Bicycle Safety

by Myra VanInwegen

This article is all about riding your bike safely on the road. It is my opinion, gradually formed over about a decade of extensive cycling on lots of roads, both in the US and in the UK. It is also pretty much the opinion of some other very experienced riders, such as John Franklin, author of Cyclecraft, John Forester, author of Effective Cycling, and the majority opinion of the denizens of the newsgroup uk.rec.cycling. Note: since I live in England, this is written assuming that you drive/ride on the left side of the road. Eventually I'll make an American version of this, which assumes that you drive/ride on the right side of the road.

The first thing I should say is that bike riding is actually pretty safe. Accidents don't happen very often. Of course when one happens it makes big news ("Cyclist run down by motorist feeding Tamagatchi!") but you don't hear about the miles and miles of riding with nothing worse than a puncture. Cycling deaths per year simply pale in comparison to the number of deaths resulting from car crashes. It is true that if you cycle everywhere rather than driving a car your chances of a violent death are very slightly increased, but this is more than offset by the decrease in heart attacks due to you getting fitter. In other words, if you commute to work by bike your life expectancy increases. If you follow the advice given here on how to cycle safely, you will decrease even more your chances of getting into an accident, further weighting things in favor of cycling.

Also, it has been shown that a cyclist riding along a road will in general inhale less fumes than a motorist on the same road. Their cars don't protect them from pollution, they instead hold it in!

Table of Contents


Summary

The advice I give can be best summarized by this: follow traffic laws, ride predictably, and be vigilant at all times.

Follow traffic laws. Many cyclists feel that the rules of the road don't apply to them. For example, they run red lights frequently. They often don't look very carefully before running red lights. While cycling I have on several occasions almost run into a cyclist who has run a red light. Perhaps she or he assumes that because I also ride a bike, I'll be understanding and will ride around them with a smile. Sorry, it's not like that.

And I often see cyclists riding around in the dark without lights, or with nearly useless green or yellow LED headlights. As my daily commute to work involves riding on cycle paths through unlit commons in Cambridge, I often don't see these cyclists until I almost run into them.

Not only is a cyclist breaking traffic laws putting himself/herself at risk, but he/she is irritating drivers. Many cyclists have an "us against them" attitude, and they are quite pleased to annoy motorists. However, this is a losing strategy. The more bikers that motorists see breaking the law, the less respect they have for cyclists in general, and this leads them to be less careful about giving cyclists the space and consideration on the road that is lawfully theirs. And this leads cyclists to justify their lawbreaking behavior by noting how often motorists break the law. This is a stupid game, and it needs to stop.

Ride predictably. By this I mean that you should cycle in a way that's similar to the way a well-behaved driver should drive his/her car, while keeping in mind the limitations that you are riding a much smaller, lighter, slower machine than they are driving. For example, in most cases you should signal turns. To safely interact with you on the road, the other road users (other cyclists and to a lesser degree pedestrians, as well as motorists) need to know what you are doing.

As another example, it is well-known that a cyclist should ride on the left side of the road. However if there is a left turn only lane, and you're not going left, you shouldn't be in that lane. If you're going straight, you should be in the leftmost lane that a car going straight should be in. If you're going right, you should be in the leftmost lane that a car going right should be in. If you don't do this, you are sending out the wrong signals to other road users, who are justifiably expecting you to go where you should according to what lane you're in. In addition to this, you will be in a great deal of danger as you approach the intersection and try to make your turn, and are trying to cut across lanes of traffic. For further details, please see the section below on making turns.

Be vigilant at all times. Motorists don't try to run into you. (Most of the time! There are some psychos on the road, but they are the rare exceptions, not the rule.) However, if they are in a hurry to get where they are going, or if they are simply not aware of how to deal safely with cyclists on the road, they can make mistakes that can hurt you. For example, say you are cycling along happily, and a car starts to pass you, and the driver has gotten in front of you, while part of the car is still level with you. Suddenly, the car cuts to the left, either to claim a parking spot or to turn into a side road or drive. If you don't react quickly enough, you could go down. It's clearly the driver's fault, but it's your body that suffers the consequences. You need to be aware of the possibility that the driver might do just such a thing, and be prepared to take evasive maneuvers. You might not succeed in avoiding the accident, but perhaps you can lessen its severity.

Your hearing is a vital clue as to what is happening around you. You can usually hear a car coming by the rush of air or the swish of its tires, even if you can't hear the engine. So never listen to music while wearing headphones when you're on a bike, and do not wear hats or helmets that interfere with your ability to hear.

Making turns

The most important thing about making turns is to be in the correct place on the road and signal your intentions. However, there are often some subtle details, and this section covers them.

Signalling

To signal a turn, you stick out your arm, left arm for left turn, right arm for right turn. How far you stick it out is up to you, but remember that the more horizontal it is, the more visible it is. It's a good idea idea to point your fingers as well to make it even more clear. Perhaps more important than how far you stick your arm out is how long you hold the signal. A quick flick of your arm will probably be missed, but if you hold a clear signal for several seconds it's more likely to be seen. I've noticed that many beginning cyclists find it difficult to ride with only one hand on the handlebars. If this is a problem for you, you should take the time to practice riding while maintaining a turn signal. It is absolutely essential for safe bike riding.

Left turns

Left turns are usually pretty simple. Stay on the left side of the road. If you're making a turn onto a road that has priority, obviously you have to wait until there's enough of a gap in traffic for you to safely get onto the road and get up to speed. And of course, if there are traffic lights at the intersection, you must wait until the light is green before you go.

