Road Bike Riding: Bicycling Safety Tips That Can Save Your Life
Car safety and safe driving is an important issue for me, though I technically do not own an automobile. My 'car' is actually a bike- it is my primary (and only) means of personal transportation, and I ride it every day of the week.
Over the months, I've met quite a few bicycle commuters- some who have been riding their bikes everywhere for years. Nearly all of them have been in accidents at some point or another; many times these accidents have involved cars.
Because most commuter bicyclists ride in the same space as cars (and it is often illegal for them to opt for sidewalks), they need to be just as concerned about safe driving as those on cars, scooters, and motorcycles.
Below I'll share with you the top bicycling safety tips that I've collected over the years. They have made a huge difference, as I have had many fewer scuffles than many of my bicycling friends... and I'm still alive!
Before we drill down into some of the more nuanced bicycling safety tips, it's important to review the basic bicycle rules of the road. Most of these are well-understood, but here's a refresher:
- ALWAYS wear a helmet: This is non-negotiable. If you're fashion-conscious, get a stylish bicycle helmet! Form and function can go together.
- Make sure your bike has reflectors / reflective medallions on the wheels, front, and back.
- If you ride at night, install bright lights to the front and back of your bike, and NEVER go out riding at night without them on.
- Obey the rules of the road. If you ride in the street with cars, follow all the rules that cars must follow.
- Signal when you make turns and stop: Point with your whole arm in the direction you're turning; if you are making a right turn, you may also make a right angle (or as I think of it, cactus arm) with your left arm. To signal a stop, make a downward cactus arm shape with your left arm (making a right angle with your fingers pointing toward the ground).
- If you ride on the sidewalk or on pedestrian paths, give pedestrians the right of way, follow all rules and signs, and audibly signal to pedestrians when passing- preferably with a bell and an "On your left!" warning).
- Wear bright, visible clothing when riding your bike, and if you prefer to dress in dark colors, buy a reflective vest or sash (I, personally, have a sash. Makes me feel like Miss Universe, it does).
- Only ride a bike if it has fully functional brakes, functional gears, and is adjusted to fit your size (it is extremely unsafe to ride a bike that is set up for someone much taller/shorter than you, or a bike that doesn't have functional brakes. One of the few crashes I had on a bike resulted from my riding a borrowed bike that had not been properly adjusted to my height)
- Make sure your handlebars are securely attached (I know someone who crashed with unsecured handlebars- the handlebars flew off and his bike punched a hole in his abdomen. Very, very gross. And painful).
- Do not load multiple people onto your bike. Yeah, they make it look SUPER easy in China, but that doesn't make it safe.
- Ride as close to the edge of the road as you can while also keeping an eye out for car doors that might be swinging open.
- Ride in the same direction as other traffic (I do not always follow this rule, and for that, I am both breaking the law, signing my death warrant, and going to Hell).
Now that we've covered these, we can go into the less obvious stuff!
The Wonders of Eye Contact
Everyone tells you to wear a helmet, but have you been told about the importance of eye contact? This single action has made me significantly safer on the road.
Many bicyclists just keep their eyes on cars- as though they're these giant living land whales that they have to navigate around. In reality, it's not really cars that hit people, it's the people driving them, so if you want to be as safe about bicycling as you can be, make sure they see you!
Before proceeding through an intersection with stop signs (or any intersection at all, really) and while navigating closely with any sort of vehicle, I make sure that I make eye contact with drivers. If a driver does not make eye contact with me, I let them go ahead or get out of his or her way, making the (conservative, but potentially life-saving) assumption that they do not see me at all.
I cannot tell you how important eye contact is for bicyclists, motorcyclists, car drivers, and pedestrians alike. Please, please, please work on eye contact. So many accidents take place because we just don't see each other.
There is no small amount of animosity between some bicyclists and drivers, and it is my understanding that the animosity stems from four primary things:
- Drivers not respecting rules protecting bicyclists
- Bicyclists not respecting the rules of the road
- Bicyclists not behaving in a predicable manner
- Bicyclists being rude toward cars
The basic tips at the beginning of this article cover the first two points of contention (and it's up to drivers to do their part), but good body language can contribute a great deal toward ameliorating animosity surrounding the latter points.
Behave in a predictable manner: Make a point of being very obvious about where you're going. In addition to being clear about signaling, don't swerve or make any sudden moves. Ride in a straight line, and if you are going to make any adjustments, make your approaches clear and predictable. When folks are driving, they have to make predictions about where they're going to be several yards down the line, and have to factor in other moving objects to these calculations. If you're not following a predictable trajectory, drivers' predictions about your future location will be off.
Be NICE: As a bicyclist, you're much safer if drivers are not mad at you, so being polite about your riding and behavior is best. Smiling, letting people by, not cutting people off, and signaling / gesturing in a polite, professional, crisp manner bodes well not only for your personal safety, but for general car-bicycle relations as well.
Another important issue on the 'be nice' front involves conflict management. All too often I see bicyclists flipping off drivers, swearing at drivers, and physically punching cars (which is, I guess, pretty badass). Usually these angry outbursts are justified, often because said drivers have just nearly killed the bicyclists, or behaved aggressively toward them, but reacting angrily is not the way to go.
Reacting to bad driving in an angry manner can...
- Push a driver into road rage
- Encourage a driver to behave aggressively toward more bicyclists in the future
Another great guide!
- Bicycle Safety: How to Not Get Hit by Cars
This page is SUPER helpful - it describes (and illustrates) ten ways you can get hit by cars combined with meaningful ways to avoid them. The advice is practical and helpful!
Riding in the Rain
If you rely on your bicycle for daily commuting, there may not be much you can do to avoid riding in the rain. That's OK. In fact, riding in the rain can be pleasant so long as you have the right gear and mindset. I rather enjoy it! It is a lovely, bracing way to wake up in the morning.
That said, rain riding can be dangerous, especially if it is fresh rain. The roads are always more slippery the first time it rains, so be especially careful to ride slowly and brake carefully. Even if it has been raining for several days and the roads are only moderately slippery, exercise the utmost caution. Wear especially bright clothing, make sure you are able to see (sometimes I wear goggles, and I find that helmets with visors help keep rain out of my eyes), and ride SLOWLY!
Planning Your Route
One final trick that has saved me a lot of grief on my bike has been to plan out special routes down streets and alleys that have the least amount of foot and car traffic. If I have a choice between an expedient but car-laden route and a longer but more deslolate path, I will choose the desolate path any day.
The fewer cars and people you are exposed to on your bicycle, the lower your chances are of hitting something or being hit. So if you have the luxury of being able to get to know an area or plan out a route ahead of time, look for roads that have the least amount of traffic, and if you cannot avoid traffic, go out of your way to ride down roads with designated bike lanes.
It just might save your life... but you'll never know it!