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Advocating Eye Contact in Traffic

Here's a very sensible letter about road safety, but I want to ask you a question after you read it.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
As part of the ongoing discussion about driver/cyclist relations I thought I would share the following experience:

Yesterday I was on my bike at the intersection of R and Connecticut/20th where the cyclist was killed several weeks ago by a garbage truck. The light was red and I was stopped in the bicycle lane. I have a habit of always looking back to make eye contact with drivers when I am stopped at a light, and I did so this time.

The driver in the car next to me nodded and rolled down his window to tell me that he would be making a right turn onto Connecticut. I thanked him for letting me know. He replied that if I wanted I could go first. I graciously accepted his offer when the light changed.

Most experienced city cyclists have their own safety strategies and my favorite remains the eye contact method.
Safe riding.
David King

This was an ideal encounter between two smart people. What could have gone wrong in this scenario? Does everyone agree on the eye contact strategy?

Many safety advocates recommend it for drivers, bikers and pedestrians, and I wouldn't suggest otherwise. But like many of you, I've ridden toward an intersection where I have the right of way, made eye contact with the driver stopped at a stop sign on the right, and had to swerve as the car pulls into the intersection.

Of course, there's the occasional jerk. But I think in most of those situations, the driver looked at me and didn't see me. Same can happen between drivers and between drivers and pedestrians.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the wonderful new book Traffic, cites some studies on this. People may not see what's right in front of them if they're not expecting to see it.

This might happen to a driver in his or her own quiet neighborhood. The driver doesn't expect to confront another vehicle of any sort and pulls into the street. Or a car driver on a crowded roadway might be looking for other cars, and seeing those other cars, but not see the one bicycle ahead because it's not what the driver is looking for.

Many drivers, walkers and bikers simply won't engage with others. Think of merges, where drivers stare straight ahead, or intersections where pedestrians step out without appearing to look left or right. Those eyeballs may be swiveling, but the mind sees some danger in suggesting to others that the person is aware of their presence.

Maybe this safety tip from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association expresses the bottom line for all: "Make eye contact with motorists to let them know you are there (but don't always expect them to see you)"

By Robert Thomson  |  August 14, 2008; 6:37 AM ET
Categories:  Biking , Commuting , Driving , Safety  
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Next: Red Line Delays in Both Directions


This describes a one-in-a-thousand situation. The other 999 times, if a driver is rolling down the car's window to speak to a cyclist, it is for purposes far less cordial.

Props to all of you who ride in the city. Keep the rubber side down.

Posted by: Adam | August 14, 2008 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Folks on bicycles, scooters and motorcycles
need to follow the same rules boaters do if the craft is significantly larger than you are ie a freighter, oil tanker etc they have the right away all the time.
You are responsible for your own safety
not the cars or trucks. You will lose big time in any collisions. So why take the chance.

And for those bicyclist on group rides in Fauquier County please dont stop around around blind corners to check your route maps. Use a little common sense or we will just throw you and the bikes into the combine etc.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2008 8:55 AM | Report abuse

I'm just amazed at some of the stupid things I've seen cyclists do. It's as if they don't think that anything bad could EVER happen to them. I've seen cyclists on the Clara Barton Parkway, cycling in the WRONG direction, at night and not wearing any lights or reflective clothing. How idiotic is that?

Posted by: WashingtonDame | August 14, 2008 9:08 AM | Report abuse

For Washingtondame - If a biker is caught out at night without lights or reflective clothing (obviously not a good idea, but it does happen), then riding the wrong way is a smart safety precaution.

Posted by: na | August 14, 2008 9:20 AM | Report abuse

What drives me crazy is bicyclists on the sidewalk, behind me as I'm walking. One wrong move and I'm toast. I once had one of these goofs chide me for being in his way.

Posted by: question authority | August 14, 2008 9:35 AM | Report abuse

As long as bicyclists follow the same traffic laws- you know, which are indeed the law so I'm not sure why there are so many bikes cruising past stop signs and through red lights, but I digress- I harbor no ill will against cyclists and often nod them on when we're stopped and I get the eye contact you describe here. I much prefer a glance than the stare down some bikers and pedestrians give, just daring me to hit them like I'm revving my engine or something... I try hard to stay aware of non-car-drivers on the road and I appreciate it when these small courtesies are extended.