Should you signal? Well, have a look around. If there's no one around (cars, other bikes, pedestrians about to cross the road you want to turn into) then you don't need to. If there's a car or bike waiting to come out of the road you're turning into, you should signal, so that the waiting person knows he can come out. Sometimes it's a good idea not to signal. Occasionally I've had cars try to overtake me as I'm going around the corner. This is not a good idea at all, as usually there isn't really enough room. On the other hand, sometimes cars that have been waiting behind you for an opportunity to pass can get impatient. If you signal a left turn, this tells them that you'll be leaving that road soon, so it may prevent them from doing any risky overtaking maneuvers. You'll have to use your discretion here.

If you are signalling your turn, make sure you put your hands back on the handlebars before you actually make the turn.

What about braking? Well, you must brake as you signal. This is one of the skills you need to learn for safe riding in traffic: braking for a turn with one hand while making a clear turn signal with the other. What about shifting down? There are two choices here. If you can actually start pedalling from a dead stop in the gear that you cruise in, just don't shift down. Alternatively, shift down as you approach the place where you're turning, in case you have to stop. I use the former approach: I stand up to pedal when I start off from a stop, and this gives me the power I need to start off in a high gear.

Going straight

Going straight seems like it would be simple, but there are some subtleties. The worst difficulty is what you do when there's a left-turn-only lane. To deal with this, see the paragraphs below. If there's no left-turn-only lane, the main thing you have to be concerned with is not getting caught to the left of a left-turning car. Never ever ride to the left of a car that is signalling to go left. This is asking for trouble. Slow down and wait behind it until it turns, or pass it on the right (if this is safe). In other words, act like a well-behaved motorist would. Also, if you're coming up to an intersection where you expect that there will be cars turning left, it's a good idea to get somewhat further from the edge of the road, to emphasize that you're not turning left. The last thing you want is a left-turning driver somehow assuming that you're turning left, and pulling up beside you. Sometimes drivers can be very unobservant, and "not notice" bikes, and so they'll pass them and then immediately turn left, fast enough that the cyclist can't stop to avoid them. If you pull a little further into the road, this helps you to be noticed, and can help prevent the problem.

Right turns, and going straight when there's a left-turn-only lane

Say you're coming up to the turn you need to make. Think ahead. If there are cars queueing up at a junction, make sure you get into the correct road position well before the back end of the queue, so you're not trying to cross stationary queues (this is very dangerous, since the cars could start moving at any time). If there are straight/turn arrows painted on the road, you should start moving into position when you get to these markings, or even before. Exceptions can be made for very very long marked lanes, when there is little traffic. You must try to judge for yourself when it's best to leave the left side of the road and get into the proper lane. It's better to do it a bit too early than a bit too late. You need time to do this maneuver safely.

First, identify the lane you need to be in to make your turn. If there are separate lanes for left/straight/right, this is clear: you need to be in the leftmost lane that goes in the direction you are going in. If there are shared lanes (like a left/straight lane), you have to position yourself within the lane to make your intention clear. For example, if you are turning right and there is only one lane, you need to be on the right side of that lane. For a more complicated example, if you're going straight and the leftmost lane that allows you to go straight is a shared left/straight lane, you shouldn't be located at the left edge of this lane, because a motorist who's turning left may try to pass you on the right or pull up to the right of you when you're waiting in the queue. You need to be in the middle of the lane or even to the right of the lane. Similarly, if you're going straight and the leftmost lane that allows you to go straight is a shared straight/right lane, you need to be in the middle to left side of it, to prevent right-turning motorists from trying to pass you on the left.

Having located where you need to go, now you take actions that get you there. Look behind you, over your right shoulder, to see if it's safe to make your lane change. Do you need to signal? If there is absolutely no one around, you don't need to. Move to the correct place on the road, and make your turn when you get to the junction.

If your look behind you reveals that there are cars, you have to try to judge how close they are and how fast they are moving. If you think you have enough time to change lanes, make a right turn signal. It's a good idea to continue to hold your signal, then look again to make sure you haven't misjudged the speed or distance of the car. If you still think you have enough time, move over to the proper place on the road. If your look reveals that the car is too close or moving too fast, wait a bit and then try again. Eventually you should be able to move over. Often a motorist will notice a cyclist moving a bit slower than usual in the left lane, looking behind at oncoming traffic in an obvious way, will realize that the cyclist wants to change lanes, and will slow down to let her in.

Once you are in the correct place you don't have to hold your signal all the time: where you are on the road will tell the motorists where you're turning. But if there's any possibility of confusion (like, you're in a the middle of a straight/right lane and going right) signal again as you reach the point where you actually turn.

You may think that the description above is ridiculous. You may feel that riding in the middle of the road leaves you vulnerable, that you'll be safer if you stay on the left side of the road. This feeling is mainly due to the fact that your bike offers you no protection in case of a collision, and if a car plows into you, you could be badly hurt. However, these kind of collisions (a lawful cyclist being run into from behind) are pretty rare. Less than 2% of collisions are of this type; most collisions occur at intersections or other places where paths of motorists and cyclists cross.

The vehicular turns described above are actually the best way to make a turn. Any other maneuver you try will be either much more dangerous (because you will be riding in the wrong lane for the direction you want to go, and you'll conflict with motorists' expectations of what you will do) or much much slower (like, going up onto the pavement, getting off the bike, and walking through the light as if you were a pedestrian).

How do I know this? Because I've tried it. No one ever taught me how to ride in traffic. I was taught how to drive, and how to obey the rules of the road when I was in a car, but I somehow assumed that these rules didn't apply to me when I was on a bike, since I was slow and vulnerable, and I needed to keep to the side of the road. The opinion I have now was formed by riding in just about every way you can imagine. I have had by far the best results from by and large, doing something reasonably similar to what I would in a car: making sure I'm in the correct lane for turns, signalling turns, etc. Try it. Ride with confidence, obey traffic laws, and you may be surprised that the motorists actually respect you more than when you cowered next to the gutter, afraid to leave the edge of the road.

