The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s one bicyclist’s low-tech life hack to keep cars at bay

Toronto cyclist Warren Huska has attached a pool noodle to his bicycle to remind motorists of Ontario’s one-meter safe-passing law. (Randy Risling/Toronto Star)

After six years of commuting by bicycle, Warren Huska had had it with the hostile motorists who screamed obscenities, flipped him off and blew past frighteningly close. So when Ontario passed a law last year requiring motorists to stay at least one meter from cyclists, Huska looked for a way to stake his legal claim to the road.

“I said, ‘I’m done,'” Huska told the Post Wednesday. “I grabbed the pool noodle my daughter had brought home, slapped it on the back of my bike, and staked my space.”

The Toronto resident used a bungee cord to strap the floppy styrofoam flotation device on sideways, so it sticks out — except when he tucks it behind him in a bike lane or narrow area. The change from motorists, he said, was “significant and instantaneous.”

“No one touches the noodle,” Huska chuckled.

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He knows it looks weird. (His daughters, ages 12 and 16, greeted the idea with an eye roll and “Oh, Dad” groan.) But Huska, 53, says his noodle is working. More cars are giving him more space. His commute feels safer and more relaxed.

“I just want to get home safely to dinner,” he said.

News of Huska’s noodle contraption has gone viral since the Toronto Star wrote about it last week. An Australian website dubbed it a life hack. He now gets thumbs up and shouts of “Hey, you’re the guy!” from passing motorists.

“There’s obviously an appetite for a conversation,” Huska said. “This is simply a spark…I think it’s an acknowledgement that cities are challenging to coexist in. How can we do it so everyone can get from A to B safely?”

Of course, a pool noodle offers no protection, and some drivers aren’t amused. The GoPro camera that Huska wears on his helmet to collect video evidence of irate motorists who hit him captured a furious van driver shouting, “What the f— is that thing sticking out of your f—— bike?”

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But Huska says the noodle provides a helpful visual buffer, a way of telling motorists, “Please, more space.” Even with the new safe-passing law, he says, Toronto has a “very strident car culture” and lags behind other major cities in building bike lanes. His daily commute of about 10 miles each way is mostly along major arterial roads that don’t have bike lanes.

He said 99 percent of motorists respect the noodle, probably because many know how scary it can be to ride a bicycle in or next to traffic. The other 1 percent he considers to be clueless or hostile “rogues,” like the enraged van driver who “rammed the noodle” and hit his arm before driving off.

“The vehicle kind of insulates them from the consequences of their actions and any awareness of who else is on the road, even where the edge of their door is,” he said.

Colin Browne, a spokesman for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said retractable flags that stick out to the side have been on the market for several years, particularly as gear for longer-distance travel rides. In the Washington region, he said, state and city laws require motorists to pass cyclists from at least three feet away.

While Browne said he applauds Huska’s homespun approach, he said cyclists really need more bike lanes and off-road trails, more physical buffers between them and cars, and better police enforcement of safe-passing laws.

“It’s frustrating that we’re relying on hacks from cyclists when really it’s a driver behavior problem,” Browne said. “The law says to pass beyond three feet. You shouldn’t have to attach a pool noodle to the back of your bike to make people do that.”

Huska, who works as a marketing director for a digital media company, is now on his third noodle — they get ratty after about six months — and he’s all for other cyclists copying his idea. A feather duster or small flag probably would work too, he said.

“I’m very happy to have been a flash point for a positive discussion about road safety and sharing the city,” Huska said. “I think people want to get along at the end of the day. I’m really happy to have been the oddball that raised people’s consciousness, even with a giggle factor.”