Don’t be lazy when trying to find something to blame
As spring gets into full swing, I’ve dusted off the recumbent to put some miles in ahead of Saturday’s 400km Southern Uplands brevet.
After getting used to the usual antics of drivers between Balerno and the city centre – close passes, cutting in and out of lanes, aggressive driving and horn use – it’s been pretty refreshing to enjoy bags of passing room, no cutting up and no aggression.
I don’t believe this comes from some mystical power of the recumbent to soothe the angry beast behind the wheel, but simply because it jars people out of the well-worn groove that “it’s only a bike, I don’t need to give him much room”, or “it’s only a bike, how dare he hold me up from speeding to the next red light”, or whatever.
Something interesting did happen the other day though, as I was motoring along Slateford Road at over 25mph in the morning peak. See if you can spot the driver who apparently failed to see my recumbent?
It’s not close, I merely chose this as an illustration of the principle – hands up if your default response to this sort of situation would be “well, what does he expect riding around on an invisible bike?” or maybe “he got lucky, he could have been taken out if the distance had been a bit less”?
For my part, I was mildly vexed that the driver had pulled out on me when I was going so fast – only by flooring it was he able to keep the car in front until I rocketed past at the next set of lights. However, after countless thousands of urban miles, I know better than to take the lazy option of thinking that a bike which is at any distance just a few fractions of a degree lower than another bike is actually going to be hard to see.
Instead, my experience tells me that while there’s no meaning difference in visibility (or conspicuousness?) you’re never going to eliminate that proportion of bad driving that comes from not looking at all, or more likely – being seen perfectly but the driver ultimately doesn’t care.
This was illustrated nicely immediately afterwards… take a look at the full clip:
Nobody would ever suggest that the driver who pulls across multiple lanes of rush-hour traffic didn’t see the white car – that would be ridiculous. We find it easy to attribute this kind of driving to a total failure to look or (more likely) a high risk threshold / unhealthy disregard for the safety of others.
Throw a recumbent into the mix though, and even fellow cyclists are worryingly prone to tacking the blame for any mishap on the height of the vehicle (am I that much lower than the car in the video? Really?)
This “recumbent attribution error” is so common that I can’t even be bothered to find any examples (if you like, try googling for Councillor Michael Stanton, who infamously told a registered disabled constituent that he should have gone to Dignitas, the Swiss euthanasia clinic, rather than ride a recumbent, and you should find some robust discussion).
In my experience of riding a recumbent in rush hour Edinburgh, the only safety disadvantages are found in a few niche, easily avoided circumstances. They’re massively outweighed by the huge safety benefits of removing almost all the wilfully terrible driving that a cyclist normally receives.
In fact, it’s easy to argue that it’s probably a lot safer because it forces the rider away from the temptation to, say, skim the side of parked cars on the approach to a side street, so you just don’t do it. Combined with the mirror, taking a much more positive road position is probably half the advantage, with the rest coming from drivers’ apparent fear to be aggressive towards you.
I’ve been meaning to write something on recumbent safety for years but just can’t get into it as a topic – probably because whenever I ride mine, it feels so safe that I can’t understand why I keep going back to a normal bike for the rat race.