Roundabouts

The UK is cursed with a large number of roundabouts (called traffic circles in some places). To be a safe cyclist, you need to know how to deal with them.

Road rules for roundabouts

If you are a UK driver, you already know the rules for roundabouts. If you are not a driver, or if you are visiting from abroad, you need to know these rules to safly get through roundabouts, as motorists will be expecting you to obey the same rules they do. The first thing you need to know is that traffic already in the roundabout has priority over traffic entering the roundabout. So when you're waiting to enter the roundabout, you have to wait until there's a gap sufficiently big for you to get into the roundabout, up to full speed, and well on your way before the car reaches you. If there isn't, then wait.

If there are people waiting at two different entrances to the roundabout, the vehicle to the right has priority. He should move onto the roundabout, and then after he passes the vehicle to the left can go. If there are vehicles waiting at all entrances there's a deadlock! Eventually someone goes, and then all the priorities are sorted out. In these situations there can sometimes be a couple of false starts when you decide to go, then discover that someone else has decided to go as well, but as long as you're careful it works out OK.

Riding through roundabouts

Small to medium roundabouts are characterized by reasonably low speed traffic. They are best approached by doing exactly what a well-behaved motorist would do. Get in the proper lane (i.e., the leftmost lane that goes in the direction you want) and go through the roundabout, giving way to people coming from your right. I have found that if I am in any lane but the leftmost one going into the roundabout, it is best not to try to share a lane with a car, even if the lane seems to be wide enough. Sharing tends to confuse the motorists about which way you are going. It could also result in a car trying to exit the roundabout with you in the way. This happens because motorists are often in the wrong lane going through the roundabout, or they change their mind about which exit to take. If you start out parallel to them, you decrease your chances of being seen. Also, sharing a lane with a car (usually with you on the left) can obscure your vision of the traffic on the roundabout. On a roundabout almost more than anywhere else, you must be very aware of the traffic, where it is coming from, and how fast it's going, and your vision is paramount. So wait at the end of the queue of cars going through the roundabout.

cyclist entering roundabout
The key to getting through small roundabouts safely is to get into the correct lane and follow traffic laws.

Medium-big roundabouts, where speeds are higher, are much more tricky. The first thing you should know is that you should avoid using the bike paths that are often found going along the outside, unless you are going left at the roundabout. If you are not going left, you will have to cross one of the exits from the roundabout, and this is very dangerous. Partly the danger comes from the fact that motorists often don't signal when they exit roundabouts. Thus you can't tell for sure when they are exiting or not. Part of the problem comes from the fact that you are not only crossing the exit, but also the entrance to the roundabout, thus doubling your chances of a collision.

Going through the roundabout is OK when there isn't much traffic in them, like early on a weekend morning or at night (if you are well lit). Again, just follow the rules, and be in the correct lane when you go around.

Right turns at bigger roundabouts

Here are some tips for right turns on the roundabout: if the correct lane is the one closest to the island at the center of the roundabout, then get close enough to the island to prevent people from overtaking you on the right. If you keep to the left edge of this lane, you'll get drivers overtaking you on the right, and since on larger roundabouts you get people going at a fair speed, you'll get people passing you on both the left and right going pretty fast. I find this quite unnerving.

When you're getting close to your exit, you have to maneuver towards the outside edge of the roundabout. Look over your left shoulder to see if the way is clear. This is exceptionally important, not just to see if it's safe for you to move over, but to start giving signals to drivers that you're going to make a move. They're usually a bit wary of you, so if you look over your shoulder that gives them info on what you're planning. If it's clear, move left towards the outside of the roundabout. It would be nice if I could signal while I'm doing this, but generally I'm going pretty fast and turning at the same time, so I think it's best to keep my hands on the bars. My visual check has confirmed that there are no cars immediately behind me, and my head turning has clued in drivers further back on what I'm planning, so this ought to be safe enough. Once you are on the left side of the roundabout, signal left, which confirms that you are exiting the roundabout. Stay to your left as you exit: there are usually two lanes exiting these larger roundabouts, and cars will overtake you as they exit. This is standard practice and is perfectly safe, just be prepared for it.

Big roundabouts and heavy traffic

When there is traffic on these roundabouts, going left is still fine. Going straight (taking the second exit) is more tricky, but if you are experienced enough and confident enough, it is usually OK. Make sure you position yourself to the right of left-turning cars. These cars may pass you between the point where you enter the roundabout and where they exit, but they shouldn't have built up too much speed, so it won't be too much of a problem. Watch the cars that are entering the roundabout at that exit very very closely. Try to make it clear from your positioning on the road that you are not taking the first exit. After that first exit, you'll be on the left side of the roundabout, and the cars will all pass you on the right. Then you take your exit.

I simply have not found a good way to turn right at these roundabouts when there is traffic. The car drivers typically build up a fair speed on these roundabouts, and if you are in the proper lane for turning right, you may end up with cars passing you at reasonably high speeds both to the left and right. This can be incredibly frightening. If you are in the lane for going straight (second exit), you will have cars cutting across your path when they take the second exit.

The best advice I can give is to try your hardest to avoid turning right on these roundabouts when there is traffic. Try to find an alternative route. Here is one of the few places where I think that special cycle facilities are truly useful. And I don't mean a useless and dangerous cycle path around the outside. I mean a subway under the roundabout that avoids crossing the entrances and exits of the roundabout, or a tunnel under or bridge over the road that you are trying to cross.