Posted by: maryL | August 14, 2008 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Right on Dr. Gridlock!! The bikers need to realize that they need to follow the rules ALL THE TIME, not just when convenient for them. Where are the Police, I see them all over for the motorcades what about just parking at intersections and reminding bikers they need to follow the rules. How about bike shops reminiding bikers to follow the rules? What about helmets, and reflective gear, etc? The bikers who complain about the cars are waaaayyy off base, you are the smaller vehicle and if you are not following simple rules of the road then you should get off the bike and walk. I am observing the rules in my car so what makes them so special? I do not expect a biker to come down the wrong way on a one way street or to run the light in front of me or all of the other rule breaking activities I observe constantly. Yes, there are rude, agressive drivers but the bikers are ALWAYS going to lose in an accident wih a car and quite frankly if one of these rule breakers gets hurt they deserve it. I will NEVER have sympathy for someone doing something stupid that ends up ruining my day.

Posted by: DD | August 14, 2008 9:57 AM | Report abuse

In the second paragraph after Mr. King's letter. the reporter writes, "I've ridden toward an intersection where I have the right of way"

He presents a basic traffic fallacy or misunderstanding that befalls most people who drive--The 'right of way' is not something a person is granted, or entitled to, instead, 'the right of way' is something you yield.

Posted by: Rodney Elin | August 14, 2008 10:02 AM | Report abuse

I love folks who ride on the sidewalk. Can you say clothesline. oops I am so sorry but I felt threatened and was just protecting myself from any perceived threat or injury. I have dropped a few messenger punks.

Its like cyclists think they have some god given right to bomb down a multi use path as fast as they want. Or play Tour De France. Sorry you dont. Most folks walking on multi use paths dont know the rules regarding cycling and frankly they dont care. Cyclists need to grow up and share the path or trail.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2008 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Another post about bicycles on the road; another opportunity for the drivers of the world to lecture cyclists on the responsibilities cyclists have on the roads. As if y'all are doing such a great job out there on four wheels obeying the law.

Posted by: bikermark | August 14, 2008 10:19 AM | Report abuse

What about the cyclists at trail crossings who use the eye contact strategy to say, "I'm going to run this stop sign now"?

Posted by: NoVaCarBike | August 14, 2008 10:28 AM | Report abuse

"The 'right of way' is not something a person is granted, or entitled to, instead, 'the right of way' is something you yield."

In order to yield something, you must first have possession of it. Therefore, a person who has the right of way (i.e. a traveller down a street without a stop sign has the right of way through an intersection if the cross road does have a stop sign) who decides to slow down and allow another driver to do something is then yielding that right of way.

I've seen too many bicyclists out there who feel they don't have to worry about the rules, that if they're hit, they are like pedestrians but they want the same rules the drivers have. They also want to be able to ride on the sidewalks.

One punk kid decided to ride his bike the wrong direction of traffic on the sidewalk through a bus stop. The people who were waiting to get on the bus didn't step out of the punk's way. He rode right into the front of the bus. Good thing he hit the bus because the garbage truck that was in the next lane was coming on fast.

Problem I have found at bike shops is all the people there do is put down all the laws they don't like (like stopping at red lights or stop signs) and basically tell bikers they can do whatever they want. No police officer wants the embarassment of writing someone on a bike a ticket. Then it's hard to enforce because not all bikers have IDs. I say if you're allowed to ride on the street, you need to be licensed.

Posted by: Right or Wrong of Way | August 14, 2008 10:28 AM | Report abuse

I've been bicycle commuting for the past three plus years from Northwest DC to Downtown. My goal is to get to work and get home in one piece. I'm not in a hurry. I let the drivers and other riders pass me.
Since I've been riding, I can count the number of "incidents" I've had on one hand.

Why so few? Because I know that when it comes to metal vs. flesh, metal wins. Just as it's my responsibility to be my own advocate in other areas in my life, it's my job to be safe when I ride. That means letting others (drivers and pedestrians) know where I am and what I am or plannng to do at all times.

I have lots of BRIGHT strobing front and rear lights and a LOUD air horn, which I am not bashful about using. And when someone -- anyone -- yells, shouts, is confrontational or otherwise threatens my well being, I don't react. I back off. Life's too short.

