on your right

Waterfowl Lakes, Alberta, Canada

The Icefields Parkway is a spectacular section of Alberta Highway 93 that parallels the Athabasca, Sunwapta, North Saskatchewan, Mistaya and Bow Rivers as it bisects Jasper National Park between the beautiful mountain towns of Jasper, AB and Lake Louise, AB. Together, Jasper and Banff National Parks draw many tourists each year, most of whom opt to experience the park from the comfort of their rented RV or personal automobile. Nothing enhances the experience of nature more than being fully isolated from it, the unbearable force of gravity defocused from the small surface area of the human foot and uniformly redistributed over the substantially larger motorist ass, the nuanced scents of the forested landscape replaced by concentrated derivatives liberally applied to fuzzy, cartoonish pine trees that dangle by elasticized thread from rearview mirrors in attempts to mask each motorist’s signature scent that, over time, leached into the upholstery from the dank, dark depths of their wretched butthole. Those who have never intermittently glanced from a device screen to fleetingly view majestic and rugged snow-capped peaks to which ancient glaciers defyingly cling as they steadily feed braided networks of cold, emerald rivers opaque by suspensions of glacial sediment flowing seaward with transparent natural beauty through tinted windows of an automobile have not truly lived. Motorists who have experienced this can relate, but in so doing may have unknowingly created a perilous traffic situation for other road users, specifically those suffering the indignity of experiencing the Icefields Parkway by bicycle.

Periodically along its length, in places where the rugged terrain permits it to do so, the highway broadens from two lanes to four to accommodate passing in either direction. On some of the mountain passes along the Icefields Parkway, a single lane splits into two in the uphill direction to allow slower traffic, of which there is an abundance given the route’s popularity among RV’ers, to steadily climb the hill without impeding the comparatively unencumbered passenger vehicles as they whisk their occupants hurriedly past the spectacular views to their next destination. It is expected that faster traffic accumulates behind slower vehicles on account of the speed differential and the dearth of safe passing opportunities along the route. A potentially dangerous scenario develops for cyclists at the beginning of a climb or other passing zone just beyond the point where the passing lane is established. It is particularly dangerous because it develops entirely behind the cyclist and provides no opportunity for reactionary avoidance on the part of the cyclist.

Motorists have the tendency to feel trapped and inconvenienced upon catching up to slower traffic and being prevented from passing for an extended period of time. “Extended” is subjective; the amount to time varies by driver and ranges from a couple seconds to many minutes. Patience wanes rapidly as faster traffic is forced to travel slower than its desired pace, and at some point animalistic, uncontrollable urges to pass become unbearable. Hell hath no fury like a motorist inconvenienced. This impatience is observed as tailgating, which is the way drivers signal their displeasure with the existence of traffic in front of them, riding the center line, or cyclically drifting into the opposite lane to visually assess the situation as their massively underutilized brain executes the deficient algorithm with which it is programmed for determining when to execute a pass. With very few viable options for passing on roads like the Icefields Parkway, many drivers take unnecessary risks to include illegally crossing a double-yellow centerline to get around traffic, passing at locations with limited lines-of-sight, such as before corners or steep rises, or simply going for broke and attempting to rush a high-speed pass in the presence of opposing traffic to relieve themselves of their impatience. The message of impatience echoes repeatedly with each new driver queueing into the line. It is a game of inter-vehicular telephone, only in this game no information is lost in translation; there is no ambiquity in the message: “get the fuck out of my way, why the fuck are you driving so slow?! I’m on my way to <insert inconsequential task> and am willing to risk my life and the life of others to accomplish this task”.

Imagine the above scenario playing out behind a cyclist just as he or she begins to climb one of the many passes or enters one of the sparse passing zones along the route. A line of motorists is trapped behind a slower vehicle, and has been for the past several miles. The cyclist has just passed the point at which the single lane becomes two. Coincidentally, this is also the point at which an adequately wide and perfectly rideable shoulder becomes a shoulderless motor vehicle traffic lane. The line of cars approaches from behind. The cyclist is only visible to the first motorist as the fields-of-view of subsequent drivers are effectively limited to the rear of the vehicle immediately ahead. The expected behavior of the lead vehicle is to keep right to allow the faster traffic to pass. But the lead vehicle remains in the left lane to give the cyclist a wide berth. Assuming that the lead vehicle is either deliberately remaining in the left lane to serve up a deserved dose of passive aggressive retribution for having been tailgated for the past few miles, or that he or she is simply a terrible driver who clearly doesn’t understand traffic laws, the number two driver hastily attempts to pass on the right.

Failing to anticipate the presence of another slow moving vehicle in the right lane, the cyclist in this scenario, the driver is left with little time to react either by braking or by swerving back into the left lane. Furthermore, the process of changing lanes draws the driver’s focus away from the road ahead and focuses it behind them as they check for other cars preempting their move. Drivers’ eyes naturally follow their focus from the road ahead to their blind spot and/or side/rearview mirrors as they initiate the lane change. Should this happen precisely at the moment the cyclist is being overtaken, it would likely result in a collision at high speed. This is a very plausible scenario, especially on mountainous two-lane roads with heavy truck or RV traffic. The low speed of traffic on a grade further incentivizes passing on the right, but the same scenario can play out anywhere a single traffic lane splits into two to accommodate passing, i.e. at designated passing zones. The decision to pass on the right is available to every driver in the queue. The third driver waits to see what the second driver does, the fourth waits for the third, and so on until either the first car moves out of the way and traffic is able to pass, or somebody decides to pass on the right. As the decision moves farther down the line of cars, the available reaction time for the passing driver increases, so the situation becomes less urgent. It is the driver in the second car who possesses the greatest responsibility for avoiding this scenario.

Since not touring is not an option, what is the best way to stay safe in these types of situations? The cyclist has little or no reactionary ability to respond to this situation as it develops, so he or she must be aware of it, be practiced in recognizing road conditions where it is likely to occur, and anticipate it. Passing zones are typically marked with signage well in advance in recognition by transportation departments nationwide of the impatience impediments to speed cultivate in motorists. Be mindful of passing zones, and of the traffic situation behind you as you approach them. Use a rearview mirror to observe approaching vehicle types and the traffic density. If there is a tightly spaced group of cars led by a truck or an RV, anticipate that one of them may attempt a pass in the right lane and consider pulling over prior to the passing zone to let the traffic pass. Begin the passing zone with no cars in view. Once the cyclist is well into the passing zone, it is likely that the jockeying for position will have already begun and that slower vehicle traffic will be in the right lane. As these slower vehicles overtake the cyclist they will be forced back into the left lane, which signals the other drivers that there is a hazard in the right lane. Early in the passing zone, no such signal exists.

Cyclists often opt to ride in the lane to increase their visibility to motorists and to avoid the fertile garden of puncture hazards that is a highway shoulder. It is true that riding in the lane increases visibility to motorists approaching from behind, but doing so in the scenario above may have the opposite effect. The driver whose attention the cyclist is seeking to attract is moving laterally into the cyclist’s lane. The further left the cyclist is riding, i.e. away from the shoulder and into the traffic lane, the further the driver must travel into the lane before the cyclist comes into view. If the cyclist is sufficiently leftward, the driver could conceivably strike the cyclist without ever seeing him or her. Though occupying lane space in order to increase visibility to overtaking motorists is generally advisable, when it is a driver whose field-of-view is traffic-limited and who may seek to pass slower traffic on the right, consider that riding as far to the right as possible may be the safest action. Doing so places the cyclist at the greatest distance from the most immediate threat, and provides the driver with the greatest amount of time to react to the rightful presence of the cyclist on the road.

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