Cycling Around: Bicycles and traffic circles and horses, oh my!

  • Wednesday, June 12, 2019 1:30am
  • Life

Did you read the title and think to your self, “Wow, I’ve seen bikes in the traffic circles around here, but not horses!” Or maybe you had thoughts a little less charitable about my mental state.

Well, I am still of (relatively) sound mind and it’s not horses and bikes in traffic circles I’m thinking of, it’s the two separate cycling safety issues of how cyclists should deal with traffic circles and what they should do when they encounter someone on horseback.

Bikes in a traffic circle

Years ago when I was living in London, I got quite accustomed to a particular, and very common, feature of their roads: roundabouts. Here in the U.S., we call them traffic circles or, in some places, rotaries, but they are far less common on our roads.

Whatever they’re called, they’re generally a much safer alternative to the traditional intersection, but because many Americans (yes, including those of us who live here in Sequim with its three (!) traffic circles) aren’t familiar with them or don’t know the rules governing their use, they can still pose risks — especially for cyclists.

The Washington State Transportation Department offers some clear, simple information on the “Rules of the Road” governing traffic circles:

• Yield to drivers in the roundabout

• Stay in your lane; do not change lanes

• Do not stop in the roundabout

• Avoid driving next to oversize vehicles

Of course we don’t have multi-lane traffic circles locally, but a cyclist still needs to be mindful of that last point because we’re always on the road with vehicles bigger than us.

For single-lane traffic circles, WSDOT offers the following:

• As you approach a roundabout, you will see a yellow “roundabout ahead” sign with an advisory speed limit for the roundabout.

• Slow down as you approach the roundabout, and watch for pedestrians in the crosswalk.

• Continue toward the roundabout and look to your left as you near the yield sign and dashed yield line at the entrance to the roundabout. Yield to traffic already in the roundabout.

Once you see a gap in traffic, enter the circle and proceed to your exit. If there is no traffic in the roundabout, you may enter without yielding.

• Look for pedestrians and use your turn signal before you exit, and make sure to stay in your lane as you navigate the roundabout.

These rules apply to all vehicles, and in Washington State, just to remind everyone, a bicycle is a vehicle under the law.

Group-think

Recently, though, a group of us cyclists realized that we needed to re-think how we negotiated traffic circle safely when riding in a group. Yes, each one of us is on a “vehicle,” but when you have 20 or 30 cyclists riding together, what’s the safest way to handle a traffic circle?

And if you’re a motorist, what should you do when you see a group of cyclists at a traffic circle?

We checked with Brian Watson, “The Bicycle Teacher,” a League of American Bicyclists certified instructor, and the guy who runs the Olympic Peninsula Bicycle Alliance’s Annual Bike Rodeos for kids in Sequim. His advice made sense: Cyclists riding in a group should think of the group as the “vehicle” and should act accordingly — entering and leaving the circle as a group, yielding (as a group) to traffic that’s already in the circle. All the other rules still apply.

Each individual cyclist, however, is still responsible as a vehicle operator for being alert, making judgments about safety, and acting accordingly. So if you are in a group, you see a vehicle to the left about to enter the circle and you don’t feel comfortable that you can safely enter before that vehicle is in the circle, you need to signal to cyclists behind you that you are stopping.

If you’re toward the back of the group and a cyclist ahead stops, so should you. Don’t go whizzing past just because you think you can make it.

If you’re a motorist and you see a group of cyclists approaching the traffic circle when you are, here a couple things we, as cyclists, would respectfully ask:

• If the group has already entered, let the last one in before you enter (unless you’re going to take the first exit). I guarantee it won’t add any more than 10-20 seconds to your travel time.

• If you’re in the circle, please don’t stop and wave us on if we’re sitting at the next entry waiting. We’re a vehicle and following the rules of the road—that’s what we hope you’ll do.

As with other circumstances involving cyclists and motor vehicle operators, traffic circle encounters are an opportunity to be courteous and safe … or be a jerk. Regardless of how many wheels you’re on, please just be courteous and safe.

Horses!

OK cyclists, here’s the deal: when you encounter a horseback rider, you are required to yield. I’m not certain this is actually specified in Washington state law (I looked but didn’t find it in the RCW), but it is the commonly accepted practice — because it’s the safest, most courteous practice.

But what does “yield” mean in this situation? Well, it goes a bit beyond stopping. When a cyclist sees a horseback rider approaching, he should:

• Pull to the side of the trail far enough for horses to pass safely as soon as you see them

• Pull to the downhill side of the trail if possible since horses tend to perceive unknown threats on the uphill side as predators

• Speak to the rider and horse in a friendly, relaxed tone

• Remove your helmet if it conceals part of your face. The horse will be more likely to recognize you as a human

When approaching horses from behind, stop, call ahead and make yourself known to the rider. Ask them if it is OK to pass and the best way to do so.

Horsemen may pull to the side of the trail a safe distance if they hear a bicycle approaching but this does not necessarily mean it is safe for you to ride by.

In either case, stop and wait for instructions from the horseman. Ask the horseman how he/she would like to proceed. The horseman will know his/her horse and how the horse reacts to bicycles. The horseman may ask you to stay put and ride past you, or may ride to the side of the trail and ask you to ride or push past.

If you ride by a horse, do so at a slow, steady pace and avoid making any sudden movements or sounds that might startle the horse.

And just to emphasize: this applies to all cyclists regardless of what kind of cycle you ride — bike, trike, recumbent, pennyfarthing or e-bike.

See you down the ride. Be safe (can courteous) out there!

Ken Stringer is President of the Olympic Peninsula Bicycle Alliance. Cycling Around is a monthly column focused on cycling in Sequim and the surrounding area. For more information, go to www.olympicpeninsulacycling.com or contact the author at opcycling@gmail.com.

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