The real problem with PCH

October 24, 2012 § 49 Comments

Another person was killed riding her bicycle on Pacific Coast Highway last week, not too far from Cher’s compound. Reports say she clipped a mirror on a parked car, veered out into the lane, and got hit and dragged to death by a bus.

“It was a tragedy and a very sad event,” said Malibu City Councilmember Skylar Peak. Yes. It was. As opposed to being a tragedy and, say, a happy event.

“It was a very, very sad and tragic loss of what seemingly was a wonderful young woman,” said Councilmember Laura Zahn Rosenthal. Yes. And how nice of you to say “seemingly.”

It was sad and tragic, just like the other sad and tragically dead cyclists who have met their end on PCH, and just like the ones who will die there in the future. What’s really tragic, though, is that there’s no end in sight.

What’s killing cyclists on PCH?

The root causes of most bike-car accidents are twofold: Most cyclists are not particularly good bike handlers, and PCH is essentially a narrow, obstacle-filled road with speeding cars, trucks, and buses. It doesn’t take much, especially when PCH cyclists are often enthusiasts who are going hard, for a biker to lose control.

It might be a mirror, an opened door, debris, a pothole, uneven surfaces, longitudinal cracking in the pavement, wide “tire traps” around manhole covers, a howling onshore wind, the air vortex from a fast passing large truck, another cyclist, a moment of inattentive wobbling, a parked car, a parked trash can, a mechanical failure, a flat tire, something getting caught in the spokes…it’s an endless list. To make sure these predictably unpredictable hazards don’t crash you out takes skill; it takes the skills of constant alertness, of being able to react quickly without losing control, and of being able to forecast problems and avoid them before they occur.

These are precisely the skills that most cyclists lack, and they often lack them to a shocking degree. The average cycling enthusiast is a terrible bike handler for many reasons. They tend to start later in life, when the learning curve is steeper. They tend not to have a background in moto or BMX, two-wheeled activities conducive to great bike handling skills.

They’ve never raced, and so don’t have a lot of experience crashing and avoiding crashes. They don’t train with large groups, so they’re not on a state of constant high alert, or accustomed to being surrounded by reckless, unpredictable idiots who can crash them out at a moment’s notice. They cycle for exercise, not for errands or commuting, so they don’t have a lot of experience using a bike for transportation and learning the survival skills that go with fighting traffic in a morning and evening commute.

They don’t have a skilled mentor from whom to learn.

PCH is a high-skills corridor. The deaths there prove it. And although thousands and thousands of people ride PCH every year and never get hurt, I’d hazard a guess that everyone who rides it much at all has a long string of stories about near-misses and the mishaps of others.

So that’s part of the problem: High-skills corridor, low-skills users. Bam.

The other 90% of the problem

However, it’s not the kooky wankers whose wheel you wouldn’t want to follow on a dare who are killing themselves. They’re being run over and killed by cars, trucks, and buses. And as the NRA would say, cars don’t kill people. People kill people.

They’re right.

Because however inept the average cycling enthusiast is, the average driver is far worse. More damning, terrible driving skills in America can’t be excused from lack of practice. It seems that no matter how many years people drive, the roadways are still cluttered with terrible drivers.

The comments from idiots like “Hellwood,” a Malibu type whose philosophy is that PCH is too dangerous for bikes, prove the point. Most drivers, Cher included, simply don’t know what to do when they come upon a bicycle, whether it’s in the lane, on the shoulder, or straddling the two. A skilled driver wouldn’t even shrug: He’d see the bike far in advance, move over, pass the bike, and get back into his lane.

He might be slowed down a few seconds, if at all.

This, of course, hardly ever happens. Tottsy Dundershoot is barreling along in his restored Chevelle SS with the top down and “WHOA! What the fuck! A bike!!!”

Yikes! Hit the brakes! Or better yet, veer! Or better yet, accelerate, buzz, honk, and wave the middle finger! Get flustered!

None of these reactions is the reaction of a skilled driver. They’re the reactions of an unskilled, easily unnerved, easily frightened driver. And it’s no different on the freeway, where no one understands what a “passing lane” is, and where 999 drivers out of 1,000 believe that the far left lane is the “fast lane,” meaning “the lane I stay in because I’m going faster than the guy I just passed.”

Drive the autobahn and you’ll get a quick education in real driving skills. You hit the left lane to pass, then get the hell out. Autobahn driving, if you’re going fast, is a series of passes followed by returning to the slower lane until you have to pass the next person. It requires constant attentiveness, the ability to see what’s going on well ahead of your own car, and the patience and skill to seamlessly pass, return, pass, return, pass, and return over and over and over again.

