Strangest. Right hook. EVER.

Here’s the story of a very strange (near miss) right hook I was involved in a short while back.  I share the story hoping we can all learn something about the mentality of the overtaking person and be better prepared for this type of situation in the future.

For those not familiar with the term, “right hook” describes a situation where a motorist turns right into the path of a cyclist going straight.  See the illustration at the right (which comes from an excellent article by discussing common collisions caused by motorist error).

I have a small but meaningful base of experience with right hooks.  I was almost hit by a right-hooker (but braking, turning, and most importantly yelling a very loud “Hey!”, which made the driver abort the turn at the last second).  I’ve also seen a motorist-on-cyclist hit & run right hook happen right in front of me.  The motorist sped up before the turn and and took the turn wide, clearly trying to beat the cyclist through the intersection.  The driver was caught and the cyclist OK, but it could very easily have ended quite badly.

Why Right Hooks Happen:
I can only imagine why right hooks happen.  I have never been a the car driver in such an interaction, and I haven’t read any studies assessing the driver’s role in them.  So please allow me to indulge in pure speculation:

  • Right hook drivers have their senses dulled – windows that blunt out sound, and car components block sight lines (such as the “A Pillar” where the windshield meets the front door, or the “B Pillar” where the front door meets the rear door).
  • Right hook drivers have plenty of distractions, like music, passengers, cell phones…
  • Right hook drivers can effortlessly move far faster than cyclists.  As such they might underestimate how fast a cyclist going straight is approaching the intersection and underestimate how much they themselves have slowed to make their turn.
  • Because cars can so effortlessly move faster than cyclists, drivers don’t like getting stuck behind bikers.  Perhaps some right hooks are caused when a driver sees the cyclist, assumes s/he is also turning right, and tries to overtake the cyclist ahead of the turn.

These are not excuses mind you, they’re rationalizations.  Things that I tell myself about a driver’s context that allow me to empathize with them a bit.  But I digress…

One final piece of information.  The legal way for a driver to make a right turn when there is a bike lane on their right is to make the turn like so:

  • When approaching the turn, check that the bike lane is well clear of cyclists, then merge into the bike lane.  Then make the right turn from the bike lane.
  • This is the exact same principal as driving on a four-lane road: it’s illegal and extremely dangerous to make a right turn from the left lane.  Instead, drivers must safely change lanes into the right lane in advance of the turn, then turn right.

This exact right-turn technique can prevent right hooks on roads without a bike lane too.  But I rarely see it done this way in the real world.  Instead, I usually see drivers use a different strategy to safely avoid right hooks.  The driver looks for and thus sees they are overtaking a cyclist as they approach their turn.  They slow and make the turn after the cyclist continues straight.

My Recent Near Miss:
OK, enough background and context.  Here’s the story of my unusual right hook.  What is so extraordinary about it is it happened between me and another cyclist.  This totally blew my mind, because none of the reasons I speculated above applied to this situation:

  • The overtaking person was riding in the open air just like me.  His senses were not blunted by opaque car parts or sound dampening glass.
  • It all happened very fast, but I don’t think the cyclist was distracted (no phone, ear-buds, etc.)
  • I was riding a smooth steady 10 to 12 mph.  A cyclist of even negligible experience would have been able to judge my speed.
  • The overtaking cyclist didn’t overtake me to pass – not for any appreciable time savings at least.  His right turn was straight into a short driveway on College Avenue near Somerville.  As all driveways on that road, it was a very short driveway, meaning he had to brake hard the moment he got past me.  Whatever time he saved by passing me was negligible.

So I was right-hooked by a cyclist, a maneuver that, if we collided would have taken us both to the ground along a relatively narrow road where drivers commonly speed.  He would probably have borne the brunt of such a crash: I would have T-boned him and landed on top.  It simply made zero sense.  But it happened in an instant, so I can forgive the fellow for not thinking through the possible consequences of his actions.

Looking back I wish I had immediately stopped to chat with the guy.  I could have pulled up to the end of the driveway in a non-threatening way and politely asked “what just happened there?”, if for no other reason than to find out if we was aware of what he did.  But I didn’t.  I think a principal reason why I didn’t is I was in a bit of shock for a few seconds, heart racing like the feeling you get from any near-miss road situation.

So, dear reader, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.  Have you ever been right-hooked by a fellow cyclist?  Have you ever been “the right hooker”, who realized your close call and later thought “what was I thinking?”  Please leave a comment if you have any insight on the matter.