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road safety

Cycling safely is an art. You are not born with the skills nor do you acquire them after a few years on the bike. It takes several years of riding and good, practical advice to become highly skilled.

Like driving a car, most of us believe that we are highly skilled riders, but as with driving, skill comes with time, practice and understanding the nuances of what separates the good from the great. But unlike driving the consequences of poor decisions regarding safety while riding are rarely minor.

Most of the concepts of cycling safety are common sense. Others are learned from others or via the school of hard knocks. Regardless, everyone should learn them and review them periodically to correct the bad habits that tend to creep back into our day-to-day riding.

I have been riding for approx. 30 years. At times I have considered giving it up because of close encounters with cars or near crashes due to road conditions or aggressive riding. After reviewing some of my most frightening events I realized that, without exception, they were all avoidable if I had anticipated the situation or had avoided the relatively risky behavior altogether.

Top 10 Safety tips:
Wear a helmet.
Wear light colored clothing.
Ride defensively but assertively.
Ride within the law.
Clearly communicate your intensions to motorists.
Use a helmet or glasses mounted mirror.
Avoid riding in bad weather or between dusk and dawn.
Use appropriate lights front and rear to see and be seen.
Choose the safest route to your destination.
Keep your bike in good mechanical condition.

Helmets: Two words about helmets; wear one. Wear one to protect your melon and wear one so that kids, maybe your kids, will get the message that helmets are mandatory, not optional.

Rear view mirror: A very unappreciated aspect of riding safely is the somewhat controversial use of a mirror. Some say that a mirror is completely unnecessary as, unlike in a car, their view of the road is unencumbered and they can see 360 degrees by turning their heads. I agree that they can see all around them but at what risk? To look behind you when you are riding you must lift one hand off of the bars and turn your head away from the road. This takes your eyes off of the road ahead and the act of removing a hand off of the bars causes most to lose their line. Doing so in traffic or while riding near another cyclist can lead to disaster. For these reasons I consider the use of a helmet or glasses mounted mirror one of the most important, and absolutely essential, component of riding safely.

Wearing a mirror while riding has the same benefits as rear and side view mirrors on a car, with the added benefit of being able to scan from side-to-side by moving ones head. For example, say I’m riding in a group that I want to pass. Wearing a mirror I can check behind for cars, swivel my head slightly to look for riders around me, all while keeping my eyes on the road and the riders ahead. They’re great in traffic too as you can quickly check behind before taking the lane or merging left. I especially like it during a fast descent when riding close to the right edge of the road is dangerous at high speed. Even at 35 MPH I can safely check for cars behind me and take the lane when it is safe and then move right as cars approach. Try looking over your shoulder one handed at that speed!
Some find getting used to a mirror difficult, but it’s worth the effort. Try a few different styles. I prefer the ones that clip to my helmet visor. You can adjust the distance from your eyes which seems to help some adapt to its use. I’ve also heard that wearing a mirror is not “cool” but I’m not going to get into that.

It should also be noted that bar end mounted mirrors are available. Although better than no mirror at all, because they are mounted to the bike and not the rider their field of vision is limited.
If it were up to me I’d make mirrors mandatory for all road riders. As with cars, the ability to see behind you and to each side without losing sight of what’s ahead is essential to riding safely.
Clothing: Another very important element of safety is to be seen. Wearing light/bright colored clothing at all times goes a long way to help you to be seen. Reflectors, on the bike and on your clothes are essential too.

Reflectors: The great thing about reflectors is that once you install them they are always there in case you get caught in the dark. They don’t take batteries and can be very effective if quality products are used and positioned well. I recommend that you install reflector tape (3M) on as many places on your bike as you can find. Potential spots are on the back of the seat post, on the back of the rear fender, on the outside surface of crank arms, fork blades, seat bag and all over your helmet. 3M tape has very aggressive adhesive and will stay put for years. Also try to include as much reflective material in your clothing as possible and/or use a reflective vest. I bought some 3M reflective fabric and sewed it onto an existing light weight vest that I can use day or night. Quality tires with reflective side walls are also available and work great!