In Germany, that’s one of many skills that make up the ability to “drive” a car.

In America, we don’t drive cars. We point them.

Skilled drivers relish using their skills

Like road cyclists who enjoy a tricky descent, or mountain bikers who get a kick out of negotiating difficult terrain, skillful drivers enjoy using their skills. Driving situations that require forecasting, reaction, avoidance, coordination, and thought make driving fun.

This is the antithesis of how people drive on PCH. They point, mash the pedal, and scare the fuck out of themselves when anything unexpected happens. You know, unexpected things like bicycles, of which there are thousands every single weekend.

Frightened, inept, barely-in-control car pointers are not dangerous because their cars are big, moving fast, and weigh thousands of pounds. They’re dangerous for the same reason that a clumsy, unskilled idiot is dangerous with a loaded gun: He doesn’t really know how to use it.

The toxicity of “My Space”

Partnered up with a laughable set of driving skills, the PCH car pointer becomes even more deadly due to his xenophobic sense of space. The roadway is his turf. Anything that is smaller and slower than him is a foreigner without an entry visa. When his space is invaded, his cloddish driving skills combine with his outrage at something being where he thinks it doesn’t belong, and cause him to freak out.

In order to make PCH safe for cyclists, it doesn’t require any new studies or infrastructure or laws. It requires something even costlier and more impossible to attain: The admission that bikes in the middle of the road, even erratic and badly handled ones, are a piece of cake for anyone who pretends to be a skilled driver, and the realization that as a cyclist the biggest hazard to your health on PCH may well be the way you ride your bike.

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§ 49 Responses to The real problem with PCH

  • Awesome piece Wankmeister, driving on the autobahn in reverse adds even more to your skills, like being a bike messenger will make you a better cyclist 😉

    • Admin says:

      It’s incredible how badly people drive here, until you see them do other things: ride a bike, write a letter, take a picture, cook a dinner, discuss politics, analyze religious thought.

      This is the only place in the world where mediocrity gets christened “greatest on earth.”

  • pickled radish says:


  • DJSlow says:

    In the end, unfortunately, you can’t outsmart stupid. Keep a rabbit’s foot in your jersey pocket…..

  • Erica says:

    This is a great post. I am a new cyclist and had a huge fall on the bike path this past weekend when I hit a crack in wet conditions. If I was on PCH I would surely have been hit by a car. I am getting really tired of riding that same bike path 3-4 times a week but I don’t feel confident enough to ride on our congested streets…. Like PCH.

    • Admin says:

      1. Join a club.
      2. Ride with people who are highly skilled.

      Riding with highly skilled cyclists often means suffering the company of arrogant, self-absorbed twits. However, it’s the fastest safe way to learn, and you can ditch them if they’re too tiresome or if they yell too much.

    • Tom says:

      Even if you don’t want to join a cycling club (yet), most clubs and many bike stores have scheduled , “open to the public”, non-hammer rides several times per week.
      It’s a good way to start learning about bike handling, etc.
      For now, best to avoid any ride in the So Bay that has the word “Pier” or “Donut” in its name 😉

      • Admin says:

        Just let me know you’re going to be there and you’ll get a warm welcome. For the first five minutes. Or so.

  • Peter Schindler says:

    You have hit the nail on the head. One corollary. Ride with people who know wtf they are doing.

    • Admin says:

      Yep. Kiss a little ass, ingratiate yourself with good riders and they’ll let you tag along and teach you along the way.

  • Tom says:

    I am dumbfounded & most frightened by motorist’s addiction/obsession to texting, whether I’m on my bike, in my car, or walking across the street. While they are glancing down, their car has travelled hundreds of feet, and they are essentially driving while blind.

    What in hell could be so important that it requires texting NOW?
    I suspect most of these texts are variations on “whassup”.

    Texting is already illegal with substantial fines, making it “more illegal” won’t likely deter motorists. Just look at DUI offenders. Even if a DUI’s license is eventually revoked, they still drive anyway. Impounding their smartphone may be more of a deterrent!

    • Admin says:

      It all goes back to the observation that people here are poor drivers no matter how you define it.

      The first requirement, that you pay attention all the time, goes out the window when you text. It’s not that people think texting is important, it’s that they don’t know how to drive and don’t want to learn. “Whoa! Fuck! A cyclist! Where’d HE come from???” [Slams brakes, hits horn, swerves.]

