Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Traffic safety tips for the fall semester

By Rebecca Sanders

School's back in session! My recent dissertation research found that knowledge of roadway rules pertaining to sharing the road between drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians was inconsistent among Bay Area residents. Now that campus is once again full and the potential for conflict is high, it might be nice to have a traffic safety refresher. Less than 15% of my survey respondents had received any education about bicycling or driving near bicyclists, so I've included extra tips for cyclists below.

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More than any specific rule, I hope you will practice "courteous transportation". Think of how you would like others to behave so that you're safe and comfortable, and then behave that way!

Drivers :

Never text while driving (CA Vehicle Code Section 23123.5). If you need to look at your phone, pull over when it is safe to do so (not in a bicycle lane!) and do it there. It's hard to believe that removing your eyes from the road for even a few seconds could result in someone's death, but it's true.

You are also not allowed to use a cell phone to make a call without a hands-free device (VC Sec 23123). And even though it is legal to talk with a hands-free device, it is not recommended--the conversation itself can be the most distracting element!

When you are driving, you are required by law to yield to pedestrians at marked *and* unmarked crosswalks (VC Sec 21950a). Legally, a crosswalk is located any place the sidewalk ends and leads into an intersection--even if it is not marked with white lines or paint, unless there are signs expressly prohibiting crossing. There are not many prohibited crossings in Berkeley, so your best bet is to scan the street corners while driving and yield to pedestrians waiting to cross.

On a street with more than one lane in each direction, use extreme caution before passing another car that is stopped in an adjacent lane. The driver might be yielding to a pedestrian, and you may not see the pedestrian cross into your lane until it is too late to stop. This is a common cause of severe pedestrian injuries.

When driving near cyclists, you are required to pass at a "safe distance" (VC Sec 21750). This is generally accepted to be at least three feet of space, and you are allowed to cross into the next lane (provided you won't endanger oncoming traffic) if you need to do so.

When you make a left turn, yield to oncoming traffic, including cyclists, who are often moving much more quickly than you might realize. Also, look for and yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk on the left side of the intersection *before* starting to turn.

When you make a right turn, you are legally required to pull as close to the curb as possible--even when this means you pull into a bicycle lane. This helps to prevent "right hook" collisions where you may inadvertently cut-off a bicyclist coming up on your right. As with left turns, look for and yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk before starting to turn right.

Furthermore, when you need to make a right turn and a cyclist is beside you, do not speed up and cut him off--this is unsafe passing (VC Sec 21750) and endangers the cyclist. Cyclists often move faster than you realize, so either pull behind them and wait a few seconds, or pass far ahead of them to make sure you've given them enough time to move around you.

For more driver safety tips, see:


* http://www.caldrive.com/law.html

Pedestrians :

You are legally obligated not to walk or run out into the street such that a driver or cyclist has to swerve to avoid hitting you (VC Sec 21950b). While you generally have the right of way, if your behavior is deemed negligent (crossing while you have a red light, for example), *you* could be cited for causing a wreck!

In addition, your right of way privileges do not extend to traffic signals when you have a red light or flashing "don't walk" hand signal. If you cross on a red and are struck by a vehicle, you could be deemed at fault, not to mention needlessly injured.

Always look before crossing the street. Traffic collisions involving distracted pedestrians (smart phones, anyone?) are on the rise. Don't be a statistic--your brain is precious! (In addition, distracted walking puts you at higher risk for other crimes, such as mugging or assault.)

By the same token, try to make eye contact with drivers before crossing at uncontrolled (i.e., no stop sign or traffic signal) crossings so that you know that they see you and will yield to you. If you can't see in their windows, at least look for signs that they are slowing down. You do have the right of way, but balance being "right" with being safe.

The point about eye contact is even more important when crossing a street with more than one lane in each direction, as the driver in the second lane may not see or be looking for you--even if the driver in the first lane has already stopped for you.

