimately, the police have to step up and actually make the regulations more than mere suggestions.
Eric Gilliland: I would certainly agree. The laws on the books that are designed to protect cyclists and pedestrians are generally pretty good, though the fine for striking a cyclist or ped in the crosswalk is the same fine as if you ran over a fire hose. Fine for such violations need to increase dramatically, but even the best laws are useless if they are not enforced and enforced properly.
Maryland: I've been commuting into DC from Maryland for the past several years and I love it. However, rarely does a day go by that I don't experience hostility from drivers in form of honking, angry looks/comments as well as aggressive/dangerous driving. It would be great if area law enforcement could help communicate to drivers that cyclists are to be respected. As director of WABA what is your feeling of the typical police officer's attitude toward cyclists? Are they out to help us or do they see us as an annoyance? Thanks.
Eric Gilliland: As I just mentioned, we feel that enforcement of traffic laws for everyone (and that includes cyclists) is a huge issue. But enforcing traffic laws does not appear to be a priorty for the police, even though encouraging biking and walking are a priorty for the city overall. I get far too many calls each year from cyclists that have been ticketed for doing nothing wrong. In many of these cases if you simply replaced the bike with a car, the case would have gone the other way.
Alexandria, Va.: I am deaf and do not hear bicycle warnings. Please let your bicycle members know that not everyone can hear them coming, and to please be safe when passing pedestrians.
Eric Gilliland: Thanks for your post. We try to teach everyone that the pedestrian take priority whether it's on the road or on the trails.
Vienna, Va.: I'm one of the few bikers who actually stop at stop signs and red lights. Most bikers I notice disdain traffic signals entirely. I understand the argument is that they "aren't a vehicle" and see no need to stop if the road is clear. Cross and oncoming traffic, however, isn't always visible until the last minute. I think the practice is just an accident waiting to happen. What do you think should be done to enforce traffic laws so that all may share the road safely?
Eric Gilliland: The laws on the books are good; it's the lack of enforcement that is the issue whether that's for drivers, peds or cyclists. We feel that enforcement should be conducted in a way that does the most good in locations where there is a clearly identified problem. By sheer numbers there are a lot more drivers on the road then there are cyclists and the impact of driver inattention is potentially much greater than that of cyclist inattention.
Washington, DC: I'm thinking about taking up biking to commute to work. Working at the Capitol, I'm wondering if I can ride my bike on the mall or if I have to bike on the street. Any insight? Thanks!
Eric Gilliland: You can ride your bike on the Mall. If you are looking for a good route, give WABA a call at 202-518-0524 or e-mail email@example.com. We have a Commuter Assistance program that is designed to match you up with an experienced bike commuter that might know the best and safest route for you to take.
Alexandria, Va.: Many bicycle commuters in the area also receive the federal "metro checks" in return for giving up a parking space at work. While these are great to have days we can't ride and use metro, much of the allocation goes unused. Is there any prospect in the future to allow bicycle commuters to allocate a portion of the subsidy to be used for bicycle infrastructure improvement?
Eric Gilliland: There have been attempts to do just that. Congressman Earl Blumenauer has repeatedly introduced the Bicycle Commuter Act that would extend the transportation fringe benefit to cyclists. Right now it just subsidizes those that metro to work, and even helps pay for parking spots. That said there are good examples in the DC area of private firms and local goverments that have offered benefits to those that commute by bike.
Washington, DC: Comment: The pavement quality itself is pretty poor. Not the worst I've seen in an urban area (New Orleans was horrid even before Katrina), but a lot of the surfaces downtown just don't seem capable of handling the high vehicle traffic. Construction and resurfacing often takes a few months, and brand new surfaces get torn up for underground repairs, wasting the effort that went into resurfacing. The result is that cyclists don't have as many options available for staying safe and predictable because they're too busy dodging cracks, gashes, and potholes. Drivers already think that the pavement is bad; it's doubly worse for cyclists.
Eric Gilliland: I agree that the roadway itself presents a challenge. In such cases it is often wise to "take the lane" which gives you more room to evade pavement issues.
Arlington, Va.: Eric, does WABA, as a matter of practice, follow up with the MPD in instances like cyclist Alice Swanson's death? All too often, the last word we hear about any situation in which a cyclist is injured or killed is "police are still investigating" and that's it. I suppose it's better than resolving into a $50 ticket for a hit and run, but until more motorists see that there are consequences for their actions, they'll keep making it miserable on the roads for cyclists.
Eric Gilliland: We are watching the Alice Swanson case very closely, but in spite of our repeated efforts to get more information about the case calls to the Major Crash unit have not been returned. We are in the process of setting up a meeting with MPD to discuss this, but have nothing solid yet. We have been pretty disappointed with the reaction to the tragedy by the city as a whole.
