I was riding home from work last night, in the lefthand lane, during rush hour. I was paying a reasonable amount of attention and had a good following distance, so it rather surprised me to have to really lay on the brakes when the car in front of me slowed way down. I sort of mentally shook my head and rubbed my eyes, figuring that I was more spaced-out than I’d thought….so it was really a surprise when it happened again.
This time, I looked around to figure out what the hell was going on. Here’s what I eventually came up with: whenever I’m riding on the freeway in heavy traffic, I always watch the brake lights of the car at least two cars ahead of me, and start braking when they do. This, plus a good following distance, prevents me from having to panic-brake on the freeway….most of the time. After a minute of really scrutinizing the situation, I realized that the car ahead of me was driving towards the right-hand side of our lane, while the car in front of that was driving way on the left-hand side of the lane. The driver of the car in front of me was completely obscuring the righthand taillight of that second car…..and that second car’s left brake light was burned out.
So, where I usually brake as soon as I see the brake lights two cars ahead of me, this time I wasn’t seeing brakes lights coming from that car at all. So, when the car immediately in front of me “suddenly” braked, I wasn’t expecting it.
I thought this was a pretty fascinating (and unintentional) thought/reflex experiment. I hadn’t realized how fully instinctive it was for me to watch two cars ahead until suddenly I wasn’t getting any feedback from that 2nd car.
Incidentally, after I realized this, I put even more following distance between myself and the car in front of me, and moved over towards the middle of my lane. Normally, I like to ride in the lefthand half of the lane — especially in the lefthand lane during rush hour, when impatient commuters dive into the lane without signalling — but moving over a little let me see the righthand brake light of the second car. It was still fairly disconcerting for me to be without my braking “cheat sheet,” and I moved around those two cars as soon as I could.