July 8th, 2009

The Single Witness Suicide Swerve (SWSS) is a derogatory term coined by cyclists to describe the scenario reported by drivers who have been involved in a certain fatal crashes involving a cyclist. Reports from these incidents almost invariably contain language to the effect that the cyclist unexpectedly swerved in front of the motorist. The resulting collision being witnessed by only one individual – the involved motorist. By extension, the cyclist must have had a death wish, because their actions led directly to their death.

When scrutinized, these claims almost never make sense – though, sadly, they do tend to stand as cause. The more realistic explanation is that the motorist was not paying attention and hit the cyclist. In the absence of additional witnesses and reluctance on the part of the investigators to pursue other contributing facts, the victim becomes the instigator of their own demise and the motorist gets off with a free pass. Truthfully, how many people are going to admit they were responsible for the death of someone else and willingly be subject to the consequences? Better to implicate the cyclist as being the cause; besides, they are unable to defend themselves.

Contributing causes likely also include cyclists riding at night with insufficient illumination, riding too close to the edge of the roadway or darting out from driveways or intersections. Excepting the latter case, the motorist still bears the burden of the responsibility. Even so, the cyclists may be partially to blame in some situations, though certainly not all.

The majority of these fatalities can be avoided by simply employing vehicular principles when riding a bike on the road. Novice and inexperienced cyclists often ride too far to the right. Like most motorists and law enforcement officials, cyclists tend to misinterpret the meaning of “as far to the right as practicable” to mean something akin to as far to the right as possible. In so doing, they position themselves too close to the curb, often in shadows, but always reducing their conspicuity.

In his oft’ quoted monograph on the subject, John Franklin recommends a default alignment roughly in the center of the lane. Terming this the “primary riding position“, this practice affords the cyclist greater visibility to other road users. Competent, experienced vehicular cyclists understand this philosophy and embrace it. More specifically, most competent, experienced vehicular cyclists tend to adopt an alignment to the right hand side of the left third of the outside lane as a rule. Always taking full control of the lane when legally allowed will result in greater respect from other road users. The more conspicuous one is, the safer one will be.

5 Responses to “SWSS”

  1. Steve A says:

    While I’m not convinced that research solidly supports the notion that a cyclist riding too close to the edge of the roadway is in a lot of danger compared to the “primary position,” it is certainly true that the claim of a SWSS is less credible the further left the impact point is, and the less likely that the crash will develop into a hit and run. It also is logical that the impact is less likely in the first place the more visible the cyclist.

    I pretty much ride where Herman describes, absent other considerations. Why? Because my own experience tells me it’s not more dangerous in any conditions, motorists conclude earlier that they need to change course, I have better protection against crossing traffic – and because, if needed, I can swerve to the right to avoid a major unexpected road hazard.

    I’ve been watching, and I conclude that around my parts, it’s not just “novice and inexperienced” cyclsts that ride too far to the right. I’ve been watching for a good example for over two months now and haven’t seen ANYTHING even close yet. Maybe N Tarrant is particularly CIC in this respect. I’m fortunate in that most N Tarrant police do not share CIC views because I’m definitely an outlier whenever I ride. I prefer to believe that these police know the law rather than merely consider cyclists not worth bothering with.

    I WOULD be interested in this blog author’s observations regarding his own encounters with cyclists he doesn’t know. Perhaps experienced vehicular cyclists are common where he rides, but I doubt it.

    As I recall, Forester claimed that without proper instruction, people on bikes might take decades and tens of thousands of miles to hit upon VC, and maybe not even then.

    Sorry about the long comment. Certainly I agree with the objective aspects of the post, and the items I don’t regard supported by evidence are eminently reasonable and logical hypotheses that I share.

  2. Herman says:

    “I conclude that around my parts, it’s not just ‘novice and inexperienced’ cyclsts that ride too far to the right.”[sic]

    Perhaps it would help to qualify my use of the terms novice and inexperienced. With those terms I am referring to novice and inexperienced vehicular cyclists. Many who take up bicycle commuting have experience – as club cyclists, recreational cyclists, competitive cyclists – and are certainly not novices. Though they may be quite competent in their experiential realm, it is a mistake for these individuals to presume they can translate other bicycle related skill to vehicular cycling. At least, without additional instruction or research.

    As you correctly point out, though they may have been riding under other circumstances for years, they often ride too far to the right, fail to yield right of way and make numerous other mistakes. Instead of recognizing and correcting these errors, they usually cry for facilities to protect themselves from the mean, nasty motorists. When, in truth, the actual source of their anxiety stares back at them in the mirror.

  3. […] fact, many cyclists refer to that type of collision as an SWSS — Single Witness Suicide Swerve — because the frequency of such collisions would suggest that there must be a lot of death-wish […]

  4. […] so common as a cause of mortal injury in traffic accident reports we even have a name for them: the Single Witness Suicide Swerve or SWSS because they so often are reported by the single surviving witness, the driver of the car […]

  5. […] or other conveyance”? Were there witnesses besides the driver? Was this a so-called “Single Witness Suicide Swerve“? I would like to think the investigation was handled thoroughly and properly; though nothing […]

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