Vienna, Va.: Are the old-fashioned hand signals that I learned as a child obsolete? I never see anybody use them. There's no point using that 90 degree gesture with the left arm to indicate a right turn. Nobody would understand. So I just hold out my right arm and figure that people will guess what that means.
Eric Gilliland: Both are still acceptable, but the 90 degree right hand turn signal is for people surrounded by steel and glass. You are not.
Alexandria, Va.: Do cyclists have to follow the rules of the road even if there are no cars around? This weekend I nearly got mowed down in a crosswalk by a cyclist who didn't stop at the stop sign, and I don't think I've ever seen a cylist stop at a stop sign unless there were cars around.
Eric Gilliland: Rules are rules, regardless of the time of day or whether there are others around.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi, Eric. Great chat...and perfect timing (for me)! I recently started riding my bike in the city of Philadelphia, and I am curious to know if there is a similar organization to WABA in the Philadelphia area that you might be aware of? Your site seems very comprehensive and I hope we have something similar here also. Thanks for your help!
Eric Gilliland: Check out the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia at http:/
Chantilly, Va.: As a long time cyclist, I feel the number one issue is the attitude the general public has towards cyclists with regards to how we behave on the road. How is WABA working with local governments to educate the general public (as well as legislative bodies) that cycling benefits all of us and not only the one on the seat? One of the things I strongly feel is that cyclists should have their own set of rules. We're not pedestrians, yet we're classified as such when we ride on the sidewalk. Nor are we in the same class as cars and trucks, yet we're classified as such when we're on the road among them. Why isn't there a third class in the legislative arena specifically targeting the rights and responsibilities of cyclists? What is being done to address this deficiency?
Eric Gilliland: We work very actively with local governing bodies, regional planning organizations and citizens on educating everyone about the many benefits of bicycling. Many are starting to catch on, though it's taken $4/gallon gas to get them there.
Generally there are separate sections of law that are specific to cyclists.
Washington, DC: Hi. I'm wondering if you have any suggestions for riding in cities where there are few pedestrians and cyclists. I go to grad school in a small city that would be great for biking, but I find it much more dangerous than DC because it's a total car culture and drivers are not used to bike traffic. Thanks!
Eric Gilliland: DC is actually one of the safer places to ride and we are finding that while cycling is increasing dramtically, injuiries and fatalities are remaining steady. Studies have shown that the more cyclists there are on the road, the safer it is to bike. Mainly because driver get accustomed to interacting with cyclists.
In your case I would test a variety of routes on lower speed streets, wear bright clothing and make sure you are visible.
Vienna, Va.: A comment: It drives me nuts when I see a family out bicycling and only the children are wearing helmets. Doesn't it occur to the parents that they should set a good example? Or that if they are in a mishap and end up with permanent brain damage, they won't be much good as parents anymore?
Eric Gilliland: While helmets are only required for those under the age of 16, they are very smart for everone that rides.
Takoma Park: What do you think of the Idaho "stop sign means a yield sign for bikes" law? To me it seems like common sense. It also strikes me as a terrific way to alert drivers and police that bicycles may legally go on the road.
Eric Gilliland: I think it's an interesting idea that is being further explored in California. I dont think the DC area is quite ready for something that out of the box.
Mt. Pleasant, DC: I disagree with your comment about using the left arm to signal a right-hand turn. On every bike I've ever owned, the back brake is activated by the right hand. Using your right hand to signal basically means you only have your left brake in case you need to stop. Since activating the left brake usually results in a sudden stop as opposed to the back brake yielding a slower stop or skid, it puts the cyclist in a very dangerous situation at the moment they are about to execute a turn. It is much safer to continue to use the right hand. Also, hand signals are still a part of driver education materials, so young and old should know what they are, even if they are rare in utilization.
Eric Gilliland: As I said, both are acceptable. But many bikes these days like the single speeds and fixed gears come with only a front brake because that is where your stopping power comes from. Granted it has to be used wisely.
Alexandria, Va.: Eric, as a bicycle commuter and long time WABA member, I want to thank you for all your hard work. I noticed that WABA is planning to revive Bike DC in September. Can you share some details about that event? Thanks.
Eric Gilliland: Thanks for your support!
Bike DC, which will take place in late September, is actually being run by the person who produces the Portland Bridge Pedal, the second largest ride in the county. A portion of the proceeds will benefit WABA.
