Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Most Important Signals for Cyclists

Greetings, Master. Welcome home from your cycling commute.
We have kept watch over the basil and bananas. They are safe.
We require food now.

I arrived home from work rather late the other night, well after dark. The rest of the family was on a brief out-of-town trip that left me home in charge of the felines. As I pedaled home in the dark at an hour advanced enough that the streets were quiet, I experienced a strong sense of foretelling or prognostication that when I unlocked the door and turned on the light, the cats would be waiting for me on the table. I had a mental image of them in a configuration like the one pictured above, accompanied by a high degree of certainty--not necessarily this exact permutation mind you, but sitting at attention, on the table, looking at me, waiting for me expectantly to come through the door, impatient for dinner.

First reply: no, this doesn't happen every night, or even often. In fact, I don't think it's every happened before. This is not our normal pattern.

Second reply: no, this post is not just about cats, it's about cyclists and signals. Just a sec, I'm getting to it.

The sense that they would be waiting for me was so strong that I took out my camera before I opened the door, turned it on, and checked to make sure the flash was charged. Then I unlocked the door, left my bike outside for a minute, went in, and took the picture. It turned out that my foretelling was correct, I got the picture, and I thought: I know why that just happened.

lemma1: It happened because I am familiar with the daily rhythms and movements of the cats. It also happened because I found it quite easy to get inside their alien little minds, and imagine what they would be thinking. Instantly, without effort, while riding my bicycle in the darkness a few miles from home. With enough confidence to prepare for what was about to happen and react to it with effect when it did happen as I thought it would. I knew what their goal would be, and I knew how they would react to the signal of me unlocking the door and turning on the light. Maybe you see where I am going with this now.

The previous night when I was riding home, it was still light out. There's one busy street that intersects the canal that I usually cross in two hops: I cross the northbound lanes first, wait for traffic to clear in the southbound lanes, and then cross them. I'm not sure that's a completely kosher technique, but I end up doing it every time, and there's enough space clearly blocked off in the median that I have no significant concerns while I wait. It would be better if there was a tunnel under that crossing, and there will be eventually if they ever finish it, but in the meantime, I two-hop it.

Anyway, that time, I made the first hop successfully, and coasted to a stop in the median, but did something different from normal: instead of looking at the southbound traffic to assess it, since I was feeling kind of tired, and certain that I was going to stop after one hop, I did not look at traffic. Instead, I just sort of looked down at my own front tire, feeling relaxed, just eased into position to wait for the clot of cars to pass.

Screech of tires, whine of brakes. What the?  

Soon as I looked up, I knew what had happened: an old lady had perceived a cyclist crossing a busy road, noticed that the cyclist was not looking at all the traffic rushing down the road, and came to the reasonable conclusion that cyclist was clueless or otherwise impaired, and was about to ride right in front of her. So she made a panic stop.

The thing is: this is exactly what I would want her to do in this situation, very possibly what I would do if I were in her place, yet I, the cyclist, screwed it up. I hope that I didn't scare her too much. I'm sorry. I would buy her a bunch of roses if I could track her down. But, at least I learned a lesson from my error: a glance, a nod, a look in a specific direction, can be a powerful signal, and is one of four primary tools that are totally within a cyclist's control to use to signal their intent, to influence the behavior of drivers, and to take advantage of deep-seated human nature that people have generally little or no awareness of. 

These four signals can be utilized at little cost to the cyclist and none to the taxpayer, do not require federal grants or significant infrastructure changes, and are in many ways superior to fixed mechanical or paint-based alternatives, as these are almost unlimited in possibilities since they are so flexible in their form and usage. The four signals are:

1) Hand signals indicating left turn, right turn, and slow/stop;
2) A front white light and rear red light at night;
3) Conscious, effective, predictable control of travel speed and direction, with lane specificity;
4) The gaze, glance, or look, emphasized and embellished by head position and rotation.

All of these forms of signals can be used to effectively share the road. They all take advantage of the pattern which I labeled "lemma1" above for your reference. Slightly reworded, same pattern:

lemma1A: The list 1-4 above are effective signals because I am familiar with the daily rhythms and movements of drivers. They are also effective because I find it quite easy to get inside their minds, and imagine what they are thinking. Instantly, without effort, while riding my bicycle a few miles from home. With enough confidence to prepare for what is about to happen, and react to it with effect when it does happen as I thought it would. I have a good idea what their goal is, and I have confidence in signaling to them to confirm to them what mine is, since they share the same, parallel sense of what I might do next.

lemma1 and lemma1A are not sure things. Nothing with human behavior is, right? But they are reliable enough to be extremely useful, and that's what I seek: useful levers to skew the outcome in my favor. Items 1-3 are either obvious, or need posts of their own for further elaboration. I included them here because they all spawn from lemma1A. 

