Riding Safely on the Road

I find that when I talk with people about riding around town, everyone is quick to remind me to be careful or tell me how crazy I am for trusting drivers enough to ride alongside them. Unfortunately, this is a very real concern for many cyclists. More often than not, getting hit is out of the cyclist’s control, but there are a few things that can give you an edge and decrease your chances.

These are a few rules that I try to follow every time I roll out of my driveway. This is definitely not an exhaustive list, and other people may have a different mental list they keep in their mind when riding in traffic. Anyway, here we go.

1. Be predictable. This one is one that is always on my mind when I’m riding and is a rule that develops over time with experience. It basically comes down to this: the more likely a driver can predict where you’ll be and what you’ll do when they’re around you, the better suited they are to handle the situation and prepare for it. This includes following all traffic laws (stopping at stop signs/lights, riding the same direction as traffic, etc.), riding in a straight line, signaling your intentions, and so on. In regards to signaling your intentions – I find that many motorists don’t really remember learning the classic arm signals. You know, “turn right = form an upwards L with your left arm”. I’ve started just pointing directly where I’m going. If I’m turning right, I point right. If I’m turning left, I point left. It’s hard to misconstrue my turn when I’m pointing directly at it. Stopping is a bit trickier, but if a car is right behind me and I’m slowing down, I very obviously unclip one foot so they can tell I’m not going to be pedaling again soon.

2. Always carry lights. You don’t always have to have them on, but try to always carry a front and rear light (more than one of each if you can swing it in case one dies). This is easier to remember if you have them mounted to your bike. You never know how your day is going to unfold – whether it be needing to stay late at work, needing to do “just one more lap” at your local dirt trail, or grabbing dinner with a friend. Always having lights on you allow you to be flexible with your schedule and, most importantly, have a safe ride home at the end of the day.

3. Take the lane (when it’s appropriate). This is another one that is sometimes hard to judge when first starting out. As a general rule of thumb, if the road is narrow enough (single lane) that you’d feel uncomfortable with a car passing you – ride in the middle of the lane or “take the lane”. Warning: some drivers will definitely not like this. When it comes to your safety, though, they can F right off. Assuming you’re riding on lower traffic residential streets (see below), most of your commute will be on a single lane road with parking on the side — at least in Iowa. In this instance, I usually ride in the parking lane when it’s available. This allows drivers to safely pass in the traffic lane, and I only need to pop out when there’s a car parked in the lane. When doing this, just be sure to double check there aren’t any cars coming in the traffic lane, cut out into the middle of the lane (take the lane), and cut back into the parking lane when there’s another reasonable gap in parked cars. This is a good time to mention that when you’re riding next to parked cars, make sure you’re wide enough into the lane to avoid the “door zone” or the zone where you’d get hit with an open car door. It sounds easy enough, but people get doored all the time and generally people aren’t looking for cyclists when flinging their door open after parking.

4. Try not to react or be an asshole. Let me tell you, this one can be tough some days. When you’re riding on the road, you’ll inevitably be honked at, cursed at, revved at, passed closely on purpose, etc. This is almost always done by someone who is unfamiliar with the laws regarding cyclists on the road. They’re probably also mad that you’re enjoying your day, and they may also hate everything fun in the world. Regardless, things usually shake out better when you totally ignore them. Like the bully that took your lunch money in grade school, they’re looking for a reaction from you. If you don’t give it to them, they’ll get bored and probably speed off into the sunset. If you feel like they’re driving recklessly and attempting to hit you, get their license plate number and report it to the police. Some larger cities (LA, for instance) even have cyclists’ anti-harassment laws. We’ll get there, Des Moines.

5. Plan routes around bike lanes and low traffic roads. This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you’re fortunate enough to have bike lanes (even just the painted ones), by all means use them. Using bike lanes can really serve two purposes: 1. you feel a bit safer in your dedicated lane, and drivers are at least somewhat more aware that you’re there and 2. it lets the city planners in your city know that improvements to cycling infrastructure are well used and in high demand (so hopefully they’ll add more). Bike lanes don’t go everywhere, though, so that’s when choosing a road with low traffic and a low speed limit can make your commute safer and more comfortable. Stay away from the 4 lane roads with 45mph speed limits, essentially.

6. Wear a helmet, for Christ’s sake. You might look less cool, but you’ll probably live.

Obviously, there are plenty of things running through my mind when I’m out riding (man, that Thai food, though), and I could probably make a list of many more things to consider for being safe in traffic. These are just some things that I feel are important when riding around vehicles.

What about you guys? Do you have a list of your own? Is there a gaping hole in mine? (most probably, yes).

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