Bicycle safety is the most important aspect of biking – before fitness or fun, you have to be protected from getting into a crash with other road users. This advice comes from years of biking in US suburban neighborhoods, so I have blindspots when it comes to biking in cities or rural areas. In order of importance, I’ve outlined what I’ve learned about staying safe on a bicycle, starting with which roads you ride on.
I haven’t experienced US infrastructure that serves both cars and bikes well on the same right of way. Because it’s apparently a zero-sum situation, you should prefer routes that you would not or could not drive along. This means avoiding arterials: roads with more than one lane in each direction, often connecting to a freeway, and oddly recommended on most “bikeways” maps. Look for neighborhood roads that curve, but still have stoplights at intersections with busy roads. Even though these routes are longer than the straight-shot that drivers enjoy, they’re a lot less stressful.
Pin your route to bottlenecks where you have to cross freeways. Depending on how you cross, these can be very dangerous due to traffic entering and exiting at high speeds, crossing over bike lanes. Because overpasses are controlled by the same state agencies that maintain the freeway, they’re often in states of disrepair. Bicycle or pedestrian bridges are ideal, but car-filled overpasses without access to the freeway are the next best thing.
With crossings out of the way, look for neighborhood parks or dead end streets that might open up a more direct route. If you have no choice to bridge a gap, walk your bike on the sidewalk for a short period of time. Biking through parking lots or schools is dangerous depending on the time of day and what the lot serves. Malls with dining and retail are almost always dangerous, churches are only busy one night a week and some weekend mornings, and schools are problematic during the week in the mornings and afternoon.
If a car racing past you feels weird and jarring, listen to that and avoid riding on that road in the future. It’s probably too busy to be safe on that road at the time you’re riding.
While less important than the roads you bike on, proper 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 and there’s a huge amount of victim blaming when it comes to analyzing crashes involving cyclists. Usually the problem is a mixture of laughable enforcement of safe driving laws or infrastructure that doesn’t expect non-motorized traffic on roadways.
Avoid risk-taking on public roads like trying to outrun a light. It’s not worth it to save some time or stay with your group. Just be patient because most risky behaviors are born out of being in a hurry. Don’t eat or drink while riding at speed. 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 complacent because you’re in a group.
Expect the worst to happen, that 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 (even very short 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.
Do not pass or match the speed of cars near intersections. The closest I’ve come to getting hit is when I’m filtering in the bike lane at a stoplight and a car doesn’t have a signal on but starts to turn right when the light goes green. I won’t pass a car on the right that has its turn signal on unless they’re pretty far back and wouldn’t be able to react quickly to a light changing. 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.
Look for unprotected left turns from oncoming traffic and make sure they will not turn into you.
Be predictable and telegraph your movements with signals and body language, like looking behind your shoulder. These subtle cues won’t be noticed by the most 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. There are some dangers that are just too unpredictable to be going quickly near, like unleashed dogs or those that seem like they could escape the control of their owners.
Taking a judo class to learn how to fall is useful when you inevitably fall over 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 to 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, crossing the intersection and stopping 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, be aware that drivers may not see you due to glare.
Bike often to keep your skills sharp.
Keeping a well-maintained bike that is 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. Always make sure 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. 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 also good because their most upright position also has access to brakes. If you’re in a recumbent, use a big flag and large mirrors to see behind you.
Use a rack or bags attached to the bike to haul gear. Getting gear off your back makes it more comfortable to bike and makes it easier to look around.
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.
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.
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 offerings despite their 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 or a way from that direction unexpectedly. Just say something like “passing” or “approaching.”