But item 4 began to seem amazingly powerful to me, once I started consciously employing it. It's almost unfair, how strong an influence it has on unsuspecting drivers. And before I wrap this up with a few illustrative uses, I'll mention its opposite, or non-usage, scenario.

If you look at all cars as anonymous steel robots, and expect them to overlook you and ignore you, item 4 has no application for you, and is useless: you can stare at an empty car all day long, with the happiest, or most stern, or most intense gaze you can muster, and nothing will happen. It will miss whatever signal you are sending it.

But a human, or a cat for that matter, can't help but be affected if you look at it, and it sees you looking at it. At first I thought it was probably a remnant of a predator-avoidance reflex, and I can't entirely discount that, but it seems more likely to me a competitor-sizing-up reaction, or alternately, a potential mate evaluation. I can't entirely explain it, but I can easily illustrate it: if you ride your entire ride staring at your own front tire, you will have one sort of ride, and if you ride the entire ride looking at people to signal your intentions with high confidence, and what the hell, waving happily at everyone you meet, you will have another sort of ride. Of course not everyone will see you. But many will, and you can tell the difference.

My favorite is the glance over the left shoulder. It's almost insane how powerful it is. I use it every morning when I approach the roundabouts. Just as the bicycle lane ends and I go vehicular, I glance over my left shoulder AT any driver who happens to be there coming up behind me, and I'm telling you, done correctly, it almost paralyzes them in their tracks. Not always, but so often that it almost seems magic. As I do it, I think "I see you driver coming up behind me, want you to know that I see you, and that I intend to proceed through the roundabout first, OK?" and they can read my mind, I tell you. Just like I read my cats' minds before I came through the back door.

A couple of times, the opposite happened, the driver had no idea I was even there, and just blasted past me through the roundabout, but I had no problem because I was looking at them as they did it. Win-win. And you thought I had some altruistic reason for suggesting that you "see other users of the road as people!" Altruism, shmaltruism, I want you to understand their buttons and levers, and push them to achieve your own happy bicycling ends by using the signals at your disposal. 

Drivers: look at them. Bend them to your will. Get up. Go ride.

EDIT: Steve A's post today in a very similar spirit leads me to the proposition that Yetis are Psychic.


  1. "signals can be utilized at little cost to the cyclist..."

    Actually, the cyclist feels BETTER afterwards. We're lucky government doesn't charge us for making signals.

    It's not the actual LOOK that counts, but the head movement that makes the motorist KNOW you're looking, even if no eye contact is actually made. I pay more attention to the wheels than the motorist, because the car will go as the wheels go.

    The "thanks" wave is also a powerful means of making the motorist feel good about paying attention afterwards. Personally, I think motorists instinctively recognize cyclists who have the force strongly within them. As you noted, such cyclists are few and far between.


  2. Steve, I thought about writing about eye contact, but the post was getting long enough already. I agree, and I think it's an important point: eye contact is NOT required to achieve the desired result, and actually might be counterproductive for a couple of reasons. First, I have been deceived when I thought I had eye contact and a connection (with implicit agreement on whose turn it was) when actually the driver was looking right through me. Second, locking eyes seems to take too long, and can induce distraction at a moment when you need to be scanning about 26 other things. The glance and head movement to establish the direction of gaze lasts only a short moment. And you know I wave a lot already.

  3. The cats know who's boss.
    The thing about eye contact is that it makes things personal.
    You've established a relationship it that time and space.
    Sort of makes it harder to run me over.

  4. limom it could be that I have a slight bias against eye contact beyond its ineffectiveness and slowness. It also seems to be a technique used by the super-nice people who mean well but do things that aren't going to work out for any of us in the long run and sometimes not even in the short run--waving me through the roundabout ahead of them when they are already in it, waving me through a 4-way stop when there was no question they were there first. I don't mean to be rude by not making eye contact with them, but I also view it as unsafe to do what they want me to do, which is a kind of unintentional rudeness.


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