Lights: The advantages of lights when riding at night is well understood. What a lot of folks miss, though, is the proper choice of lights, their optimal placement and the fact that a case can be made for using them during the day too.

Between dusk and dawn a solid strong white beam aimed at the road ahead will help you see where you are going. Some of the new lights turn night into day but most of the cheap, less powerful lights do not throw a beam far enough or bright enough for speeds over 10 MPH. You can only ride as fast as the strength of light beam allows.

There are a great variety of headlights on the market today. Most now have LED bulbs which can be very bright, are very efficient and last thousands of hours. They can cost anywhere between $15 and $400. The low end lights are completely inadequate at providing enough light to see the road. The high end lights are typically designed for off road use and generate an amazing amount of light and many have a wide, flat beam. They are great for the commuter, albeit expensive, but their weight, short battery life and rechargeable battery pack make them impractical for the tourist.

For the budget commuter and tourist there is a sweet spot in the price point of headlights between $35 and $50. Many of these lights are very bright, have a well designed light pattern and use standard, off the shelf, AA or AAA batteries. Look for front lights with a minimum 1 watt rating. Although the wattage rating does not indicate the light output (lumens) or the beam pattern, it’s a good place to start. Despite their brightness the battery life in the steady mode can be 7+ hours and 30+ hours when flashing. When commuting you can use rechargeable batteries and then switch to disposable while touring.

On the high end you have the option of extraordinarily bright LED lights with Li-ion batteries or hub generators that are equally as bright and do not require batteries. These lights sell for between $100 for the lower end LEDs to well over $500 for a generator hub/light head combination. Keep in mind that the Li-ion battery life is limited so choose carefully based on your specific need. Also consider how the battery recharges and how long it takes to do so. For the commuter there are lights available that recharge via a computer’s USB connector. This means that you can ride to work, recharge during the work day, and ride home fully charged.

I use two headlights when commuting. One I run in the steady mode to see and the other in flashing mode to be seen. If I need extra light for a fast decent I switch the flasher to solid.

Headlight placement can also affect performance. The lower the light is mounted the better it is at highlighting rough pavement and road obstacles. Many lights have flexible hardware that allows mounting on the fork blade. Note that when touring with front panniers this mounting position is not possible. In these cases I recommend that the light is mounted to the bars or front of the rack if you are using a handlebar bag. There are adapter kits available for this purpose.

When I commute in heavy traffic I have found that a small helmet mounted light is very effective as it can be aimed at what you want to see or who you want to see you. I started wearing one when a car almost broadsided me at a stop light because they did not see my lights from the side. Now when I am put is that situation I turn my head toward the driver so he sees my flashing helmet light. I paid $15 for one that was designed as a headband light and used the included Velcro strap to attach it through one of the vent holes at the front of my helmet. It’s lightweight and does not make the helmet uncomfortable.

The use of a bright tail light is super important. When training or commuting I use two tail lights, one solid and one flashing mounted on each seat stay. This combination seems to be the most visible but check with your local laws as a flashing tail light is not legal in all jurisdictions. I use 1/2 watt Planet Bike Blinky Super Flash tail lights even when riding during the day. They put out an incredible strobe pulse that has an amazing affect on motorists who see me earlier and allow me more room when they pass. Keep in mind that when riding with another cyclist that a flashing rear light can be very distracting when they are behind you. In these situations I change the mode of the tail light to steady.

The tourist has the option to avoid dusk to dawn riding. Regardless, take a rear and front light with you just in case. Mounting a rear light with rear panniers is challenging. Some panniers have loops sewn in the rear of the bags to mount lights like the Super Flash. Unfortunately not all panniers offer mounting locations and if they do, it is difficult to aim the light in the optimal direction. For this reason I recommend the Dtoplight. It mounts permanently to a bracket welded to the back of many Tubus racks or Tubus sells an adapter bracket. It’s a well made 2 LED light that has a very good and large reflector built in.

