Saturday, February 13, 2010

Deer in the headlights

Steve's Frankenbike

I commented on Steve A's DFW Point-to-Point about this photo. The last storm from the left coast dove south of us and pasted Dallas.

I noticed the reflectors on his rear wheel. Mine is similar, but not as colorful. I applied white reflective tape along the inner circumference of the wheel, thinking the movement would be noticeable to overtaking motorists. There's some solid reasoning behind this idea.

I grew up in Pennsylvania and learned to drive there. I also learned to keep a sharp eye out for deer at night. There are about 50,000 killed on the roads every year. A deer may not be visible in the headlights until you're very close, but the reflection from their eyes shows up farther than your headlights seem to reach.

Crossing a mountain near Breezewood one night, I spotted dozens of their eyes about a quarter of a mile ahead. They lifted their heads and looked toward the car, looking much like a string of blue-green Christmas lights across the road. I was on the brakes and slowing well before I reached them.

Winding two lane roads didn't offer those long sight lines, of course, so I kept my speed down at night. Nearly everyone I knew had hit one or two deer, and I did not want to join the club. At the first glimpse of their eyes, I hit the brakes.

US62 is a winding, two lane highway between Sandy Lake and Franklin. Halfway between, it drops down into a valley and passes through Polk, a small town named for the only United States President from Pennsylvania, James Polk. The road follows the valley floor. It's flat, but seldom straight for more than short distances. Also, it's lined with mature forest, not the best deer habitat, but it offers excellent concealment.

My friend Bert and I drove that road often. He worked in the state hospital at Polk, so he was on it every night. On weekends, we sometimes visited bars over in Franklin and there was a theater over there too.

Just west of Polk one night, I was driving when we rounded a curve and directly ahead there were two blue-green reflections right alongside the road. I braked hard and Bert started laughing! Someone had nailed two small reflectors to a tree next to the road.

Bert thought it was hilarious. "I know who did that," he said, "and it got me earlier in the week too." The funny thing, though, was despite knowing that the reflectors were there, we each reacted the same way every time we drove through that turn. Other drivers did it too. The speed limit signs may not have meant much, but those two little reflectors clearly did.

Now, for cyclists, there are two take aways here. First, there's the issue of awareness. Drivers who are looking for deer - or cyclists for that matter - will perceive them earlier than drivers who are not expecting them on the roadway. How many news stories about bicycle/automobile crashes have the semi-obligatory "Honest, officer, I never saw him. He came out of nowhere!"

The second lesson is directly related to the first. As I've said many, many, many times before - by riding the same routes at the same time of day we see the same drivers. They come to expect a commuting bicyclist every morning and afternoon. We are not a big surprise and they understand what that tiny blinking light is up ahead well before they overtake. Motorists do learn how to drive around cyclists after they've had some experience. It's not a big deal. We're just another worker drone off to the daily grind.

In many ways, that's what I want to see on our roads. Cyclists aren't a big deal. We don't need special lanes, special laws, or special treatment. We're just a normal part of everyday traffic.


Blogger Steve A said...

Thanks. It's a rare and precious post. It's a strong and likely hypothesis about the way people see and react.

OTOH, I'm still going to run the test. For sure, blinking or moving lights attract attention. Steady light provides distance and direction. Perhaps my inclination to peel off all those stickers was misguided.

Perhaps even Forester is not ready for sainthood quite yet...

7:39 PM  
Blogger Steve A said...

Thanks, again if I forgot in the other comment. Blogging nowadays is incredibly impersonal and personal, all at the same time.

7:44 PM  
Blogger ChipSeal said...

I have no “regular” commute lately, so the Texas drivers around me haven’t had much training around cyclists.

I find that it is of no real concern though. I give them my “one second training program”. It works like a charm!

I ride smack in the middle of out narrow lanes. They see me, they overtake me when it is safe.

Many think it is against the law for me to ride in the middle of the lane. Some think I will be “runned over fer sure!” I doubt that even one of them is glad to encounter me.

But none of that matters.

All of them overtake me with due care and in a safe manner. Motorists are easily trained!

1:37 PM  
Blogger Ed W said...

There's much about commuting that counter-intuitive. I prefer riding 4 lane roads because it's easier for overtaking traffic to pass, but some cyclists find 4 lanes more frightening. But I've noticed too that the 'regulars' I meet every day are seldom a problem. It's that motorist who only occasionally sees a cyclist that cannot resist laying on the horn or yelling something out the window. Generalities, I know.

4:22 PM  

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