The reason these big roundabouts exist is to form an intersection between two biggish roads. A common situation is when you have a big multi-lane A-road, and a roundabout is provided for larger A-roads and B-roads to get across it. Typically, these multi-lane A-roads were widened from smaller A-roads, and they cut in half local roads that used to go across the smaller A-road. Car traffic is shunted around to these big roundabouts, and the cyclist is forced to go the same way, both making a big detour and dealing with the dangers of a large roundabout. If the multi-lane A-road were a motorway instead, by UK law the small local roads could not be cut. They would have to build an underpass or bridge so traffic could continue on the small road. Because of this, I feel that if a local road is cut because of the construction of a large A-road, there is a very good justification for a bike/pedestrian bridge or tunnel to connect to cut ends of these roads.

Slip lanes

These are lanes that merge into a larger road at an angle, or leave it at a shallow angle. The idea is to promote high-speed entry and exit from a road: there are no sharp turns near the main road, and the cars can speed up as they approach the road, and very gradually slow down as they leave the road. This means that if you're cycling past a slip lane, you have to deal with cars entering and leaving the road at very high speeds. I don't ride on roads that have slip roads (mainly because there aren't any near Cambridge that don't have good alternative routes), so I haven't formulated any particular approach to them. I would suggest avoiding them if you can, especially if you are new to cycling in traffic. However, if you feel up to them and can't feasibly avoid them, here are some hints from James D Annan that can help you.

Move out a bit more than usual from the kerb, and get past the slip lane as fast as possible. Cars leaving/joining are not going to be expecting bikes so make yourself as obvious as possible and get past the danger asap.

For an exit slip lane, follow the slip road off the main carriageway a little way. When it is safe to do so, turn sharply right across the slip road and rejoin the main road. For an entry slip road, check for traffic joining from the left, and when it is clear, cross sharply over to the LHS of the slip road. Then rejoin as the slip road tapers. Sometimes there are cycle lanes marking this procedure out, although I prefer to use my judgement as to what route to take rather than following the prescribed route (which usually involves several right angle turns, and stopping).

Cars coming out of side roads

Be very alert when you are on a road that has priority over a side road, and a car rolls up to the edge of the side road, wanting to cross or join the road you are on. The motorist may not see you if he isn't paying attention, or (much more of a danger) may underestimate your speed (all bikers are slow, right?) or feel that he is more important than you are, so he pulls out in front of you, requiring you to brake. For all these reasons, keep your hands near your brakes and watch the car very carefully. To see if the car is going forward or not, it's best to look not at the car itself, but at its wheels, as at slow speeds you can see the turning of the wheels more easily than the actual forward motion of the car. If the motorists for whatever reason pulls out in front of you, brake. Of course you have priority, but don't risk your life to defend it.

Parked cars

Cars are often parked on the side of the road. The best way to deal with them is to look over your right shoulder as you approach the parked car to determine if there is a car in the process of overtaking you, or just beginning to. If the way is clear, then gradually pull out far enough to be able to avoid car doors if they are opened in front of you. If the way isn't clear, slow down until the overtaking cars pass, then look again. When it's clear, go. Often a driver will see you look, realize what you're planning (it'll be obvious, since you certainly can't continue straight on!) and ease off enough to let you in front of him.

Should you signal a right turn as you are pulling out to go around the cars? I think you shouldn't signal: the fact that you've turned your head to look behind you will have communicated your intentions to a following driver. Many people think you should signal as you pull out, but I believe this is misleading, as it suggests that you are going to be turning right. I'm not alone in my opinion: many cycle, motorcycle, and driving instructors also suggest not signalling when you are going around parked cars, and the vast majority of motorists don't signal when going around parked cars.

Cycle facilities

There is a growing number of cycle facilities, including bike lanes, bike paths, and advanced stop lines. They may seem like a godsend, but often these facilities have built-in dangers that you need to be aware of.

Below, I use "cycle path" to refer to cycle facilities that are off the road, usually on a paved path parallel to a road, and sometimes shared with pedestrians. I use "cycle lane" to refer to cycle facilities on the road. Usually these take the form of a narrow lane, separated from the other lanes by a white line. Sometimes, the tarmac is colored green or red.

Cycle paths

Cycle paths seem to be appearing all over the place. Many cyclists (especially inexperienced cyclists and children) feel that cycling on the road is dangerous, since you have to mix with cars, which are big and fast and could easily kill you. So they are happy to go off the road, onto these cycle paths, to escape the cars. Then they feel safer, protected from cars.

This is a false feeling of safety. The first and most important reason for this is that cars simply do not run into you from behind. Well, almost never. According to an article by John Forester, less then 2% of car-bike accidents are caused by the bike being hit from behind by a car. That leaves at least 98% of accidents happening at intersections, and at other places where the paths of cars and bikes can cross. Bike paths lessen the danger of being run into from behind, but dramatically increase the chances of getting hit at an intersection. In other words, they decrease the likelihood of an accident that's very unlikely in the first place, but further increase the chances of getting into the most common sort of accident. This increases your overall risk of getting into an accident.

The reason that bike paths increase collisions at intersections is this: when motorists are approaching intersections, they are looking for traffic at certain places on the roadway. They are not looking for vehicles on the pavement (which is effectively what an off-road cycle path is). Thus they are surprised when cyclists suddenly appear in front of them while they are making maneuvers at intersections. You might think that requiring cyclists to give way at all side roads would eliminate this problem, but it doesn't work. For example, say you're on a cycle path next to a main road, and there's enough traffic on the main road that there's a queue of cars on the side road, waiting to go onto or across the main road. You see that they are stopped, so you go between them. Suddenly a gap opens, and the cars start to move. You get hit. And if a car is turns onto a side road from the main road without signalling enough in advance, you may not see it in time to avoid it. And unless you are specifically looking behind you for left-turning cars, you won't see it at all. If you're on the road surface, the motorists are much likely to see you and give you time to clear the intersection before they turn.

picture of cycle path meeting car park entrance
This shared-use cycle path crosses the entrance to a car park. The fact that there are thick dotted lines going across the entrance suggests to me that the cycle path should have right of way here. I decided to test it. I saw a car coming out of the car park, and I continued cycling along the path. The driver didn't even bother looking, he just kept driving, and I had to brake to avoid hitting him. I don't think it ever occurred to him that the dotted lines cutting across the car park entrance might actually mean something.