Well positioned bright lights, combined with bike and body mounted reflectors + light clothing will make you be seen in all but the nastiest conditions. If the fog is thick or the precipitation is heavy, you should stay off of the road. Also know that the period during dusk and dawn is the most dangerous time. Try to avoid these conditions to improve your odds.

Assertive riding: Riding styles can be classified into 3 categories; aggressive, assertive and timid.
We’ve all seen the aggressive cyclist; weaving in and out of traffic, blowing through stop signs and changing directions suddenly without indicating intentions. All of these moves can put the cyclist in dangerous situations that cannot be recovered from. Not only does his riding style put his own life on the line but his disregard of the law generates resentment with motorists that is often taken out on other cyclists.

Conversely, when a cyclist rides timidly they can expose themselves to equally dangerous situations. A good example is a short, narrow bridge on a heavily traveled road a few miles from my home. The bridge has no shoulder and there is not enough room for a bike and car to share the lane. I have often seen timid cyclists ride as close to the curb as they can, essentially inviting the motorist to pass. This works as long as the opposite lane is clear. But when a vehicle is coming from the other direction the bike will either get squeezed against the curb or one of the vehicles will has to slam on their brakes.

Both aggressive and timid riders are a danger to themselves, those they ride with and motorists.
Assertive riding means riding within the law but exercising your rights when the situation demands it and only when it is safe to do so. In the narrow bridge example above the assertive rider will safely take the lane before the bridge (after checking for cars behind in his mirror).

The true assertive rider is also an alert, defensive rider. She anticipates what might happen and prepares for it. She looks well ahead down the road and does not put herself in a position that cannot be recovered from. She knows what’s ahead, behind (via a mirror) and around at all times so that when quick action is necessary, all options are known. She also signals her intentions clearly and appropriately. It’s the same as driving a car well, without the benefit of a crumple zone.

Keep in mind that cyclists have most of the same rights and responsibilities as motorists. I recommend that these rules are followed, not only to avoid a traffic ticket (a moving violation with points) but because most of the rules make sense. In addition, drivers know the rules and are used to other vehicles following them, including bikes.

One last thought. I live in a relatively bike friendly area. We are blessed with good riding weather all year and bikes and cars, for the most part, share the road. Kids are very impressionable and see this interaction daily. Those who choose to ride aggressively present a poor example for these kids who see this dangerous behavior and think it’s cool. Often when I’m tempted to roll through a stop sign I think of how my actions may affect the behavior of others and I come to a full stop.

Safe routes: If you have route options, consider the safest route to your destination. Questions to consider are:
How wide is the shoulder?
How wide are the car lanes?
How busy is the road?
What is the condition of the road/shoulder surface?
How fast are the cars traveling?
How many uncontrolled intersections and side roads are there?
Is there a dedicated bike lane?
How are the sight lines? Does the route have many tight turns or is it an open, straight road?
If riding in the dark, how well is it lit?

The most important factor is the width of the shoulder or existence of a bike lane. Regardless of how slow or fast the cars are passing, if there’s no shoulder the road is dangerous. The bottom line is that any road attribute that places cars near a rider increases the chances of conflict.

The second variable to consider is the condition of the road/shoulder. If a route has a wide shoulder that is in poor condition or covered in debris, it’s inherently dangerous. Clean, fresh pavement with a reasonably generous shoulder is the safest scenario.

Intersections are where most bicycle accidents happen. Roads with many side roads that feed it increase the odds on an accident dramatically. If the intersection is controlled by a light the situation improves, but cars merging on and off your route remain an issue.

On twisty mountain roads your, and the motorist’s, line of sights are reduced. This is not usually a problem for the cyclist, but the motorist who is driving fast and using the full width of the road to cut corners, can overtake a bike very suddenly.

Bike condition: This one is easy. For obvious reasons unless your brakes and tires are in excellent condition do not ride! Remember that wheel condition, especially wheel trueness, can affect braking efficiency. If you are not mechanically inclined find someone to work on your bike that is. Better yet, take a class or read a book on how to maintain your own bike. That way you’ll be able to access its condition yourself and adjust or repair it appropriately in your garage or on the road. Many bike shops or clubs offer classes for free, or at nominal cost.