Relations between Maine cyclists and motorists vary from cordial to contentious, depending in part on where you bike in Maine. That’s one thing that I learned from an informal survey of cyclists over the past month.

More than 35 cyclists told me about their experiences with motorists and their ideas for improving safety on Maine roads. While many live in greater Portland, I also heard from people in Bar Harbor, Bethel, Norway, Auburn and several other communities. Most of them both bike and drive a car, so they see issues from the two perspectives. This column addresses motorists’ behavior. My next column will focus on cyclists’ behavior.

Drivers in the Portland area are, for the most part, patient and polite, according to those who wrote to me. Perhaps one reason is that they are used to seeing cyclists on the road.

Bill Hall of Peaks Island has commuted to work by bicycle (and ferry) for 16 years. He said drivers often stop to let him cross an intersection where there is no traffic light, or to make a left turn in front of them. “I have had very few instances of rude or dangerous behavior from motorists,” he said.

But other cyclists, particularly those riding in rural areas, encounter more challenging conditions.

Angela King of Pownal has tried bicycling with her son to his elementary school a mile from their home. She says it is “nerve-racking,” adding, “People drive way too fast!”

Julie Daigle of Fort Kent describes relations between motorists and cyclists in her corner of Maine as “not a happy marriage.”

Stephen Smith of Portland says problems seem worst on curvy roads with narrow shoulders, or none at all. That forces motorists to slow down for cyclists. In those conditions, he says, he’s encountered “close passing, engine revving, honking, yelling.” He’s even had objects thrown at him.

I assume people who fling beer cans at cyclists are not reading this column. But for the many well-meaning people who aren’t aware of how their driving affects people on bikes, here are some requests from those who wrote to me.

First, slow down. James Tassé, assistant director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, says that’s the simplest way to make roads safer.

Please pay attention. We see into your car windows, and we know how many of you are using devices. That scares us, because we are so vulnerable riding next to heavy machines.

Jeff Welt of Brunswick says he frequently encounters distracted drivers while cycling. His wife, Joyce, was hit twice on bike. Both times, she was injured badly enough that she had to go to the hospital.

As in any relationship, things work best when there’s lots of communication. That means using signals to tell cyclists when you plan to turn, and looking or waving at us at intersections to communicate your intentions.

But don’t give us special treatment, because it could backfire.

“You don’t need to ‘baby’ us,” says Bob O’Brien of Portland. “Stopping abruptly or unexpectedly to yield your right of way to a cyclist is more hazardous than driving though. Other drivers get aggravated or confused.”

Please be very careful when passing cyclists. While Maine law requires you to give 3 feet of clearance, try to leave even more. On just a thin set of wheels, we may have to dodge potholes, debris and other obstacles that you don’t notice in your very stable car.

Joshua Howe does most of his bicycle riding near Auburn. “People pass too close and too fast and try to squeeze past when there’s really not enough room to do it,” he says. “It’s frightening to have someone come from behind at 50 miles per hour and less than 2 feet away.”

Remember, you are allowed to cross the yellow line to pass us, as long as no car is coming toward you. But sometimes, the only safe way to pass cyclists is to slow down and wait for a break in traffic.

“Don’t rev your engine or honk to let us know you are there and would like to get by,” says Nathan Miller of Portland. “Believe me, cyclists can tell if there is an impatient vehicle behind us just fine, and we don’t want to intentionally keep you from where you are going. If we are making it hard to pass, there is probably a good reason.”

One of the most common ways that you can cause a crash is by taking a right-hand turn in front of a cyclist. If you pass someone on a bike, look back before turning right to make sure you don’t collide with him or her.

Driving with your headlights on makes you more visible to a cyclist. Getting an annual eye exam ensures that you can see well enough to drive safely.

We’d love to have you try bicycling so that you better understand the conditions that we face.

“When you’re driving in a car,” Rick Harbison of Portland says, “you don’t realize how loud it is, or intimidating it can be, when passing a cyclist even at slower speeds.”

If bicycling isn’t possible, then please remember that we belong on the roads, just as much as you do. And treat us as patiently as you would a beloved family member.

Shoshana Hoose is a freelance writer who walks and bicycles in Greater Portland and beyond. Contact her at [email protected].

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