There are other problems with cycle paths as well. Often they are shared with pedestrians, who tend to act very unpredictably. If they are on the path, there is a good chance they will suddenly change direction, and if you are going at any decent speed at all, you may be unable to avoid hitting them. Bike paths are also populated with unpredictable cyclists. The cyclists on these paths are often the least experienced ones. Since they haven't ridden on roads enough to know that predictability is essential for safe cycling, they are just as likely as the pedestrians to suddenly change direction and ride right into your path.

Finally, bike paths are often badly paved and maintained. Thus they are usually bumpier than roads and have more glass. They often have obstacles, like lamp posts, in the middle of them. All of this makes it much more unpleasant to ride on, and more likely that a bump or some obstacle will catch you unaware, causing you to crash.

In summary, cycle paths that are off the road surface, parallel to it and near it, make you ride slower and are more dangerous than riding on the road. If you don't believe the "more dangerous" bit, check out John Franklin's article on cycle paths. I've only found two situations where off-road shared cycle paths are truly useful to an experienced cyclist. The first is when the cycle path goes somewhere that a road doesn't go. This can cut the distance you have to travel by so much that it makes up for the time you lose in going slowly enough to avoid collisions with unpredictable pedestrians, cyclists, and dogs. The second is when the cycle path is along a road, but the path is smooth, wide, and there are no pedestrians (because there are no shops or houses along the road) and no side streets that you have to give way to. I strongly suggest that, for a given cycle path, if the path does not fall into one of the two categories above, that you ignore it and ride along the road, assuming it is legal to do so.

Cycle paths in the Netherlands

So many cyclists feel that the Netherlands is a heaven for cyclists that I must mention it here. My comments are based on having spent a few days cycling in the area surrounding Eindhoven, from corresponding with Dutch cyclists, and from reading (summaries of) studies of Dutch cycle facilities.

First, my own experience. I enjoyed greatly the cycle paths in the Netherlands that weren't next to any roads. There are alot of forests in that area, and it was a real pleasure to ride through them on tracks entirely apart from cars. No noise, no pollution, heaven indeed! However, I found the cycle paths next to roads to be an incredible annoyance. In that part of the Netherlands, there isn't much traffic, and I felt that the cycle paths were completely unnecessary. They were a major pain however. Turning left (they ride on the right side of the road) was a real hassle. If I wanted to turn left at an intersection with lights, I had to wait through several changes of special traffic lights for bikes to make the turn without leaving cycle paths. Even if the light was green for cars. I would watch as the cars got into the proper lane and made thier turns and I sat still, stopped by a red cycle light. After some time and signal changes, I had finally made my turn. This seemed a big waste of time and was very frustrating, since I am perfectly capable of making a safe left turn riding on the road.

Making a left turn when there are no signals are even worse. In the US (another place where they ride on the right side) I'd start on the right side of the road, and when there were no cars behind me, I'd signal left and pull out into the middle of the road. There I would wait until there was a break in the opposing traffic, and then I'd go. In the meantime, cars would pass me on the right side. In the Netherlands you can't do this. You must wait at the edge of the road until both sides are clear. This can take a very long time...

Second, correspondence with Dutch cyclists. Some of them love the cycle paths. They like being separated from cars. Parents are particularly attracted to them. However, people who like to ride in groups or even somewhat faster than the usual slow Dutch cyclist utterly hate these cycle paths, since they are mandatory. Yvonne van den Hork, a Dutch randonneur, writes:

I live in what I call 'bike-apartheid' country the Netherlands. Here cyclists are obliged to use the bike paths. These are indeed dangerous. Especially as the path is often uprooted by trees or broken tiles, which prohibits fast riding. At night you get blinded by cars and of course, lanes near hedges are very dangerous because of the cars coming out of driveways. But what to do if you get harassed by cars if you are using the safe way out and use the road? I've been driven into the verge on purpose just because cycling on the road was not allowed, while it was perfectly safe. People think I am crazy, but it is them. Paths are designed with the safety of cars in mind, they don't have to deal with those nasty cyclists any longer. And parents have a big say too. The Dutch are furthermore so brainwashed that we are (and I was) made to believe bike paths are safer.

Third, safety. Let me quote from a survey of a Dutch study "Safety effects of bicycle facilities". The summary is by John Franklin.

In built-up areas cycle paths 25% safer than unsegregated road between junctions, but 32% more dangerous at junctions. Cycle lanes 36% more dangerous between junctions, 19% safer at junctions. Seriousness of accidents greater if paths or lanes present compared with no facilities. Cycle lanes narrower than 1.8m particularly hazardous. Outside towns, cycle path safety depends on car and cycle numbers. New cross-town routes in Den Haag and Tilburg had produced no safety gain and had not encouraged much new cycling.
Note that this study shows that cycle paths are quite a bit less safe than unsegregated roads, since most accidents happen at junctions. Why don't the carefully designed off-road cycle paths increase safety at junctions? My interpretation is that this is the problem. The cycle paths have priority over cars going to and from side roads. Once the traffic gets above a certain level, it is beyond the capability of most drivers to monitor both the traffic on the road surface, and the traffic on the cycle paths. Mistakes are made, and accidents occur. The safest place for bikes to be is on the road, where they can be easily seen by drivers, along with the other traffic.