To my advantage, I ride a recumbent, which puts me at the eye level of the average driver. I am always talking to drivers, pedestrians, folks waiting for the bus and others. And by riding a recumbent (a "fat guy on a granny bike"), lots of folks talk to me and take my picture!

I love the ride, both going to work (mostly downhill) and returning home (mostly uphill). The sounds, smells, and sights of the city are fabulous. No matter your political stripe, coming up on the White House in the morning as the sun comes up is breathtaking.

Life is good!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2008 10:36 AM | Report abuse

In all cases, a cyclist with the greatest visibility is safest. This includes eye contact. It also includes "taking the lane" when necessary.

One word on "when necessary": this is the cyclists decision, not the driver's.

Posted by: ibc | August 14, 2008 10:36 AM | Report abuse

My own take on this is that an easy way to avoid bicycle/motorist encounters is for us drivers to slow down. Unfortunately many drivers (and I sometimes do this too) drive locally as if they are still highways, i.e. as fast as traffic will allow. It does not work here and raises the risk of collision. A slower speed provides more reaction time.

Posted by: Bob | August 14, 2008 10:38 AM | Report abuse

The letter-writer has a very good idea, and I wish more bikers and pedestrians would make eye contact when crossing. It's the ones who just plow straight across the street, without even glancing left and right to, you know, check whether a car might be about to run over them, that really gall me. And then, if I blow the horn, they turn and give _me_ the finger! Tip: when you are on foot or on a bike, you will lose any conflict with a large metal vehicle, so do not antagonize its driver!

Posted by: driver | August 14, 2008 10:38 AM | Report abuse

"I am observing the rules in my car so what makes them so special?"

Don't mean to be rude, but you're full of it. I know for a fact that you never drive under the speed limit (unless forced to by congestion), that you don't come to a *full* stop at every stop sign, even if there's no one around, etc...

Everyone breaks the law--pedestrian, cyclist, and driver. And that's not even a bad thing. What is bad is when drivers justify their childish feelings of road rage by selectively highlighting minor infractions as "The Problem."

Posted by: ibc | August 14, 2008 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Right or Wrong of Way--

The cops have been writing tickets to cyclists. The City of Alexandria has been doing it. Arlington County cops pull over bikers (unfortunately, some of their officers are ignorant of vehicle code, and erred in pulling over the bikers). MPD just did a sting on New Hampshire Avenue at 16th & U. The Park Police have ticketed cyclists at Haines Point and on Beach Driver.

All road users behave as if no one is watching. Where do drivers in DC drive at or below the speed limit? Michigan Avenue, New York Avenue, and 16th Street, where there are hash marks on the road and photo radar. Red light running is less of a problem when drivers know they will be cited by a red light camera.

Now how fast are those drivers traveling 100 feet past the photo enforcement zone? As fast as conditions allow, because they know that no one is watching.

Cyclists are no different from drivers in this respect.

As a cyclist I hope the cops go out and write more traffic citations. I follow the law; I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. When the laws are enforced the roads are safer for everyone.

Posted by: bikermark | August 14, 2008 10:46 AM | Report abuse

"It's the ones who just plow straight across the street, without even glancing left and right to, you know, check whether a car might be about to run over them, that really gall me."

Funny, you hear this all the time from commenters. You just never see it on the road.

Same with the ubiquitous complaint "Every time I get behind the wheel, I nearly run down a cyclist!" I've been driving for nearly thirty years, mostly in the city, and I've never come close to running down a cyclist.

Why the melodrama? Perhaps it's a perception thing.

"Every time I drive past National Airport, an airplane almost *lands* on my car!!! It's outrageous!!!"

Posted by: ibc | August 14, 2008 10:47 AM | Report abuse

For na - “riding the wrong way,” opposite the direction of traffic, is always a dangerous choice for many reasons. For one, if the road is narrow or there are parked cars, a careful automobile driver will stay behind a bicycle until there's room to pass. That’s not possible if the cyclist is moving toward the car. A second reason is that pedestrians look in the direction cars are coming from before they cross. They won't look the other way and won't see a bicycle coming from the opposite direction.

Posted by: Phil K | August 14, 2008 10:49 AM | Report abuse


Yeah, what about us? If I'm cycling and come to a crossing where a motorist is polite enough to stop, I catch his eye, and he nods, I'm not gonna play Alphonse and Gaston with him - I'm gonna cross and wave my thanks.

