Cycling in Traffic
Cycling in traffic is an acquired taste as well as an acquired skill. When you first get out there you are immediately conscious of how vulnerable you are as well as how oblivious drivers are. The mix can be harmful or fatal. Nevertheless it is possible to navigate more or less safely in traffic by staying alert, thinking ahead and taking precautions.
Some important precautions:
- Dress for visibility
- Wear a helmet
- Display lights when it's dark
When I see a cyclist in dark clothes with no helmet or lights riding in traffic at night while listening to their iPod, I think, well, that's Darwin at work right there.
Speaking of iPods, don't listen to yours while you're cycling. You need to listen for the cars. In fact, all your senses should be sharp when you're on the road in traffic.
At right is an illustration of a typical way a cyclist might "buy the farm" in traffic. You're cycling down the right side along a line of cars stopped in traffic. You're going maybe 20 mph and not paying much attention, but that line of cars is stopped for a REASON. In this case the lead car has politely stopped for an oncoming vehicle that is signalling to take a left turn across traffic. If you don't wake up, you're going to collide. Always remember, cars fare much better in collisions than cyclists.
Since I have fallen prey to this very situation, I can tell you that a bike helmet is very useful when doing a shoulder roll across the hood of a Buick. When your helmet gets a dent, it doesn't hurt much at all.
If the cyclist in the illustration is alert and anticipating problems, they will proceed cautiously down the line of cars, and will watch for this common hazard.
In the illustration below, a car misjudges the speed of the cyclist and cuts them off. Often the driver sees the cyclist and speeds up to get in front of them, not usually in a malicious way, but because they are in a hurry. Intent does not matter all that much since the result is the same.
In this instance, the bicyclist must be almost clairvoyant to avoid the accident. However, as long as the cyclist is not listening to their personal music device through headphones they stand a chance at survival. In addition to watching all traffic all the time, it is also necessary to listen for the car coming up behind and to anticipate that they might just do something like this.
Both of these potential disasters and the infinite others that may occur are compounded in darkness. Often drivers do not see cyclists in full daylight. Cyclists become that much more invisible at night. The answer, of course, is to use lights to increase the visibility of the cyclists.
Illustration at right shows the most dangerous situation of all, the unexected car door swinging open in the cyclists path. The only defense against this menace is to stay away from parked cars.
If possible, plan your route so that you do not have to ride beside parked cars. If you must ride along a line of parked cars, try to stay three feet away from them as much as you can without endangering yourself.
Don't get me wrong. I love my commute. However, it did take bouncing off a door or two and rolling across the occasional hood or trunk for me to get the idea that, hey, this could be dangerous. I was never seriously injured, thanks to luck and / or good reflexes. But I learned from my experiences that it is better to be alert and anticipate trouble than it is to be oblivious and be surprised by trouble.
Happy and safe biking.
Tom's web page.
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