Why don’t cyclists stay in at the side?

There are many good reasons for not staying tight in to the side of a road and very few in favour of doing so.

When there are no facilities to cycle with complete separation from other vehicles, cyclists must constitute part of ‘traffic’. This is sometimes referred to as ‘vehicular cycling’. What it means is that a cyclist has to cycle obeying the rules of the road (as must ALWAYS be the case) and being given the same respect any other vehicle user would.

There are two main positions a cyclist will adopt – Secondary and Primary:

Secondary Position is at least 1m out from the side of the road, preferably more like 1.5m.

Safety conscious cyclists will take this position on straight sections of roads where there are no obstacles such as parked vehicles etc. at the roadside. It means one is not cycling in among the stones, rough edges, greater propensity for potholes, poorly laid gratings etc. found close to the roadside. It gives the cyclist an ‘escape route’ if he/she has to swerve round a pothole. Rather than swerve out suddenly, potentially into the path of a vehicle, he or she can avoid most obstructions by temporarily moving inwards, toward the edge of the road briefly before returning to his/her original position.

Being in Secondary Position also increases a cyclist’s visibility. If you look at someone leaning tight against the side of a hedgerow and then see them again, standing 1.5m from the same hedgerow, you will find the latter considerably more noticeable. Being visible is highly important to any cyclist.

Primary Position requires the cyclist to be closer to the middle of the road, away from the edge. Often the cyclist’s right hand will be within 1m, maybe even 50cm of the white line, to be in Primary Position.

Primary Position is one cyclists usually adopt for a short period of time. It will be used by most thoughtful cyclists when there are obstructions – cars parked at the roadside, junctions coming onto the road on which the cyclist is travelling, traffic islands, approaching roundabouts, bends, up short hills etc. Within an urban environment, there can be so many potential hazards, a cyclist may have to stay in Primary Position for lengthy periods.

Elaborating on some of the listed hazards, to explain the purpose behind adopting Primary Position for each one:

  • Cars parked at the roadside – This is one is fairly obvious. A parked car has lots of potential for disaster. By keeping in a position well away from parked cars, a cyclist can save him/herself from having to deal with “surprise driver’s side door openings” and cars starting off without indication among others. It also means the cyclist retains a gap between him/her and his/her surrounds, enhancing that all important visibility.
  • Junctions coming onto the road – When a cyclist is pedalling along on a main road and there’s a junction with a side road, you could be forgiven for thinking ‘Sure why would anyone have to allow for vehicles coming off side roads when they have right of way on the main road?‘. Unfortunately these junctions are among the most dangerous for cyclists, with people misjudging speed, simply not noticing the cyclist etc. etc. By moving away from the junction the cyclist, as before, increases visibility – being seen before he/she otherwise would be by the motorist at the side road junction. He/She also prevents following cars from ‘nipping round the outside to turn left in front of the cyclist’ by blocking off the path. ‘Sure nobody would do anything THAT stupid, would they?‘ – unfortunately some people would, have and continue to do so. The main points raised in this paragraph also apply to roundabouts, which can be very dangerous for cyclists with poor overtaking, cutting up etc.
  • Traffic islands – It’s not safe to pass at a traffic island. There simply isn’t enough room. A cyclist may move out to dissuade the less discerning motorist from passing. This helps make everyone safer. If a cyclist does this, he/she is not accusing you of being a bad driver; He/She is simply taking a precaution in case the stranger behind may make a poor decision.
  • Bends – We were all taught, when learning to drive, not to pass on or coming up to a bend. Yet, people still do. A cyclist may move toward the middle of the road to put people off passing when they cannot see what lies ahead. Be grateful as any attempt to pass under such circumstances is at best pernicious and potentially could result in human beings being killed.
  • Up short hills – Much like ‘Bends’, anyone who drives knows not to pass on a short hill where visibility only extends to the top of the rise. It’s simply not safe to pass. Cyclists moving into the centre of the road here are doing their best to discourage ill-advised activity. It is not safe to pass anyone where visibility is poor or impaired. A few seconds of patience may save your life, the lives of those in your vehicle, a cyclist’s life and the lives of anyone in oncoming traffic.

When you see a cyclist in Primary Position, please assess the situation and try to think why he or she could be there. Treat it as a warning which may help you avoid danger yourself.

Often groups of cyclists will form two columns – one in Secondary and one in Primary Position. This is for safety and, among other reasons, to be sociable with one another. Please understand a group in this formation is much more ‘passable’ than a strung out line of single file riders. Any worthwhile person will give plenty of room when passing vulnerable traffic. Therefore a single line of cyclists cannot be safely passed on the same side of the road, unless it’s an unusually broad road. By ‘doubling up’ a group gives the motorist half the ‘obstacle’ to pass they would otherwise have. It’s safe, sociable and considerate. Please look at this video for an example.

Posted in: Understanding cyclists