Pass the morals, please

The tandem is the perfect solution to one of the trickiest issues for cycling on roadways shared with cars – whether to ride two abreast, or ride in a line. This is a stressful question for me. It’s certainly more enjoyable when riding with others to be able to chat side by side, however the act of being side by side frustrates even the most patient motorists. [This same discussion can be applied to all types of users of recreation paths, too, like the Lake Shore Path in Chicago.]

For much of my cycling life, I’ve simply avoided this issue by choosing to ride alone. The tandem is an even better way to avoid riding two abreast. Now my honey and I can chat and never lose touch throughout the ride. That still doesn’t solve what to do when we want to ride with a great group of friends. Nor does it get at what the politics are of the road that makes this decision so stressful.

In a plainly legal world in which everyone governs their behavior based on what the law allows and what it does not, this would not be an issue. At least in North Carolina, it’s not illegal for cyclists to ride two abreast. In this world, motorists would drive the speed limit, slow down when they see cyclists (riding two abreast or not), wait behind the cyclists until it’s clear to pass, and then pull around the cyclists leaving at least three feet of space, crossing the yellow line as they would to pass any vehicle.

I do this when I drive a car, and frankly don’t see what’s so difficult about it. Cars would have to do this when confronting other cars on the road that they need to wait for in order to pass, like turning traffic. Something other than law is governing our behavior on the road, as is true about the law in all aspects of our lives. Laws of the road are treated as guidelines suggesting better ways for us to keep ourselves safer, and then we decide to what extent we adhere to or stray from them given the present conditions of the road and our state of mind.

There’s something about the size and speed of bicyclists that seems to invite motorists to judge cyclists differently from other road users, though they are classed as eligible vehicles. When drivers see one cyclist riding along the edge of the road, they generally make a calculation that they can keep driving without changing too much – maybe slow down a little bit, don’t have to pull around too far over and cross the yellow line. If there is a car in the on-coming lane, they probably try to squeak by without waiting to pass. This is of course is all wrong, dangerous, and in the end doesn’t save a driver more than 5 seconds.

BUT, if cyclists are riding two abreast, all of a sudden it’s an untenable position these cyclists have taken, even though it’s legal. Now the motorist is really forced to slow down, and wait until it’s safe to pass and pull around crossing the yellow line – all of which they should have done when confronting a single rider or single line of cyclists.

This may be why I witness a number of older, experienced cyclists make the deliberate choice to ride two abreast, as a matter of safety: it’s legal to ride side by side and it forces motorists to slow down and pull around as they would for any other car or truck or tractor or horse-drawn wagon.

I’m not sure that this is the best method to ensure safety. I say this because of the anger it induces among motorists, even good patient ones, even ones that are cyclists. And for that reason, a lot of cyclists are frustrated with the behavior of other cyclists, and why I’ve often avoided group rides. We know that the practice of riding out into the middle of the road angers other people, and that makes it discourteous, raising the ire of drivers against all cyclists. In this sense, it’s a moral issue rather than a legal issue. If we’re demanding this: sign

…then as cyclists we have to think about whether we are sharing the road.

How to communicate this to other cyclists on a group ride is an issue in and of itself. The tendency is to be social and ride two abreast. Another tendency is ride within the rights we are entitled. But, the fact is, it makes a lot of us nervous when some of the group insist on riding out in the middle, because the cars behind often become obviously frustrated. In a sense, we lose our welcome on the road. Even though we are legally entitled to use the road, our safety still at the mercy of the graciousness and attentiveness of the majority of road users who happen to be driving big fast things that can kill us.

Ultimately I side with drivers on this issue, and wish that all cyclists would either ride in line, or else keep an eye out for cars and pull into a line when one approaches. Mainly it’s because I do feel like it is a moral issue. If we expect drivers to make the effort to pass us safely treatment, we should make a similar effort to make their passing easier. Perhaps this behavior in time could change driver behavior to be more welcoming and alert of our presence.

But this shared effort is not a 50-50 deal, in my opinion. Drivers who read this blog (which include all of us cyclists who have not made the decision to go car-free yet, including me) need to know that the greater burden of responsibility for safety lies with them. The fact remains that a car’s speed and size is a deadly weapon, and there’s a legal responsibility to be in control of that speed and size at all time, as a well as a moral responsibility to yield to more vulnerable road users. There’s just a lot more at stake when drivers choose to be nice or not.

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1 Response to “Pass the morals, please”


  1. 1 dottie October 18, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Riding two abreast is the quickest way to enrage drivers. I’ve seen it happen, not involving me but as a witness. If I ever ride two abreast, I always keep an eye out in my rearview mirror to move in line if I see a car.


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