Mind you, these results are from the Netherlands, where the cycle facilities are about the best in the world. In particular, the cycle paths are not shared with pedestrians, while almost all cycle paths in the UK are shared with pedestrians. This makes UK cycle paths even more dangerous than Dutch ones, as you are even more likely to get into an accident (colliding with a pedestrian who suddenly changes course or colliding with something else to avoid a pedestrian).

Cattle grids

There are often cattle grids on bike paths. The main thing you need to know about them is that they are extremely slippery when they are wet. If you try to turn at all when you are on one, or if you even try to pedal hard, your wheels will slide sideways. The only way to go safely through them is to go absolutely straight through. Make all turns, even if slight ones, before or after the cattle grid.

Sometimes the designers of the shared pedestrian/bike paths put gates for walkers along the main line of the path, and put cattle grids for cyclists off to the side. (An example of a stupidly designed bike path, see below for lots more.) Often it is impossible to avoid turning when you are on these cattle grids. Be wary when it's even slightly damp out, and be prepared for your wheels to slide. If you don't think you can handle your wheels sliding sideways, it's best to go through the pedestrian gate.

Cycle lanes

I have much more respect for on-road cycle lanes than off-road cycle paths. A cycle lane can have some benefits, especially when traffic flow is heavy. It gives cyclists a lane all to themselves, which they can use to pass the gridlocked cars. Also, if there is a left-turn-only lane, a cycle lane that goes to the right of the left-turn-only lane can make going straight much easier for the cyclist. However, I think that there are few to no other benefits to them.

They have many disadvantages, even if they are well-designed. And many (if not most) of them are not well-designed. I'll go into that later, but now let me discuss the disadvantages of a well-designed cycle lane. The biggest problem with them is that they seem to say to people, cyclists and motorists alike, "Bikes belong here!". As I noted above, there are very good reasons for not being along the left edge of the road, like if you're turning right. The idea that bikers should stay in the bike lane, no matter what, is partly responsible for cyclists not taking the proper place on the road in preparation for making a turn.

Another problem is that cars park in them. Even if it is against the law (in the UK, if the lane is separated from the rest of the road surface by a solid line, this means "no parking") cars still park in them. This means, of course, that you have to leave the cycle lane to go around the car. Not a problem, really, except that (as mentioned above) some motorists are less likely to let you merge into traffic, because "you belong in the cycle lane".

Bike lanes, even ones on roads, are much more likely to have broken glass and other trash in them. Road surfaces used by cars are much cleaner because the tires and the wind currents caused by the cars' passage sweep the road clean. I don't know how this works, but it does.

Another problem is that bike lanes are often too narrow. The following situation happens to me regularly as I ride down the streets of Cambridge. I'm a safe distance from the curb, far enough away to avoid the rough tarmac on the edge and the uneven grates. Suddenly I notice that a cycle lane has appeared on the road, and I'm outside of it: the white line is to the left of my wheels. In these circumstances, I do make the effort to move left, so that my wheels are the left of the white line, but I make no effort to ride in the middle of the lane; this would put me much too close to the edge of the road.

A final problem with cycle lanes is that they tempt cyclists into undertaking maneuvers. See the section below that discusses this.

Badly designed cycle lanes

Basically, I call a cycle lane badly designed if it seems to be trying to get the cyclist to behave in an unpredictable or unsafe manner. One example of a badly designed cycle lane is one that continues on to the left of a left turn only lane. This cycle lane seems to suggest you should stay to the left of the left-turn lane, even if you're going straight. Unless there are special signals set up at the intersection to allow a cyclist to go straight from this lane, it's completely nonsensical, and you have to ignore the cycle lane and get in the proper lane for going straight. And I don't like these sorts of lanes even if there are special traffic signals to allow a cyclist to go straight: cars going straight have green lights for much longer than cyclists going straight. Also, it's very counterintuitive, and just reinforces the idea that cyclists belong shoved off into inferior provisions on the left side of the road.

picture of cycle lane to left of left turn only lane
What's wrong with this picture? Well, first, there's a cycle lane to the left of a left-turn only. Second, there's a car parked in the cycle lane, which is against the law, since the cycle lane is marked with a solid line. When I knocked on the window of the car and asked the driver if he knew that what he was doing was illegal, he responded, innocently, that he didn't know.

Another very common example of a badly-designed cycle lane is one that goes up onto the pavement at odd places, especially at junctions. This is really quite useless, as it removes a bike from the road surface where it will be seen and accounted for, and puts it onto a track to the side of the road, where a motorist is not expecting vehicles to be. Also, it means that the cyclists suddenly go from having a rightful place in traffic, going ahead with all the other traffic, to sitting off the road in an inferior position, where they have to give way to all traffic coming to and from a side road. Finally, if the cyclist manages to make it through the junction safely, the off-road track often suddenly rejoins the main road surface, which can cause a bit of surprise to motorists, who think that a cyclist is suddenly pulling out into the road in front of them. If it is legal to do so, I highly recommend that you ignore these sudden turns, and continue along the main road surface, positioning yourself in the proper lane for the direction you are going in.

picture of cycle lane leaving road at intersection
A cycle lane leaves the road surface at an intersection. And this isn't even an intersection with a road, it's the entrance to a garden center. So I'm supposed to leave the road surface to go onto a pavement, where I then have to give way to people going to buy plants? I don't think so. Evidently, neither does this postman.

Advanced stop lines

Advanced stop lines are an attempt at helping cyclists negotiate intersections with traffic lights. They are basically areas reserved for cyclists right in front of traffic lights, ahead of the queue of cars that are waiting to get through the lights. They are marked with bike signs and often a different-colored surface. They often have an approach lane, a cycle lane on the left of the road that allows cyclists to bypass cars to get into the advanced stopping area.

