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Cycling in Traffic

Updated on February 18, 2009

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.


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    • jolmartyn profile image

      jolmartyn 7 years ago

      Great Advice! As you say we are so vulnerable. However the benefits of riding to work are enormous. I am in the fortunate position of never being clobbered. I ride my bike like I drive my car - never overtake on the inside of moving traffic, be very careful in the middle of the road. There are some roads I just do not go down. Hopping from the pavement to the road and jumping lights, just winds people up. I can get to work faster without using any cheap tricks - and I always have a parking space. Most drivers seem to think that cyclists can't drive, never driven, or have lost their licence. One of my workmates had actually thought I must have been done for drinking and driving!

      Sound advice - be careful out there!

    • ~ahgnEez~ profile image

      ~ahgnEez~ 8 years ago

      Riding a bike could harm but if we at least wear tha appropriate cycling clothing and an extra care that can keep us far harm.

    • funride profile image

      Ricardo Nunes 9 years ago from Portugal

      I´m glad you like that blog (I´m a fan of biketrailerblog).

      Every time I hear such tragic story I always feel very sad and thinking about how dangerous it can be riding bicycles on public roads. Attention and precaution are our best "friends" when riding but luck (or the lack of it) it´s also part of the equation. Ride safe, good luck and have fun!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image

      Tom Rubenoff 9 years ago from United States

      Fascinating blog!  I have long avoided detailing the minutae of my bike adventures, but she makes hers so immediate and compelling. 

      A friend of ours had a tenant in their home for years who met a grisly end under a bus after her fatal encounter with the suddenly openned door of a Range Rover.  It is no joke. 

    • funride profile image

      Ricardo Nunes 9 years ago from Portugal

      Hi Tom, great hub with priceless advises. Yesterday I was reading some bike blogs and I found this post from Megan ( ) who had an unexpected encounter with a car door and broke her finger very badly. Nomatter how careful we are it´s never too much.