  • Checkerbutt says:

    A grand slam, Seth! Hits the nail right on the head!

  • R. White says:

    In a nutshell: Dead-on.

    This needs to be published for wider consumption. Specifically all who ride and drive PCH. Maybe the germ of these ideas will make it into a few brains and prevent one more catastrophe.

    When my girlfriend started riding PCH, my only admonishment(s) was “remember, every time your wheel turns over, it’s a whole new set of hazards”, and “stay off bad wheels”. Years later, I still say it, and we get to sit down and have dinner together every night.

    P.s. Seth, your Sunday Big Rock ride looks well organized from across the road, just like the Big Rock rides of yesteryear. Kudos.

    • Admin says:

      Good advice.

      I’ve only done one of those rides this year. I think they’re being done by the Big Orange club, and a later one in the day by the West Side/La Grange/Helen’s folks. My experience was that PCH is definitely safer when you have a large group riding 2 x 2, taking the entire lane.

      Motorists saw us well in advance, changed lanes, and never honked or cursed when they passed. Now if we could get them and Cher to behave the same way when it’s just one rider.

      • R. White says:

        I guess that’s the rumor mill… Good to be on the good side though, huh? B. Kogan said you were the ride commander…

        One more note about making yourself seen/safer: I’ve been using a Serfas Thunderbolt taillight during the day and it’s bright enough to push drivers over an extra 2-3 feet. It’s a noticeable difference. It’s sleek enough to put on your Italian Carbon machine without making you look like a commuter as well, ++. I’m sold. Put two of them on watch cars change lanes…

        • Admin says:

          Dude, you’re right about the Serfas. I have one and it’s so bright that other cyclists ask me to turn it off when I’m in a group and they’re behind me. It makes cars going up VdM give me a WIDE berth. It is a fantastic light.

  • Liz says:

    I rarely ride PCH anymore. I’m bummed about that but I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more cautious.
    When I do ride it, I tend to drive to Bluffs park and leave from there. I’ve become one of the people I used to say I’d never become! Driving to a road ride. Pathetic.
    Still, doing that allows me to hit the awesome hills of Malibu without riding the dangerous and narrow sections of PCH from Temescal to Webb way.
    Unfortunately, right now the worst section of PCH seems to be the section between Chers house and John Tyler Dr.
    Tons of construction and trucks and parked cars. Hmm, just where that poor woman was killed.
    Maybe I’ll just start riding south more often and climb the switchies to the domes 2 or 3 times.
    PCH…I remember when it was wonderful!

    • Admin says:

      What’s worst about it is that we have the right to be there, and the only thing it takes to accommodate bikes is a marginal improvement in driving skills. Drivers don’t even need to slow down, just see, anticipate, move over, then move back. It’s so fucking simple.

    • R. White says:

      Liz, If you want to avoid that section of road when Southbound, take the side road through the colony along the beach. That massive construction site will more than likely be compromise the shoulder for several months. Ride Safe.

  • Noel says:

    Thanks Seth!

    • Admin says:

      Douchebaguette is going to have some new friends on Malibu Patch after I knock off work today. Popularity’s a bitch, dude.

  • Uyen says:

    Most articles are about entitlement…I like how yours is about empowerment. Thanks for such a well written article. I’ve shared it with many friends and family members.

    • Admin says:

      Thank you! The bottom line is that skilled drivers shouldn’t have any problem with avoiding large, slow moving bike clods like me. Just like I have no problem avoiding large, fast moving objects like cars. Most of the time…

  • A. Morgan says:

    Well written and spot on. I doubt the public will know the true cause of the latest death, but if anyone is interested, here is a link to one blog post suggesting that Echevaria may have been thrown into the road after her tire caught in a seam:

  • judy says:

    If the cyclists control the full lane as a driver instead of riding in the door zone (gutter and road edge) thus encouraging close passes in the same lane then this wouldn’t happen. Cars would see them sooner as they see other vehicles and would change lanes to pass. If the cyclists is controlling the full lane, it would not be a matter of veering into the lane.. they are already there and riding where they are visible.

  • John Psycho Wike says:

    Seth. This is by far the best yet. I’ve been riding PCH since 1985. If you ever want to organize skill clinics let me know. The Sunday after that accident we we’re on PCH and was nearly clipped by a UHaul at 6am. Goes to show ya that Grim is never to far. I’d be open to teach my first hand knowledge on survival skills. Also will add descending tips.

