Bicycle safety is the most important aspect of biking – before fitness or fun, you have to know how to avoid collisions with other road users. This advice comes from years of biking through suburban neighborhoods in the United States and I probably have blindspots when it comes to built-up cities and rural areas. There are three key areas of safe biking: routing, behavior, and equipment.
Infrastructure that serves both cars and bikes well is rare in the United States. So, as a rule of thumb, prefer routes that you wouldn’t normally drive along. Many aspiring bike commuters or weekday errand-runners will bike the same routes they typically drive on and end up miserable around heavy car traffic and barely-there bike accommodations. Instead, find an alternate route by exploring the urban environment on a weekend, without a time constraint. This means avoiding arterials, or roads with more than one lane in each direction, often connecting to a freeway, and even sometimes recommended on “bikeways” maps. Look for neighborhood roads that are designed to slow cars down but still have stoplights at intersections with busy roads. Even though these routes are longer than the straight-shot that drivers enjoy, they’re safer and less stressful.
Pin your route to bottlenecks where you have to cross freeways or waterways. These barriers have limited options for crossing because they don’t integrate with other road systems. Highway crossings can be particularly dangerous because cars are getting on and off at high speeds, merging through bike lanes. And because overpasses are controlled by the same state agencies that maintain the highway, they’re often in states of disrepair, with seams and potholes that force your attention on the pavement when you should be aware of nearby cars. Bicycle or pedestrian bridges are ideal, but overpasses without freeway access are the next best thing. Streams might have bridges near schools for students in the neighborhood or dedicated trails that run beside them.
With crossings out of the way, look for neighborhood parks or streets without car outlets to open up a more direct route. Some cities put pedestrian cut-throughs at the end of cul-de-sacs, but they’re difficult to find on maps. If you have no choice to bridge a gap, walk your bike on the sidewalk or through a pedestrian gate. Biking through parking lots or schools is dangerous at different points of the day, depending on what the lot serves. Malls with dining and retail are almost always dangerous and schools are problematic during the week in the mornings and afternoon. Bike infrastructure near train stations and schools can be better than average, but they come with increased traffic.
If a car racing past you feels weird and jarring, listen to that feeling and avoid riding on that road in the future. Higher car speeds make collisions more lethal. It’s probably too busy to be safe on that road at the time you’re riding.
Some roads turn bike lanes into on-street parking in the evenings, so learn about those rules and avoid those routes to avoid being forced into car lanes when there’s low visibility.
While routing is the most important aspect of being safe, I have the least amount of advice for it because every environment is different. Ask your bike commuting coworkers about good routes, find local advocacy groups with knowledgable bicyclists, look on Strava or Ride Spot for ideas, and observe bicyclists in neighborhoods along potential routes.
While less important than the roads you bike on, safe behavior is critical when you find yourself in a difficult situation. There’s a lot to learn and practice, so this is the largest section. Unfortunately, civil engineers and the police won’t typically have your back in an accident. Victim blaming is common when responding to and reporting on bicycle crashes. The root of the problem is infrastructure that doesn’t adequately protect non-motorized traffic on roadways, combined with negligible enforcement of safe driving laws for the few deviant motorists that can represent an outsized danger to other road users. There are other factors I won’t get into here, but just know you need to take charge of your safety in ways that are objectively unreasonable. Such is the transportation infrastructure we have built.
Before heads-up displays and flight computers, fighter pilots used to focus on developing situational awareness, or SA, to have a sense of what’s going on around them at all times. As a biker, you need to do the same thing — constantly being aware of what’s happening behind you or at the sides, where you’re not directly looking. This is not a carefree activity and it requires concentration and constant vigilance. Keep your head on a swivel and test out your SA by guessing when an upcoming car will overtake you or when a car door opens behind you.
This should be obvious, but do not bike on the side of the road that’s against traffic, or the wrong way down a one-way street. Car drivers turning onto the street don’t expect fast traffic from the wrong direction. If there’s a bike path with both directions on one side of the street, it might be fine, but be very careful near intersections or driveways. Riding the wrong way on a sidewalk is surprising to drivers, as you’re moving fast on the bicycle and they’re looking in the opposite direction for oncoming traffic. It’s best to walk your bike on sidewalks or find a way to cross the street.
Do not pass or match the speed of cars near intersections. This advice seems unintuitive and can be annoying to follow, but it’s really important because it avoids one of the few kinds of collisions with a name, the right hook. The closest I’ve come to getting hit is when I’m filtering in the bike lane at a stoplight and a car isn’t signaling but starts to turn right across the bike lane when the light turns green. I won’t pass a car on the right that has its turn signal on unless they’re pretty far back and won’t move immediately when the light changes. To that end, if there are only one or two cars at the light, I’ll just stop behind them, in the lane, so I’m not in their blindspots.
Avoid taking risks like trying to outrun a light, even if it would inconvenience you or you notice other bicyclists doing it. Give yourself ample time to get to your destination and make sure your riding partners know you’ll be stopping for lights and stop signs. Don’t cave into peer pressure or feel protected because you’re in a group.
Expect the worst to happen, like every car door will open as you’re passing with no time to slow down. If a car is stopped in the bike lane, just wait for it to move, walk the bike on the sidewalk, or venture far into the lane if there are no cars overtaking you for a few hundred feet. Whenever a car is blocking your view, there might be pedestrians (especially short and carefree little ones!) waiting on the other side of the car about to walk into the street. Drivers ready to pull out who seem to be looking right at you could be looking past you and will pull out at the worst moment: slow down and look directly at them. If they don’t acknowledge that you can proceed, just stop directly in front of their eyesight and stare at them until they wave you on.