My opinion of them is that, like bike lanes, they of very limited utility. Their main plus point is that they allow bikes to bypass queued cars, and therefore get where they are going faster than they would otherwise.

The main problem with them is that they create confusion as to who should be going where. In particular, it encourages cyclists to try to get to the front of the queue, and they often do unsafe things in order to get there. Often they pass to the left of cars that are about to turn left. You have to be very careful with this. Look at the Undertaking section for a advice on this.

The absolutely worst thing about advanced stop lines is that it encourages cyclists to try to turn right by riding up the left side of traffic, reaching the advanced stop area, crossing in front of the stopped queues of cars to get to the right side of the road, then turning right when the light turns green. This is a completely incorrect way to make a right turn. Do not do this. Ever. If you're really really lucky you just might make it. But what if the light turns green as you're riding up the left side? There you are, trapped, in the wrong place to make your right turn. And what if the lights change as you're trying to cut across the queues of stopped traffic to get to the right side of the road? You get knocked off. Don't do it. Learn to make safe lane changes. Get into the queue of right-turning cars and take your place in traffic. It is the only sensible way to make a right-hand turn.

Undertaking

I've heard the word "undertaking" used for passing to the left of another vehicle that's going more slowly than you are. If the road is wide enough for you to ride to the left of a queue of cars, or if there is a cycle lane, you are often tempted to undertake cars. This is OK if the car is going straight, but is stopped by traffic. But it can lead to accidents if the car is about to turn left. Here are some guidelines for how to deal with this.

Say you are coming up to an intersection with a traffic light, and there's a car with a left turn signal on ahead of you. Should you undertake it in the cycle lane or not? There are a couple of cases to consider. If the light is red and the car is far enough back from the intersection it won't start moving immediately when the lights turn green, and it's probably safe to pass it. Once the light has turned green, do not pass a car that has its left turn signals on.

If the car is right at the intersection, you should avoid passing it unless there is an advanced stop line (see below): you do not want to end up stopped to the left of a left-turning car. If there is an advanced stop line, you must exercise extreme caution in passing a car at a traffic light. If the light has just turned red, and you are absolutely sure you have enough time to pass it before the light turns green, it's probably OK to pass. But if the light has been red for awhile, it is a very bad idea to go to its left, as the light may turn green at any time, and you could get a car turning left directly into you. A motorist should look before turning left across a cycle lane, but you have to keep in mind that drivers are not expecting straight-heading traffic to be passing them on the left. Don't take the chance. Stay behind the car to protect yourself.

If the car is not at an intersection with lights, but is signalling to turn left into a side road, then do not undertake it. You should slow down and let the car turn. (Either that or, if it's safe, pull out of the cycle lane and go around the car to the right. It's probably much easier to just pause until it makes its turn.) There are a few reasons why this is the correct maneuver. First, safety. The motorist may not be looking out for bikes. Put yourself in his head. He's moved as far left as he's legally allowed to, he's plainly signalled his intentions, and he's slowed down to make the turn. He does not expect a cyclist to zoom past him on the left just as he's beginning to turn. Second, courtesy. Slowing down to let the car turn only makes you pause a few seconds at most, and it gets the car off the road and lets it continue on its way, and prevents it from blocking cars behind it. Third, the law. The Highway Code is clear (paragraph 197) about this. Its advice to cyclists is "Do not overtake on the left of vehicles slowing down to turn left".

Dress for Comfort and Safety

There are two important things to consider for cycling apparel, comfort and safety. For comfort, wear clothes that won't restrict your movement nor make you too hot or too cold. For example, if you wear a fashionable tight skirt at work, don't commute in it. Wear something else, and change when you get to work. If it's hot, don't wear your three-piece suit for commuting. Again, wear something else and change when you get to work.

Keeping warm

Winter is the time when you have to be especially careful to dress to keep yourself comfortable. When you're on a bike you're much more exposed to the elements than when you are driving or even walking. You are going much faster on a bike, which gives you more wind chill. You have to be careful not to wear hoods that restrict your vision. You can't put your hands in your pockets, since they need to be on the handlebars to control the bike. Although often I see cyclists with one hand in a pocket, and one very cold hand trying to steady the bike, or with both hands in pockets. These cyclists are not able to respond quickly to conditions of traffic, and this makes it very risky.

You have to pay particular attention to keeping your hands, head, and feet warm. For the hands, you'll need some good warm gloves. They don't have to be cycle-specific, but if they have a leather palm and fingers, this helps prevent them for getting holes where they rest on the handlebars. To keep your head warm a wooly hat often works, although they sometimes don't have enough wind protection to keep you warm. Try to find a hat with nylon on the outside for maximum warmth. If you wear a helmet, it can be especially difficult to keep your head warm. See my cold weather riding article for tips on this. Often the light shoes you wear indoors are not good enough to keep you warm while biking. Find some good solid leather shoes or boots to get you to work, or wear some overshoes to keep warm.

Dealing with the sun

We are often commuting when the sun is low in the sky. To avoid being blinded, have some sunglasses handy, or wear a cap or helmet with a peak. The peak may not block out the sun if it's immediately above the horizon, but it does cut down on the total amount of light that enters your eyes.

Increasing your visibility

You can improve your visibility by carefully choosing your clothing. Since it's often cool enough to wear a jacket, you should select a cycling jacket carefully. For daytime riding, bright clothes are the best. Any light color will do, like lime green, bright red, and (the cyclists' favorite) fluorescent yellow. These light colors aren't all that useful in the dark. That's where reflective stuff comes in. The best is 3M's Scotchlite, that white-silver stuff you often see. It is very useful in helping you to be seen, so much so that I refuse to buy a cycling jacket unless it has some. Thus the safest cycling jacket you can buy is one that's bright yellow with lots of Scotchlite. You look like a real geek, but it does help the motorists to see you.

