Avoiding The Coffin Corner

I came across an interesting, and potentially dangerous, traffic situation today, and thought I’d share what was going through my head as the situation played out.

Here’s the scene:

This is at 159th and Lone Elm Road in Olathe, KS. At this intersection, Lone Elm Road is a 4-lane arterial road, with bike lanes going each direction.

In this photo, what you can’t see is that the first vehicle stopped at the light — an SUV pulling a trailer — does not have his turn signal on, while the truck and the car are signaling a right turn.

In this situation, as a cyclist approaching the intersection via the bike lane, I could have continued in the bike lane up to the red light. After all, the bike lane striping is solid, and I apparently had the right of way. This would probably have been safe, since I would have been to the right of the SUV + trailer going straight, and to the front of the turning truck and car. When the light turned green, I would have proceeded through the intersection, and the right-turning vehicles would have waited until I cleared before making their turn.

But what if the driver of the first vehicle suddenly decided to turn right? He could get tired of waiting for the light, he could think of an errand somewhere else, or he could just change his mind. But if he decided to turn, I’d be in a tough spot. Maybe the driver would look before turning, and see me, but if not, I’d be hit, either by the SUV or by the trailer.

My best move would be to leave the bike lane and merge into the right-most vehicular lane, and get in line behind the white car. I’d be in no danger from any of the three vehicles in front of me.

But what you can’t see here, and what I could see in my rear-view mirror, was a line of cars nearing the intersection from behind me. If I’d been more vigilant, I’d have moved out of the bike lane well before the new cars arrived. But as it was, I was struggling with taking the picture while riding, so I missed my chance, and was trapped in the bike lane.

So I decided to just stop, well back from the intersection, and let the whole parade pass by before continuing my journey.

That wasn’t an ideal solution, and may not have worked if traffic were truly non-stop, or if there had been other cyclists coming up behind me, but in this case, it eliminated all conflicts, and only delayed me slightly.

One thing to note here is that the right-turning truck and car were improperly positioned. They should have moved into the bike lane before making the turn. That would have prevented me from doing something stupid.

Here’s the Kansas statute dealing with right turns:

8-1545.1 Right turns. Both the approach for a right turn and a right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.

Kansas law does not explicitly deal with right turns across a bike lane, but 8-1545.1 should apply.

Other states, such as California, spell it out in detail: “Whenever it is necessary for the driver of a motor vehicle to cross a bicycle lane that is adjacent to his lane of travel to make a turn, the driver shall drive the motor vehicle into the bicycle lane prior to making the turn and shall make the turn.” (See Bike Lanes & Right Turns from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.)

This law is apparently not commonly known, either among motorists or cyclists, because the vast majority of vehicles I see at this intersection (and others), turn across the bike lane, rather an merging into the bike lane and making the turn. And I suspect that if you asked most cyclists, they’d say that a motor vehicle should not enter the bike lane under any circumstance.

In this case, it doesn’t help that the bike lane is painted solid — it would be helpful if it were dashed near the intersection, to visually indicate that the line may be crossed, and turning traffic should merge.

This situation, where a straight-through cyclist is in conflict with right-turning traffic at an intersection, is known colloquially as the “coffin corner“.

It is particularly dangerous with right-turning trucks, which often have numerous blind spots. If a truck is stopped at a light, and a bicyclist comes up from behind, and proceeds along the edge of the street, between the truck and the curb, the cyclist may not be seen, and is in grave danger. (The Missouri Bicycle & Pedestrian Federation has an excellent discussion of this issue: How to avoid being hit by a turning truck.)

If you come upon traffic stopped at a red light or stop sign, whether they’re signaling for a right turn or not, do not attempt to pass them on the right — if you can, just get into line behind them, and control the lane through the intersection. If you can’t get into line behind other traffic, do as I did and wait for the intersection to clear before proceeding.

And if you come across a car in the bike lane at a stop light, blocking your way while waiting to turn right, don’t get mad — they’re doing it right!

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About The Author

By Randy Rasa, editor/webmaster at Kansas Cyclist, the web’s premier Kansas cycling information site, featuring authoritative guides to Kansas cycling clubs, bike shops, organized bike rides, touring, trails, and much more. [learn more]

4 responses to “Avoiding The Coffin Corner”

  1. Gordon V says:

    You did the right thing. It may have been an inconvenience, but it was the only way to assure that the situation played out without putting you at risk. In these kind of situations I hear the voice of my Driver’s Ed teacher many years ago: “true, you had the right-of-way…and we’ll make sure they carve that into your tombstone…”

    Another thought…bicyclists get frustrated (rightly) by motorists ignoring bike lanes. But this be a case of a motorist thinking he is doing the right thing by keeping the lane open? How many cyclists, much less motorists, know that blocking the lane in this case is safest for the cyclist?

  2. Flagship99 says:

    I think the best spot would be this: Stay in the bike lane, but stay behind the white car. Then when the light changes, you can have your turn to go through the intersection safely……after the white car. If you were a car, this is the order that you would be going across the intersection. It just makes sense. For cars that come up behind the white car, they will know you are there, and would hopefully not turn in front of you. If they are not turning, then you would not be impeding their travel. Why should you impede their travel, if there is a dedicated bike lane there? The possibility that a car that comes up behind you could turn in front of you, is always a possibililty, regardless of what part of the cycle the stoplight is in.

  3. questionmarcus says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis of the situation. I have pulled up to the line in bike lanes without giving it much thought, when I would never pass cars on the right without a bike lane.

  4. jay Martin says:

    Is there a regular conduit to, say, Olathe’s traffic engineering department? They should be made aware of what we are up against, and of the dangers of the coffin corner. They apparently want to do the right thing, but just don’t know. I’ll forward this on at this point, but there a more formal process. A letter from the organization would do MUCH to enhance our collective safety.