Staying Safe on the Road

Riding a bicycle on the road can be a tricky proposition- you’ve got to not only be aware of other road users, but also communicate through various means including your position in the road, signaling your intentions to other users, and the very simple, important notion of simply being seen.

Road position is one of the persistent hurdles that many cyclists have trouble with. It can seem counter-intuitive at first, and some car drivers will communicate their displeasure, but it’s important that the city cyclist takes up more space on the street, away from the right edge where many linger.

One reason that cyclists should get away from the road’s edge is to get away from the way of parked cars. People often open their car door after parking without looking, instantly creating a large, unyielding barrier to the cyclist. If there is a car traveling next to the cyclist while this is happening, the rider has nowhere to go and may only be able to choose between hitting a parked car and a moving one.

If you cling to the very edge of the road, drivers will often pass without leaving their lane, often passing far too close to the cyclist to be safe. You are also vulnerable to impatient drivers attempting to make a right turn. These drivers will often pass the cyclist, then immediately make a right turn, crossing directly in the cyclist’s path.

The best way to avoid these scenarios is to take up more space on the road. I’m not suggesting you arrogantly hog the road, but you should ride between the right half and right third of the lane. This still allows drivers to pass if there is a second lane and prevents too-close passes and right turn cutoffs from occurring. By taking more space on the road, left turns for the cyclist are easier because they do not have to merge into the lane before taking their turn, since they are already in the lane of travel.

Another way that cyclists can use the road more effectively is to signal their intentions to other road users.

Many collisions between bikes and cars happen because bikers turn or stop without warning and drivers aren’t expecting it.  By simply pointing in the direction you intend to turn or merge, then looking briefly over your shoulder to check that the lane is clear, you make that turn much safer. It also helps to make eye contact with drivers  near you so know you are about to make a move.

Concerning the diagram of hand signals above, I would avoid the ‘left arm straight up’ right-turn signal because I think many drivers don’t have any idea what that means. It seems much more effective to simply make an emphatic, unambiguous gesture pointing clearly in the direction you wish to turn.

Perhaps the most important way a cyclist can stay safe on the road is to be visible to others.  Small blinking LED lights (front-clear, rear-red) are inexpensive and are really effective in making the cyclist visible at night and in bad weather.

Another important way to be visible is through clothing choice. Neon-bright cycling clothing is widely available, and a surefire way to call more attention to yourself day and night. If neon doesn’t appeal to you, just wearing bright colors of any type can make a big difference in being noticed by others.

A personal testimony to the importance of clothing choice- One day I was descending Midvale Avenue in East Falls, which is a long, steep hill with lots of traffic. I was traveling about 25-30mph, taking around half of the lane, and looking out for vehicles turning or pulling out of parking spaces. Despite my awareness,  a car crossed my lane to pull into a gas station, nearly hitting me. I shakily continued on, stopping at a red light. The driver caught up to me at the light and told me how he couldn’t see me at all. I looked down- navy blue sweatshirt, brown pants, gray bike.

I hope that these tips help make your ride a little safer- remember that despite the recklessness of others, you are still obligated to use the road responsibly, and ultimately that is the most effective way to avoid getting into a collision.

My tips are necessarily incomplete- a complete guide to bike safety would take up a whole book. Fortunately there are plenty of websites and books available.

Here are some good links:

Ten ways not to get hit

Be-Safe.org bike safety tips

Good luck- it’s really not that hard to be safe. Just be visible, communicate, and be assertive!

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