Look for unprotected left turns from oncoming traffic and make sure they’re not preparing to turn across your path. This is difficult to do and is another extremely common way to get hit by a driver, enough that it is called the left hook. There’s no great way to avoid this for all cases, so try to stay away from roads where this is possible and left turns are common.
Be predictable and telegraph your movements with signals and body language, like looking behind your shoulder. These subtle cues won’t be noticed by truly dangerous drivers, but they’re still useful to inform most drivers of your intentions.
You should be willing to stop and get off your bike, or slow down in crowded areas. Some dangers are too unpredictable to be going quickly, like dogs that could escape the control of their owners.
Taking a judo class to learn how to fall is useful when you inevitably fall off on a bike. Tucking your chin, going limp, not reaching out with your fragile hands, and protecting your head are all skills you can practice on a mat with an instructor. Knowing how to take a fall can be the difference between a concussion and a scraped shoulder.
Know when to take the entire lane. I’m not an advocate of full-on vehicular cycling but there are situations and roads where getting into the middle of a car lane is the best course. Usually this means you’re on the wrong route, but if it can’t be helped, take the lane when there’s no safe way for a car to pass you or you feel like you may be right-hooked by cars.
If you need to avoid something, prefer braking over dodging. Practice emergency braking with both the front and rear brakes to get a sense of how quickly you can stop at different speeds. Depending on your bike, shifting your mass to the back of the bike will let you stop faster without flipping over the handlebars. Keep your fingers covering the brakes when passing stopped cars, at intersections, or anywhere there are other road users.
Bikes can turn left three different ways: like a car by crossing lanes of traffic and getting into the leftmost car lane, crossing the intersection and starting to head left on the other side, or with a right turn and then a U-turn on the other street. There’s a variation of the second approach that involves walking your bike across the street, but I’ve only had to use it once or twice. Crossing lanes of traffic is only appropriate when there are no cars in the vicinity.
Riding later in the day feels more dangerous to me, so prefer biking in the morning with good visibility. If you’re traveling east-west at dawn or dusk, drivers might not see you due to glare. Biking into the sun makes it harder for overtaking cars to see you and biking out of it impacts drivers turning in front of your bike.
Don’t listen to music on headphones while biking. Even with a mirror, it’s important to be able to hear overtaking cars or bicycles.
Bike often to keep your skills sharp.
Keeping a well-maintained bike suited for the terrain and conditions you’re biking in gives you the best shot of staying in control and being able to execute safe behavior. Before every ride, check that your tires are inflated, your brakes can stop you, and your wheels are properly attached to the bike. If you’re unsure, take the bike to a shop and have them look it over for you.
Be visible by wearing the brightest clothing you can find and adorning your bike in lights so it’s visible from all angles. Avoid flashing lights, which seem to be only useful during bright conditions with under-powered lights or as a way to extend the runtime of battery-powered lights. Leave the lights on during the day. The best option is a dynamo-powered light that throws out a light pattern like a car’s headlights do, but you might need to build your own bicycle wheel to set one up. Use as many reflectors as you can fit. Put reflective tape on the back of the rear fender, helmet, and wherever else it seems appropriate. Add wheel reflectors and find tires with a reflective strip on the sidewall.
Sit up on the bike. A more upright fit on a bike makes it easier to see around you and increases your profile. I like having multiple hand positions on handlebars, so I use road bike drop bars, but swept-back cruiser-style handlebars are better because their most upright position also has access to brakes. Do not use “safety” or “suicide” levers with a drop bar, as they don’t generate enough leverage to stop the bike. If you’re in a recumbent, use a big flag and large mirrors to see behind you.
Don’t wear clothing that could get sucked into the front or rear wheel, unless you have a proper coat or dress guard over the wheels. These bikes are rare in the US, so you likely should stick to closer-fitting clothing. But by no means should you think that you must wear spandex to ride a bike.
Use a rack or bags attached to the bike to haul gear. Getting gear off your back makes it more comfortable to bike and easier to look around to stay aware of your surroundings. Carry Voile straps or bungee cords to secure items so they can’t fall off. A front basket is another good option.
Wear a helmet. If only to prevent skids on pavement, but also because your brain needs all the help it can get. Use MIPS or wavecel helmets that cushion the impact and help with rotating decelerations. Don’t attach heavy items to it, though a light can be a good idea. Put reflective stickers on the helmet or choose the fluorescent color scheme.
During the day, wear polarized sunglasses to cut down on glare from car windshields and pavement. At night, wear clear glasses to keep bugs out.
Use a rear view mirror on your helmet. It takes a bit of getting used to, but being able to see behind you without contorting your body or diminishing your forward situational awareness is a huge upgrade. A mirror mounted on the handlebars also works but having to look down takes your attention away from the road around you.
Film everything in front and behind with cameras that can detect crashes. A GoPro works in a pinch, but has limited battery life and no circular mode, so once the storage fills up, the recording stops. Try to find a camera made for crash documentation, like a dashcam for motorcycles. The Cycliq Fly cameras are made for bicycles, but I’ve had mixed results with them: the hardware is excellent but the firmware and app are lacking.
Use a bell or call out when overtaking someone on a shared-use path. A “brrring” bell is more friendly than a “ding” bell, but I like the Spurcycle despite the shrill tone. On off-road paths, a bell like the Timber that rings continuously (like a cow bell) is useful for keeping your hands in control of the bike. If you do call out, don’t say phrases containing the words “left” or “right” as you pass, because this might cause the person to move unpredictably if they mishear the words around the direction. Just say something like “passing” or “approaching” and slow down while passing.
My own bike gear is on my Kona Rove DL bicycle and the list of Bicycle gear companies have a good reputation for durable equipment.