Hurray for such courteous motorists, and for the cyclists who don't spurn their good will.

Posted by: Carlos | August 14, 2008 11:04 AM | Report abuse

"Anonymous" was reported to have written this at 10:36:

"To my advantage, I ride a recumbent, which puts me at the eye level of the average driver."

What do you have and where did you buy it? I saw a guy on a two-wheeled recumbent on 15th Street this morning; he was moving along quite quickly (and to his credit he used a proper right-turn hand signal at Jefferson Drive too). Last month I passed two guys riding three-wheeled recumbents on the Trans-Canada Highway in Nova Scotia; later that evening they rode up in front of the motel where I had stopped for the night, so I asked them about their rides. They were riding all the way across Canada and they spoke very highly of the three-wheeled recumbents' increased comfort and ease of riding compared to conventional bikes.

The three-wheeled ones looked to me to be a lot easier to ride than the two-wheeled ones, especially when you need to stop! Any thoughts?

Posted by: Rich | August 14, 2008 11:19 AM | Report abuse

I bike daily, and like most of the other bikers i see on the road, i obey traffic laws, wear a helmet, and have lights on my bike. Yes, there are bikers that disobey the laws, but most of us are keenly aware of the fact that you can kill us in your cars without leaving more than a scratch in your paint. Please don't hate me because of the one or two jerks who bike like they have a death wish, and please don't treat me like a car-- remember that I'm much more vulnerable, and a small accident could cause me real damage.

Posted by: christy | August 14, 2008 11:19 AM | Report abuse


Stay visible, and ride assertively.

Statistically speaking, it just never happens that an "angry driver" intentionally runs a cyclist down on the roads. You're much more likely to be attacked out of the blue by someone's dog.

Of course, the anger-management cases will always get worked up over something--so it's best to ignore them.

Posted by: ibc | August 14, 2008 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Try making eye contact with a driver behind tinted windows. Tinted windows should be outlawed.

Posted by: Tom Lang | August 14, 2008 12:04 PM | Report abuse

They aren't being courteous if they stop when you have a stop sign Carlos. They are encouraging rule breaking by cyclists.

When I'm on a bike on a trail like the W&OD, I get annoyed at the cars that stop - that's because I have no guarantee that the traffic in the other lane will stop. I'm perfectly content to wait for a break in the traffic.

Posted by: NoVaCarBike | August 14, 2008 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Wow. I am always surprised at the utter hostility people have for each other: cars drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. I am all three and I can say everyone is equally oblivious to common courtesy. It's really tough going up hill on a bike and when a car driver sees me and nods me thru so I don't have to stop I really smile and wave saying thank you for your courtesy. When I walk, I am aware of other walkers, joggers, cyclists. I don't take up the entire sidewalk and I do move over if a cyclist or runner passes. It's only courtesy. It does not make me mad. If you get mad that you always should be courteous maybe you have deeper issues to deal with other than allowing a pedestrian, cyclist or other car pass you or let them in at a merge.

Posted by: Lara | August 14, 2008 12:14 PM | Report abuse

I am saddened by the vitriole in the posts on this subject, but I am not surprised. Everyday I see drivers whose self centeredness is reflected in horns honking, speeding up to refuse someone entry into their lane, driving dangerously close to bicyclists who are on the road. It is always someone else who is doing something wrong. Put the same individual on a bicycle and they will not yield to pedestrians, ride without proper safety precautions, and devise their own "rules". Treat the car with caution and always yield to them. Treat the bicyclist like they are your brother. Be nice to others (like the original example) and maybe the world will be a better place.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2008 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Treat the car with caution and always yield to them.

Wrong. As NoVaCarBike put it up-thread, that's a good way to get run down.

You should always ride as predictably as possible. Riding safely means riding as traffic. This is borne out by pretty much every study of bicycle safety ever conducted.

Posted by: ibc | August 14, 2008 2:24 PM | Report abuse

I have bicycled over 140,000 miles since 1972. I've never been hit by a car. Furthermore, there hasn't even been a close-call in the past couple of years. The last time I called a car's plate number into the Police, It turned out the car was being pursued by Police in the next county. The Police thanked me for helping to apprehend the motorist!
I wear a reflective vest when I ride, I have a rear-view mirror, I have lights including turn signals, and I have a horn to give an audible warning. I wear a helmet too, but these other safety gadgets can prevent an accident; a helmet only protects you after you have an accident.
Eye contact is important, and the dark window tint has to be banned, especially on the front windows.
I drive a car too, and I don't have any trouble with other people on bikes. If I see a bike while I'm driving, first I check my speed. There are problem motorists who start blowing their horns. But I'd rather have them stuck behind my van than behind my bike, or anyone else's bike. Check your speed when you see a bike. You'd be surprised , traffic is sometimes moving at 20 MPH over the limit.