  • judy says:

    Here Caltrans responds to a motorist with regards to bike positioning on PCH:

  • judy says:

    In San Diego County we are working to put sharrows and Bikes May Use Full Lane signs to educate cyclists to position themselves down the center of the effective lane and to educate drivers to expect cyclists in the full lane which is the law. These will go in everywhere there are not bike lanes. The lanes are too narrow to share side by side. They should be in in Encinitas by the end of this year.

    • Admin says:

      I’m on that stretch of road several times every week, and was talking with some other wankers this morning about how much the sharrows have changed motorists’ perceptions of bikes in the lane. For the most part, they now get it. It’s partly because the sharrows have told normal bicycle riders to use the lane; people on cruisers, just normal people who don’t look and act like space freak alien weirdo X-Person whackadoodle bike kooks. The normal people have lots more clout than we do, and their existence in the lane gives the sharrows even more cred. I wish they’d slap those fuckers on every roadway in California. We already have the right; adding the sharrows actually educates everyone.

  • “In order to make PCH safe for cyclists, it doesn’t require any new studies or infrastructure or laws. It requires something even costlier and more impossible to attain: The admission that bikes in the middle of the road, even erratic and badly handled ones, are a piece of cake for anyone who pretends to be a skilled driver, and the realization that as a cyclist the biggest hazard to your health on PCH may well be the way you ride your bike.”

    I like that. Especially the part about getting drivers to see a few arrows are missing from their driving quivers.

    So – how to do that? How do we get drivers to acknowledge their skill set is lacking if they can’t safely and gracefully negotiate a bicycle in the right lane.

    Based on my own experience as a PCH rider through Santa Monica, Malibu and north since the seventies, I know the primary problem is motorists who are driving waaaaay too fast for the conditions (the other traffic on the road, i.e., the bicycle up ahead) and hoping they get lucky “just one more time”.

    I’m sure any regular PCH bus driver has passed thousands of cyclists at speeds so great he couldn’t avoid a cyclist who wobbled or fell into his path. But they’ve been lucky.

    Maybe the insurance companies would ask drivers to acknowledge their skill gap if tickets for violation of California’s basic speed law (VC 22350) started showing up on DMV records at annual premium review time.

    And imagine the field day law enforcement would have if the boss told them to ticket motorists who overtook bicycle riders “…at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for…the traffic on…the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.”

    “Son, what’s this letter from the Malibu Courthouse?”

    “Oh, dad, yeah, I got a speeding ticket…”

    “But it says you were only going 42MPH?”

    “Uh, yeah, I was passing a kid on a bike…”

    • Admin says:

      Gotta start somewhere. Sharrows are a great start, and it beats waiting (more) years and (more) fatalities for infrastructure that’s never going to happen and that costs an arm and a leg. There’s no perfect solution for everything today, but the beginning is telling drivers with sharrows that it’s our lane too, and telling cyclists that it’s okay to ride in the lane.

      They’re taking exactly this step–sharrows–on PCH in Orange County after the two recent fatalities there. Enough is enough. Everyone can find a problem with every proposal because they’re all flawed. The key is putting it in front of drivers’ noses that bikes belong, and telling bikers they belong. Many cower in the gutter because they don’t even know they have the right to take the lane.

      It’s always a positive start telling drivers that they suck, and telling cyclists that they suck. People love knowing they suck! “Yo, dude, you suck! Now don’t kill me, okay?”

      You probably suck, too. I know I do.

      Good post, though, even if you do suck.

      • judy says:

        You could also work to get your section of PHC made safer with Sharrows and BMUFL signs. We started here by meeting with the City Traffic Engineer and encouraging him to action by starting a City Bike Committee. Now almost every town along the coast has a Bike/Pedestrian committee to make sure that the cities follows MUCTD standards for Bicycles in design and whenever they are repaving or restriping a road. There are resources to help them to WANT to get it right. They don’t want to be the last on the train to safe and Complete Streets.

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  • TQ says:

    Not mentioned is the fact that in civilized countries, motorists are required to LEARN to drive. In Germany, one of the first financial loans a young adult takes out is for a course of driver’s training, which requires both theory (you should see how thick the textbook is–it’s not a tiny little picture-filled handout from the DMV!) and many, many hours of behind-the-wheel training with a trained, certified driving instructor (not your incompetent and/or drunk dad who hands you the keys once you have your permit), including minimum requirements for behind-the-wheel instruction in various conditions such as night driving, freeway driving & inclement weather.

    In America, “driver’s ed” is a joke, a sick joke that kills tens of thousands of people every year.

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