Baltimore, Md: My boyfriend was recently side swiped by a car on Charles Street in Baltimore. (He is okay.) He was riding with traffic on a one way road with parked cars on both sides. He exchanged info with the driver only to discover that her insurance would not accept fault because he was riding closer to the parked cars and not "in the lane." Can you offer any advice?
Eric Gilliland: I'd consult the MD traffic code and consult with a lawyer. In all cases involving a crash between a driver and a cyclist we recommend reporting it to the police. Without a ticket, blame cannot be assigned and it makes recovering any damages nearly impossible. Whether the police will make a proper call on the crash is another story.
Capital Crescent Trail, MD: Hi. Eric. Thanks for doing this chat. It seems like one of the challenges is educating bikers and drivers alike about common rules. What efforts are underway to improve signage (since many folks honestly don't know many of the basics)? Is there anything we can do?
Eric Gilliland: I've said before that I would love to see signs on major arterials throughout the DC area that say either "Share the Road" or "We walk and bike here, please dont run us over". I think we have a better chance at the former.
DC Burbs: RE: bike trailers for kids. A friend who works in an ER says these things get sideswiped all the time by cars who wait for the bike to pass but don't notice the trailer (even if there's a flag), and so I've avoided buying one. Has that been your experience?
Eric Gilliland: The fact that the trailer sits low is a concern and flags should be used on all of them.
Arlington, Va.: Thanks for your work, Eric. Can we also educate pedestrians about the hazards of wearing an iPod? Warning pedestrians does no good if they are blasting music into their own ears and are not paying attention. I had a very nasty fall just last weekend.
Eric Gilliland: I think that all the trails in the area need to do a much better job in educating trail users. Headphones are a concern for both cyclists and pedestrians and you should never make a turn, pass or turn around without first checking behind you.
Alexandria, Va.: Re: Biking on Sidewalks: I much prefer biking on the road, but when I get off the 14th Street Bridge in DC, I don't see that I have much choice but to get on the sidewalk or ride the wrong way to get downtown. And I'm not alone. Between the Bridge and the Constitution, scores of cyclist are on the sidewalk. Do you of any way to safely and legally cycle into downtown from the Bridge? Are there any plans in place to make it easier to get into town?
Eric Gilliland: There is a study underway that is looking at both the DC and VA sides of the 14th Street Bridge with an eye toward improving the connections for bikes/peds. Regarding the route, it really depends on your ultimate destination, but Ohio Drive south of the Jefferson is a good road, and 15th Street (Raoul Wallenburg) is generally fine. The section aroun the Tidal Basin is very tough to navigate.
Washington: The bottom line is, the police can't be everywhere. I have actually seen bikers on Rock Creek Parkway during rush hour 20 feet away from the very nice bike path. It's dangerous for everyone, what with all the road curves, and cops can't stop and ticket bikers there. I know, as a bike advocate, you don't want people yelling at bikers, and no, I wouldn't yell at a biker from a car on Rock Creek Parkway, but it's awfully hard as a pedestrian not to yell at someone who almost runs you over. And I am speaking as someone who was in a bike accident recently because a pedestrian suddenly darted out into the street in front of me without looking.
Eric Gilliland: I'd try riding on that bike path if I were you. It's narrow, and completely crumbing leaving cyclists really no other option.
I agree that there can often be frustration between all modes, but I think a better understanding of the point of few of each would help.
Arlington: I wish that whenever people blindly gave the advice to wear helmets that it was as common to inform them that there is debate as to the effectiveness of current bike helmets, that they might make certain types of injuries worse, that the risk of a serious head injury on a bike is no greater (or even less) than walking or driving (yet people spend more time doing that and don't wear helmets) and that if they were truly worried they might get injured they may want to consider wearing a motorcycle helmet, which unlike a bike helmet, is designed to protect against serious impacts. Then people could decide for themselves how much is hysteria and make an informed choice. There is a good collection of facts and statistics about this at a Web site called "The Vehicular Cyclist" (http:/
Eric Gilliland: The debate over the effectiveness of helmets is ongoing. At WABA we always say that while helmets may be effective in reducing the severity of a crash, they do not prevent crashes from happening in the first place. We work hard in the hope that no one will ever have to test whether helmets work or not.
Arlington, Va.: I used to love to ride my bike before I moved to this area. Many drivers in this area appear to be hostile to all other commuters, be they fellow motorists, cyclists or pedestrians. I've had too many close calls to ever get on a bike in a DC metro area road again. Do you have any advice for those of use who are too afraid to brave the roads on a bike?
Eric Gilliland: I'd say take one of our Confident City Cycling classes. They are really designed for people who ride, but a bit apprehensive about riding with traffic. We teach about proper equipment, lane positioning, the rules of the road, as well as about the common causes of bike crashes. A little knowlege and experience can go a long way.