Posted by: AviationMetalSmith | August 14, 2008 2:47 PM | Report abuse

You know, this goes for walking, too.

A friend of mine accidentally hit a pedestrian a few years ago. She was stopped at an intersection after dark, and turning right onto a four lane road (two lanes in each direction).

She looked right, to make sure there were no pedestrians (there weren't), then looked left, saw traffic was clear, and made her turn. But now, a pedestrian stepped right in front of her car. A black-garbed pedestrian who came out from behind the 6 foot high construction fence that was on the corner.

There was minor injury involved since the car was barely moving, and the man was okay, and my friend was so rattled she didn't drive for six months or so.

Technically the accident was my friend's fault - the pedestrian was in the crosswalk and my friend's light was red. Even though she had been at a complete stop with her lights on. And had looked both ways before proceeding - she was simply still looking left when she pulled out, and hadn't reconfirmed the lack of pedestrians (who had the green). She does now, and probably will for the rest of her life.

So the ticket (a "failure to pay time and attention") was was the eventual lawsuit, where the pedestrian - who sued for $5 million dollars! - admitted he hadn't noticed my friend's car until he stepped out in the road! (He also admitted that despite his minor injury, he was still running at least 5 miles a day...)

The pedestrian was on his cell phone and my friend's compact car wasn't visible to even the most observant pedestrian until he was about 3 steps from the curb, between the fence and lack of streetlights. Not being observant, he simply walked out in front of the car.

The thing about it was, I frequently walked that intersection myself. And even without the construction fence and at high noon, drivers rarely re-looked right at the corner. Even if I had the green, I never stepped foot in that intersection unless I made eye contact with the person in the car.

Over the years, I saw a lot of double-takes and startled people when they noticed me. And I saw a lot of drivers who simply never looked my way at all (and barely stopped for that matter). As a cyclist or pedestrian, you may have the right of way, but it's okay to yield it - a lot. The extra 30 seconds you wait is a lot less time than being in the hospital.

So I have a rule as a pedestrian, that really should apply to cycling, as well: The Laws of Physics Trump The Law of Man Every Time.

Posted by: Careful Pedestrian | August 15, 2008 10:28 AM | Report abuse

No, the other 999 times the cyclist runs the light.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 15, 2008 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Careful Pedestrian, drivers really should be looking right, then left, then right (or vice versa if making a left turn). It was her fault for not making sure the roadway she was about to enter was clear (obviously she did once, but it wasn't clear later so she failed there).

I see this all the time, especially when cars are pulling out of a driveway (from a shopping center, parking garage, etc.) The driver looks at the oncoming traffic but never seems to look if a pedestrian may be crossing their path on the sidewalk. I usually try to walk behind cars that are doing this, but then sometimes you end up in the roadway and seemingly in the wrong if the car does pull out quickly enough and another car pulls up behind them.

I try to always make eye contact with a driver when crossing. Or atleast try to see where their focus is. Because if they are looking in the opposite direction from where I am, they aren't going to see me (unless they have eyes in the back of their heads, which I doubt).

Posted by: Laura | August 18, 2008 11:51 AM | Report abuse

I'm a hybrid driver. Thanks to the displays on my car on mileage and gas usage and a slight leaning towards hypermiling, I rarely drive over the speed limit anymore. I have to say that since I started doing this 3 years ago, I have noticed that car drivers are a pretty hyper lot. I am frequently tailgated, cut off and the victim of aggressive driving techniques when doing the posted speed limit. I feel bad for the cyclists and pedestrians who have to deal with the rabid, over-caffeinated car drivers out on our roads. We need to find a way to get people to show down and pay more attention to road laws.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | August 18, 2008 3:14 PM | Report abuse

DadWannaBe, there is a way, it's called law enforcement.

I hope you don't reproduce.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 18, 2008 5:18 PM | Report abuse

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