When on campus, be aware that not everyone wants to move as quickly or slowly as you do. All campus paths are two-way, so make sure that there is room for other pedestrians and cyclists to pass.

*For more pedestrian safety tips, see:


Cyclists :

Slow to a stop at all stop signs (at least to the speed of the unofficial "California roll"). Stop and wait your turn at traffic signals. When you run a stop sign or red light, you not only endanger yourself, you endanger (and could even kill) pedestrians who are expecting you to stop. In addition, my research found that cyclists who blow through stop signs or run red lights scare and anger drivers, making them less likely to support bicycling in the city. Who wants to bicycle around an angry driver?

You are legally required to use lights at night (VC Sec 21201), signal with your left arm when turning (VC Sec 22111, 22107), and ride *with* traffic on the roadway (VC Sec 21650.1). Riding with traffic means to ride in the same direction as the cars driving next to you. This is critical to your safety, as drivers, pedestrians, and other cyclists will not be expecting you to be riding in the opposite direction.

When at an intersection, be aware of cars trying to turn right. If you can, move into the through lane (the lane going straight) to be visible and out of their way; if you can't move into that lane, position yourself far ahead of the drivers so that you are visible. Drivers are legally required to pull as close to the curb as they can (including into the bike lane, when there is one) before making a right turn so that they won't hit you--but only 40% of drivers in my survey knew this. Don't assume that they will respect your right-of-way, even though they should. Never ride up on the right of a car that is in the process of turning right--the driver may not look for or see you, especially if in a truck or bus.

If you are waiting at a traffic signal and it hasn't changed after a cycle (about 90 seconds), you can proceed through if there is no oncoming traffic and it is safe to do so (VC Sec 21800d). If a bike detector is in the pavement, position yourself over the symbol so that you are most likely to trigger it; you can also push the pedestrian button to trigger the signal change.

Yield to pedestrians at crosswalks. It's the law (VC Sec 21950a).

Ride as close to the right as is practicable (VC Sec 21202). Exceptions to this rule include when you are in danger (e.g., when a car door could reasonably open and hit you, where there is roadway debris, when a car is backing into a parking space), need to make a left turn, or can ride the normal speed of traffic (25-30 mph--on average, people bicycle about 12 mph). You can also ride in the far left lane on a one-way street.

If you ride near parked cars, be aware that a car door could open at any moment. Scan the cars and side mirrors to see if you can see anyone inside. While drivers are legally required to look for you before opening their doors, many don't, and you could be knocked into oncoming traffic.

When making a left turn, signal at least 100 feet ahead (put your left arm out horizontally), make sure the drivers see you, and then pull into the lane to make your turn. Most drivers will let you in if you signal your intention, but don't rely on this until you see them slowing down. It's nice to thank them with a wave or a nod.

You are not required to wear a helmet once you reach age 18 (VC Sec 21212). However, why not? Your brain is precious--and a helmet could save your life if you were hit.

In Berkeley, adults are not allowed to ride on a the sidewalk (Municipal Code Sec 14.68.130). If you choose to flout this law, you will likely be cited. In any case, please be careful--drivers are not expecting you to be on the sidewalk or even in the crosswalk, and will not be watching for you--and you are in the space reserved for pedestrians.

Especially on campus, don't speed through areas where there are tons of pedestrians. They have the right-of-way, and you will still be faster than they if you slow down. If a hoard of pedestrians is blocking a path (campus tours, anyone?), politely say "on your left" or ring a bicycle bell, and they will make room for you to pass.

You can ride two abreast on a roadway, but only when you are not impeding traffic (VC Sec 21202). If traffic is slowing behind you, you could be cited--so be careful.

For more bicycle safety tips, and to sign up for free bicycle safety classes, see the following sources:


* https://www.ebbc.org/safety

* http://bikesafetyquiz.com/

Safe travels, everyone!

*I am not affiliated with, nor is this a formal endorsement of these sites.

Thanks to Dr. Bob Schneider, of University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and Jill Cooper, Associate Director of SafeTREC, for their suggested tips!