Safer Cycling in Traffic: Be Seen, Be Defensive
The other day I was riding behind another cyclist and thought, man, I have to get one of those jackets. I wasn’t envious, or bemoaning the lack of new cycling gear.
But it was just getting dark, and when the headlights from a car behind us hit his jacket, it just glowed. It was yellow, with reflective white stripes, like emergency signage set out by utility workers. To stay safe if biking during our gloomy winters, that’s the kind of message you have to send.
Here are a few suggestions for safer riding.
Bright clothing with reflective strips is your first line of defense against a driver who has the law of gross tonnage on his side, and who may be impaired in many ways (is texting, tired, on the phone, distracted, has been drinking, has lights from oncoming traffic in his eyes, etc.).
Drivers can’t avoid what they can’t see, so making yourself seen will keep you out from under those wheels.
Those glow-in-the-dark jackets can be matched with biking pants with reflective strips on the back of the calves. Gloves and shoes often have reflective strips as well. Look for wide, flat strips of reflective material; reflective piping is not as visible.
There’s one more, easy thing you can do to be more reflective. Buy a sheet of stick-on reflectors and adhere them to your helmet and parts of your bike (fenders, panniers, frame, etc.). If it keeps you out of Harborview’s emergency room, it would be the best $3.99 you ever spent.
Lighting is, of course, the proactive rather than reactive way to be seen. See my post on LED bike lights.
Large, bright taillights are best. Get one that has a flashing pattern and permanently attach it. Get another that clips on to your back or your gear.
Headlights will make you visible to cars that may turn from a side road in front of you, and can help you see hazards on the trail ahead. Some headlights send out beams to each side, too.
The way you ride in dark or low-visibility conditions can also increase your safety.
“Become traffic,” advised Chris Cameron, who used to train commuters for Cascade Bicycle Club. He learned that drivers don’t have a good sense of how close they are to cyclists, so he decided to act more like a car and actually take up more of the road.
“What I do now is ride in the first third of the lane, where the passenger car wheel is in the lane,” he told me. Doing so will force the vehicle to go around you.
Moving into the traffic lane is especially important in areas where a biker can get “hooked” by a driver who’s turning. It’s called “taking the lane.” Use it whenever you need to be more visible or there are hazards from riding along the edge of the road. Be sure to signal when moving from the bike lane to the traffic lane.
The right hook is one of the most common bike-car accidents. This happens at intersections where there is a lot of traffic turning. When drivers are getting ready to turn, they mostly are looking to see that the intersection is clear and there are no people in the crosswalk.
Many drivers do not think to look over their shoulder to see if someone’s coming up behind them in the bike lane. And because you’re moving faster than pedestrians, you could suddenly appear in the intersection just as they are turning.
Even if you’re watching traffic, you may not know that a car is turning, because many drivers do not use their turn signals. (To be fair, many bikers don’t signal their turns either.)
Cameron said he goes through trouble intersections in the middle of the driving lane. “People aren’t going to go around me because they can’t,” he says.
One last suggestion that can help you avoid insults or injuries: be predictable. Cyclists who weave in and out of traffic or make unusual turns will definitely raise the blood pressure of the drivers around them. Keep a straight line, instead of weaving toward the curb in an open stretch of parking, for instance. You are much less visible when riding in the parking lane, and you might get squeezed by traffic when you try to merge back into the bike lane.
Checklist for safe riding:
- wear bright, reflective clothing
- wear a helmet
- use front and rear lights
- use hand signals to show your intentions to drivers and other cyclists
- ride in the direction of traffic when crossing bridges on walkways
- go slow on sidewalks
- don’t wear headphones
- always assume you’re invisible
- never assume you’re invincible