An alternative to a cycling jacket is a light (preferably mesh) fluorescent yellow waistcoat with large Scotchlite reflective stripes. This has the advantage that you can dress for whatever the weather conditions are, and put this on top for extra visibility. Sam Browne belts (those yellow/reflective belt plus shoulder strap combos) also help, but the solid color yellow ones aren't as reflective as Scotchlite, and the yellow part isn't as big as a jacket or waistcoat. So you end up less visible both by day and night.

Riding at Night

Night is an especially scary time to ride. Many people worry that they are even more likely than in the daytime to be "overlooked" by drivers and run over. While I suspect that it is slightly more risky to ride at night than during the day, it's still much safer than most non-cyclists would imagine. However, it is more important than ever to be cautious, listen for and watch the cars carefully, and make sure you are as visible as possible (within bounds! you don't need to be lit up like a Christmas tree to ride at night).

Here are some guidelines to make your trip safer.

Lights

If you ride at night, you must have rear reflectors and a rear light and headlight. The headlight is both so that you can see the road and so that other road users (motorists and other cyclists) can see you. Often, as I ride along unlit cycle paths away from streetlights, I almost run into unlit cyclists. The best combination of lights is a red LED light in the back and a halogen front light.

I find that low-powered headlights (3W or less) are fine for riding in an urban environment, where there are streetlights, and cars drive around with low beams. (Some people would disagree with me, suggesting higher powered lights to better get the attention of drivers.)

When you're riding in unlit country roads at night, there is the additional difficulty of being blinded by the high beams of oncoming drivers. Often they don't see you, and so don't dim their lights. I used to think that the motorists were being doing it on purpose. However, after getting brighter lights, I've found that cars dim their lights for me much more quickly, so I think that they just hadn't seen me previously. A 6W to 10W light is good enough to get them to see you and dim their lights reasonably quickly. I usually ride with both a 6W and 10W lighting head. I have the 6W light pointed to illuminate the tarmac in front of me, while the 10W is pointed more nearly level. When I'm riding alone I'll turn on the 10W beam as soon as I see the lights of an approaching car. Usually they see me and dim their lights quickly.

If you can't afford such bright lights, it can help to wear a hat with a peak. Then you can dip your head to try to shield your eyes from the headlights until the car has seen you and has dipped its lights.

There may be a few motorists out there who despite seeing you, still don't dip their lights. This is not out of malevolence; they are simply not thinking. They have it in their minds that they must dip their lights for cars, but it doesn't occur to them that it's just as important to dip their lights for bikes. Your strategy here should be to somehow convey to the driver that it's important for him to dip his lights for you too. That way he'll be more likely to dim his lights the next time he sees you or another cyclist. If you have a high beam, you can flash it on, off, on, off, in hopes that he gets the idea. You can swing your lights to him by turning the handlebars slightly to achieve the same effect (a brief brightening). You can raise you hand to your eyes in the classic "I'm being blinded!" gesture. If you're daring you can also wobble on the road a bit and veer slightly closer to the center of the road, in hopes of alerting the driver to the fact that he is blinding you.

For some general guidelines on taillights and low-powered headlights (3W or less), read this. See here for reviews of some high-powered rechargeable lighting systems.

Reflective stuff

Don't underestimate the usefulness of reflectors. So many of us somehow lose them along the way as we make changes and upgrades to our bikes. Make the effort to put some rear reflectors on the bike. An easy way to do this for the rear is to get a rear LED light with a built-in reflector. If you go for separate reflectors, remember that amber is brighter than red. White should not be used on the back, as it signifies the front of a vehicle.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have, in addition to reflectors, some reflective tape on your bike as well. You can get this from cycle and auto shops.

It is sometimes desirable to make yourself easily identifiable as a cyclist. Moving reflective bits on the ends of your legs can help with this. This can be provided by reflective ankle bands, reflective patches on your shoes, or pedal reflectors. Another school of thought says that since these don't increase your visibility much, but just make it easy for motorists to recognize that you're a cyclist rather than any other object on the road, they aren't so useful. I take the view that any additional reflective material is a good thing and often wear reflective trouser clips.

For suggestions of jackets and other wearable items that can increase your visibility, see Increasing your visibility above.

Specialist skills

Riding in traffic requires that you be very comfortable with your bike and be able to respond instantly to what's happening around you. It requires you to perform some specific skills that you may not be used to. The first is to be able to ride in a straight line while looking behind to see if there are cars. You must do this long enough to judge their speed and distance. You must also be able to hold a turn signal for several seconds on end, and to brake while holding the turn signal. If you can't do this comfortably, practice it in a parking lot or on an empty country road.

If you have dropped handlebars, it is harder to make proper turn signals, and especially to hold a turn signal while braking. If you can't manage to do this, don't use your drop-bar bike in traffic. Get a cheap bike with straight bars for riding downtown.

Toeclips can also present a potential problem, if you're not used to them. You do not want to be concentrating on getting your feet into toe clips at the expense of paying attention to what's happening around you. Don't ride in traffic with toe clips until you are completely accustomed to them and it becomes automatic.

Helmets

Note that this long article on bicycle safety says almost nothing about helmets. There is a very good reason for this: I think the knowledge above (how to ride safely) is far more effective at preventing cycling injuries than wearing a helmet. If you want to wear a helmet, go ahead, but you must recognize that the protective benefits are very limited. It is absolutely imperative that you do your best to avoid an accident in the first place. A helmet is best though of as an "after I have done all else I can reasonably do" safety precaution. Use one if you wish but do not substitute it for good cycling practice and proper training.

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