Let’s set the stage. You’re minding your own business biking straight in a bike lane and it looks like a car wants to turn right at the intersection ahead, directly across your path. Preferably they put their blinker on, but you can also tell from subtle clues like the front wheels turned slightly to the right or the car drifting slightly closer to the bike lane. You’re behind the car with plenty of space, but you worry that it may merge into your lane and slow down to turn right. What do you do?
If you pass this car on the right, you may get “right hooked” as the car turns immediately in front of you or crashes into you while turning. Although you have the right of way here and the car is at fault, there are ways to avoid this situation to begin with.
This scenario where you catch up to a turning car is more common on bike friendly streets with bike lanes where the vehicles aren’t going much faster than the bicycles (which should be the streets you’re riding on!). If your city doesn’t have many of these streets, start complaining to your city leaders!
On less bike friendly streets where the vehicles are often going much faster than the bicycles, a common scenario for the right hook is when a driver tries to pass you and turn in front of you without realizing you’re still right next to the car. Looking back before an intersection and staying in the middle or left part of the lane can help prevent drivers from trying to pass and turn in front of you like this. Virtuous Bicycles, a bike education site based in NYC, has a great article on this specific right hook (with some great graphics too). Anyway, back to the bike lanes…
The Safest and Legal Way to Avoid the Right Hook
The safest and most legal way to handle this situation is to effectively switch places with the car. You, as the bicyclist, merge into car traffic behind the car and pass to the left as the car slows, merges into the mixing zone of the bike lane, and turns right. If you’re riding in the car’s blind spot, you should slow down and go around.
The trick to making this maneuver smooth is to be aware and merge early. This signals to the driver that they can merge towards the curb and turn safely. Doing this early also prevents you from getting stuck losing your momentum with all the car traffic moving too fast to merge. If you wait too long and aren’t sure what to do, you can always just slow down and even stop to let the car turn in front of you.
In a perfect world we’d always go around to the left, but the streets are a messy place, and this ideal case is not always possible if the driver decides to turn too late or doesn’t enter the mixing zone at all!
When a Car Doesn’t Merge Towards the Curb or Into the Mixing Zone
While the car drivers are supposed to make a right turn “as close to the curb as possible,” forcing bicyclists to go around to the left, in reality this is often not the case. Many drivers do not merge into the mixing zone at all, or they don’t go close enough to the curb.
If you are in a situation where a car is turning right but isn’t merging into the mixing zone, you now have a decision to make. Do you continue straight and risk passing the car on the right? Or do you try and pass on the left where there may be no room, forcing you to slow down and lose that precious momentum as they slowly turn right?
Usually, the decision is easy. Passing on the left is the safer and proper way to do this. Slowing down and waiting for the car to turn right is better than risking your life.
I sometimes pass on the right if I’m extremely confident that the car sees me and is slowing down to wait for me, something they often do on a bike friendly street with bike lanes. In this case, I’ll wave my hand in thanks after going by and preserving my momentum.
In the graphic above, the car is stopping and it would be unreasonable for me to squeeze behind the turning car to go around on the left. This could even be dangerous if the other cars don’t see me, as they may also try to go around to the left of the turning car without looking for me coming through. Ringing your bell or yelling “Heads Up!” as you ride by helps make sure you are noticed.
On a busy bike thoroughfare, cars may not merge into the bike lane when there are a large number of bicycles. If this happens, we all just roll through and the turning cars just have to wait.
Right Hook Recovery (aka Emergency Quick Turn)
Now, if you do decide to go past the car on the right and the car is still turning right, or if you didn’t notice that the car was turning right in the first place, you now have a problem. Some people say there is nowhere to go, but I say nay, at this point you can still recover from this situation.
The car is turning right in front of you, so that means you have to turn right too! If you slow down (don’t mash that front brake too hard!) and turn right along with the car, it’s possible to avoid collision while yelling profanity at the driver.
Speaking of profanity, please just remember that the drivers usually don’t have any bad intentions, and it’s fair to yell at them if they screw up, but then you can stop, breathe, and remember that they’re just trying to get somewhere like you are. If you keep yelling at them continuously, the next time they see a cyclist they may think of that asshole that yelled their face off and the anger will brew. Don’t be that asshole. Share the road.
Protected Bike Lanes
With newer, safer infrastructure popping up in cities around the world, protected bike lanes make this kind of right hook obsolete. Since the bike lane is protected, the cars and bikes can’t switch places at any time. The right turns for cars need to be built into the infrastructure.
While this kind of bike lane is certainly better than a paint-only bike lane, it still has some different types of right hook problems. If there are small streets or driveways that break up the protection, make sure you are aware of cars to your left and ahead of you that may want to turn there.
What a Car Should Do When Turning Right
All the other sections are what a bicyclist should do when turning right. Well, what about from the car driver’s point of view?
Perspective Shift – I’m now writing from the car driver’s perspective.
As I stated before, car drivers are supposed to make a right turn “as close to the curb as possible.” This is the key point, but easier said than done. That means that, as a driver, when you’re thinking about turning right, you should always check for bikes, turn on your blinker, and get over towards the far right of the lane as soon as possible. This does 3 important things:
- Signals to all the bicyclists behind you that you’re turning right
- Blocks bicycles from riding around you to the right (illegal and unsafe)
- Forces bicycles towards the safe and legal option of passing you on the left
A problem does arise if there’s already a bike next to your vehicle on the street or bike lane. Do you speed up and go around, or do you slow down and turn behind? If you’re within distance to put your blinker on, the answer here is always slow down.
Bicycles are faster than you think, and if you try to speed up you’ll likely get stuck waiting anyway or right hooking the bicycle. Speeding up and going towards the left of the lane is the exact opposite of what you need to do for the turn, so it will be hard to correct and turn right properly (close to the curb) if you speed up and pass. Sit tight, wait for the bicyclist to pass by, and you’ll be turning right in no time.
The last thing to note is that once you’re closer to the curb before you turn, it’s easy to hit the curb (or a parked car!) with your back wheels if you are doing the turn incorrectly. This is a common problem and probably a big reason why people don’t turn close to the curb. If you have problems hitting the back tires on the curb, you’re not making a wide enough turn, which means you’re turning too soon. If you have a larger car or truck, you may not be able to turn close enough to the curb to block space for bicycles, so it’s more complicated. You’ll have to wait for any nearby bicycles to pass you on the right or left before starting your turn.
The unfortunate result of car drivers turning right closer to the curb of the mixing zone is that sometimes bicyclists will get angry at the car for “being in the bike lane.” Of course this is unjustified, but even the people biking don’t always know the rules, so all they see is someone in the bike lane, and they get frustrated. If you encounter one of those people, please share this post with them so we can all just get along. I made a short link so you can access it at www.biketoeverything.com/RightHook.
Practice Makes Perfect
Now back to the biker’s point of view. The best way to feel comfortable and safe on the road is to just get out there and ride with all your awareness intact. Take it slow and maybe practice an emergency quick turn in a parking lot.
If this still stresses you out, I have other posts on how to look behind you as well as how to go around obstacles, which can help prepare you for the kind of maneuvers you’ll be doing to avoid right hooks and assert yourself in traffic. You may also like my 3 ways to turn left as a bicycle.
For a short video refresher, I’ve found this old YouTube video that describes pretty well what I’ve just written and drawn out for you.
I hope you learned something from reading this, please share and post some comments if you have more things to say. Happy biking!