Washington, DC: As a woman who regularly bikes to work, I am looking for a stylish bike helmet that will not mess up my hair. Any tips?
Eric Gilliland: Having no sense of style myself, this is a tough question to answer though I've heard that wearing a cycling cap can help prevent "helmet head".
WO&D: Eric, great chat. I'm motivated to renew my WABA membership.
Eric Gilliland: Thanks! I urge everyone that rides a bike to do the same.
DC: I seem to remember that DC used to require cyclists to ride to the far right, but no longer does. As a car driver it seems to me that now that they are all over the road they are at higher risk. It amazes me how many use the left lane when they are clearly slower than the slowest traffic, or quickly weave around moving cars whose drivers might not spot them when making lane changes. Is it a lack of enforcement, or looser rules?
Eric Gilliland: The law still does say that, but there are many exceptions to the rule such as when you have to take a left turn, or avoid debris. Again, this is a case where the laws for bike and the laws for cars are similar: slower traffic should stay to the right.
Minneapolis, Minn.: 1. Considering many lights now work on a trip system, is it ever okay for a cyclist to run a red light? 2. Should you start wearing lights/headlights on your bike an hour before dusk, right at dusk or whenever you the cyclist cannot see very well? Thank you for having this panel and I look forward to reading it over on Monday!
Eric Gilliland: I imagine there are very extraordinary circumstances (at the director of a traffic control officer, to make way for an emergency vehicle) where it's legal to run a red light, but in general, no.
I'd have to check your state's laws about the particular time of day that lights are required, but whenever you youself cannot see as well, that's a good time to turn them on. If not earlier.
Washington, DC: Bicycling Magazine ranked DC as one of the most improved cities for bicycling in the country. With innovative ideas such as bike-sharing, Union Station Bike Station and the Metropolitan Branch Trail all behind schedule(the MBT is years behind) do you find this designation accurate? What is keeping DC from being a world class cycling city? Even neighboring Arlington County ranks higher, having been awarded Silver Bicycle Friendly Community status by League of American Bicyclists.
Eric Gilliland: I think that yes, DC is making great strides, but we still have a very long way to go. What is holding DC back? I think the delays faced by key trail projects (Met Branch, Anacostia) are part of it, the need for more on road bike lanes especially on high volume streets, the lack of motorist education and enforcement, better incentives for developers to provide lockers and changing facilities, better incentives (re: $) to encourage people to commute, city support for large bike riding events, more innovative engineering solutions like bike boxes, cycle tracks, etc...
We are certainly getting there and I think we will see a lot over the next two to five years.
DC Commuter: My 14-year-old son just took the Confident Cycling Class. He was the only kid there. What can be done to integrate the class in the DC public school Physical Education curriculum, and get more/better/secure bike racks at schools? Middle school through high school kids who don't drive are limited to Metro and bus. Bicycling is a great alternative way to get to school, meet friends and get around town. My kid is loving cycling!
Eric Gilliland: WABA already teaches bike and ped safety in DC public schools, but that's mainly in the k-5 age range. We are actually working on a middle school cirriculum as we speak. We are also working with DCDOT on improving bike and ped access and amenities such as parking to DC schools as part of the Safe Routes to School program. Eight pilot schools for this program will be selected soon.
Washington, D.C.: Can a scooter or moped ride in a designated bike lane?
Eric Gilliland: Segways are allowed in bike lanes. Motorized bicycles which includes most mopeds are also allowed, but must be incapable of doing 35 mph. I think allowing mopeds in a bike lanes is a bad idea.
Takoma Park, Md: Does having a bike path parallel to the road make it illegal for a cyclist to use the road?
Eric Gilliland: In Maryland you are require to use a bike lane if one is present, but you are not required to use a sidepath or trail.
Arlington, Va.: Can you discuss the legality of a cyclist passing on the right around cars stopped in traffic? I have a half mile jaunt on a 'parkway' that provides no shoulder and has massive steel grates (lost one tire already) every 100 feet. Last week I was passing cars that were stopped in traffic and a motorist swerved towards me and pushed me into the grass, and then again into on-coming traffic when I tried to pass on the left (yes, that was illegal) to make eye contact with the motorist. Is passing on the right in traffic illegal?
Eric Gilliland: I belive in VA you are allowed to "split lanes" which means you can pass either on the right or the left. But in passing on the right or left take special care to make sure the driver sees you and pay special attention at intersections.
Eric Gilliland: Thanks for all the great questions. If you ever need more information about biking in the DC area please check out our website at www.waba.org.
Please ride safely!
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