It’s a practical hack using a two-dollar swimming pool toy available at dollar stores and other outlets, but more than that: it’s an awareness-raising device for bicyclists at risk around the world. The humble foam “pool noodle” encourages safer lane passing and can create an implicit shoulder where there is none, alerting cars to the presence of bikers who are often quite literally pushed to the margins.
“Choose from the array of fun colors,” suggests writer and cycling advocate Annalisa van den Bergh, “and use a bungee cord to strap this light, flexible toy to your bike rack so that it sticks out to the left side (or the right side, if you’re in a country where cars drive on the left). Start pedaling and watch as car after car moves over to the other lane.”
Van den Bergh points out that according to the WHO (the World Health Organization), more than half of traffic deaths involve “vulnerable” road users like cyclists. In places like the United States in which most roads were designed around cars, the problem is particularly pressing.
Strapped onto a bicycle with a bungee cord (or added to a projecting length of pipe), the pool noodle solution does more than just force cars to give cyclists a wider berth — it also helps them visualize the three foot distance drivers are legally supposed to give two-wheeled vehicles in more than half of the states in this country. It is, in part, a reminder for people to drive cars better and think more about safety.
Noodles are not a complete fix, but may be a way to help mitigate dangers — detractors note, however, that they can get snagged on things and may be hazardous to pedestrians in certain situations. Meanwhile, for more of Annalisa’s adventures in cycling around the world, follow her project 4,000 Miles of Portraits.
Great article on simple yet effective solutions. I’ve been thinking about a simple solution to prevent infant hot car death. When putting your child in the back, leave a shoe you’re wearing next to the baby. This way, if you leave your car without the baby, not having a shoe will remind you.
Unfortunately your solution does not take into account the Dunning–Kruger effect. However as a forgetful person with a newborn I might actually give it a try.
I’m really glad to see people are discovering ways to increase one’s apparent width when bicycling.
When I was in England in the mid-1980s, I noticed all the bicycles in Oxford had a plastic stick about 18 inches long. On the end of the stick was a 3 inch disk with a reflector in the middle. The attachment clamp on the bike could pivot so you can flip the stick back against your bike for storage. In the early 90s there were similar devices for sale in the states but they never went anywhere.
Another trick I discovered for increasing car to cyclist distance was to place a flashing light near my left shoulder. This is easy to do because I rode in upright recumbent at the time. Drivers tend to interpret bicycle lighting as on the center of the bike and if you locate a light to left of center, they react as if the bike is bigger than it is.
I’m not sure this would work in the UK. The relationship between cars and bikes is so poor that you could bet some drivers would use it as a yard-stick to see how close they could get. The solution has to lie in better education for drivers (and all road users) about safe passing distances, particularly in cities or where road widths are constrained.
Some great work is already being done in some areas with fines being handed out for careless close passes (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-43146515) but we cannot trust people driving cars to fully comply with a simple law intended to keep people riding cycles safe.
In Australia, Victoria University and Queensland University of Technology undertook a study investigating close passing and concluded: “The findings indicate that efforts to improve cyclist safety during overtaking events should focus on non-rider related factors, such as roadway infrastructure characteristics.” That implies fully segregated cycleways are the only solution to close passing!
From the perspective of one who has done multi-state bike trips and still enjoys driving my car, I think too little blame is being placed on unsafe cycling habits.
Too often I hear cyclists boast of reckless behavior, or celebrating videos of cyclists riding against NYC traffic, down staircases to the subway level and dodging pedestrians. Too often I see cyclists disparaging red lights, stop and yield signs, dashing into traffic, riding between cars and other narrow spaces where a driver cannot predict someone to be there.
Our road safety depends on predictability. And while we have licensing and means to make accountable those drivers that break predictability, it is not so with cyclists. Their bikes do not carry any form of identification, nor is the cyclist required to carry one themselves or have insurance in the event the cyclist is at fault.
Despite having to operate on the same rules of the road as a vehicle operator, a cyclist does not need to go through testing or renewal if they opt to never drive a car in their life. There is no education or testing required to ride a bike on the road – it is something people are assumed to pick up as children or otherwise teach themselves (I admit, this was to my advantage when I first biked hundreds of miles across states, but I took it upon myself to still review differing traffic laws.)
It has instead become the burden of the driver to watch out for and keep the cyclist safe as one would a child who has decided that looking both ways before crossing the road is optional. This irresponsible expectation is further compounded that when cyclists are confronted (often times with video evidence of reckless behavior) they resort to whatboutism instead of agreeing that both sides are being reckless and cyclists have enjoyed avoiding the spotlight far too long (it is this attitude that has me largely avoiding the cyclist community in favor of solo-riding.)
Certainly there are road improvements that can be made to keep both cyclists and drivers safe – pedestrian-only bridges, bike-only lanes and divisions. But not all our road problems can be solved with infrastructure, some things require early education before bad habits take root, and people putting their pride and biases aside and making themselves accountable to problems they made.
First: Excellent article which I will share amongst the cycling community of which I am a long-time member. I would go one step further and add a flashing LED strip to the noodle.
Second: Isadora (who may never read this), I completely agree with your comments. I am a way-beyond-middle-age cyclist who enjoys cycling in groups. However, I am growing increasingly intolerant of the bandito-style behavior that some of the younger, mostly male, mostly fixie- or BMX-riding co-cyclists exhibit on group social rides. The pinnacle of this bad behavior is (and I am saddened to say this) Critical Mass. I love CM. I have ridden CM in multiple cities and countries. But in Houston and Dallas during the warm summer months, the rides are do big and uncontrollable that rowdy behavior is common enough that even “normal” cyclists are starting to take offense. Small social rides don’t seem to have this problem, but the larger the ride is the bigger the excuse seems to be for the rowdy element to emerge. It pains me to see CM like this.
A big warm-weather CM also attracts a large number of non-rider riders whose command of bike handling and road-use etiquette is minimal.
Your comment on “whatboutism” is extremely well taken and I have personally experienced this response. On other occasions I am simply told to f*ck off.
I don’t think enough people appreciate the fact that road safety depends on predictability (as you point out). It also depends on being where the traffic expects you to be: in your lane, not in the lane which something more than simple social convention has reserved for oncoming traffic.
I’ve seen cyclists bike on highways/busyways intended only for cars, and using a noodle is going to encourage a crash and is unsafe. Not every road is meant for a cyclist as not every road is meant for a pedestrian.