7 Secrets to Riding Safely in Traffic

Riding in traffic is something many of us start into timidly and gradually get more comfortable with over time. However, some people never get comfortable with it due to fears of riding in traffic.

I’ve been bike commuting a long time, and over time have gotten to the point where I am pretty comfortable, riding even in heavy traffic if necessary.¬†Over the years, I’ve found that educating myself on how to ride safely has helped me overcome my traffic fears, increase my confidence, and allowed me to stop feeling trapped by the necessity of driving a car.

When I started riding with my children on board, I went through another whole round of questioning myself if it was safe enough or if I should really just be toting them around in the car. My daughter’s pure enthusiasm for the bike ride, combined with our collective joy of being outside and the fact that a bike ride home was a much more enjoyable experience than a car ride, led me to continue the biking with our best safety measures in place.

Many bicycle safety groups simply emphasize wearing a helmet and “following traffic laws” in order to be safe. These are good things to do, but the simple fact is, it is critical to ride like the ultimate defensive driver and avoid having to use that helmet in the first place. Any motorcycle rider will tell you the same thing.

Fortunately, MOST bicycle accidents are caused by rider error. Not by cars hitting bicyclists, but by bicyclists themselves making errors. This is great news, because it means that YOU have the ability to become a safer rider, just by learning and working on your skills.

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SO, What can you do to ride more safely in traffic? Here are my TOP 7.

1. Choose Your Route (and time)

Seems obvious, but many people do not adequately think about this before they start out on a ride. The way you drive your car is usually not the best way to ride your bike. Is there another route you can take that avoids heavy traffic or narrow roads or bad intersections, even if it is LONGER? It might be a route you have never driven before. It might include bike paths (if you’re lucky), residential streets, even off-road paths.

One person I know told me he has designed a route to work that actually includes about 50% off road riding and a CANOE RIDE! That is a truly amazing commute. He says he does it because it’s like a weekend ride but he can do it twice a day.

Most of us are not that lucky. But with a little investigation, you might be able to discover a great route that has less traffic and is more fun to ride. One resource that might help you here is a website called Bikely . This is a mapping tool where users can make notes about routes they have taken that are good or bad. Depending on your area, you might find something useful to help you plan your route.

If you do have some busy sections that just cannot be avoided, consider when you are traveling those routes. Can you adjust your schedule to avoid rush hour? I have one route to work on my commute that is fine to ride when traffic is lighter, but is a true nightmare during rush hour to be avoided like the plague.

2. Watch the Street Surface

In actual fact, the biggest cause of bike accidents is not collisions with cars. It’s rider error. And a major source of rider error is pavement irregularities. The street surface may appear smooth when considered from the perspective of a car, which can ride over most encountered obstacles without problem. However, for a bike it is littered with cracks, potholes, road debris, and hazards like railroad tracks and storm drains. For those of you who ride with skinny road tires, road obstacles are a special concern that are likely to end up with you on the ground.

The best thing you can do to avoid this type of crash is to employ vigilance in watching the road. Take special note of anything that might catch a tire and not let it go, such as a longitudinal crack that runs in the direction you are riding, or a change in elevation of the road, such as if the road surface is an inch higher than the shoulder (as sometimes happens during construction). Potholes and debris piles should be avoided as much as possible as well to avoid a fall or a flat tire. Note, however, that you should never swerve out into traffic to avoid debris in the gutter Рalways check behind to ensure there are no cars there before you move left on the road.

3. Be Visible

If you are riding at night, use a front light, a rear light and a spoke light for side visibility. Riding at night without lights is a major cause of accidents. Even during the day, added visibility can be had with bright clothing, flags, and even lights during the day. Motorcycles are now required to use lights even during the day because it has been shown that this improves visibility.

For flags, many people think of the tall flag we had on our kids bikes. But another type of flag is one that sticks out to the side of the bike. This provides a visual cue for passing drivers who focus on it rather than on you. As they are focusing on passing the flag, they unconsciously give you just a little extra room.

4. But Ride As If You Are Invisible

Although we should do our best to make ourselves visible, NEVER ASSUME you are visible. This secret right here can save you from all kinds of common traffic collisions, especially at intersections. Are you riding in the lane and a car pulls out or turns in front of you? Are you exiting a driveway when a car is coming on the street? Are you passing on the left? These are all very common collisions, and often caused by the driver NOT SEEING the biker.

One of my friends was riding along a neighborhood street and passed in front of a car stopped at a stop sign on a perpendicular street. Before my friend made it all the way past the car, the driver pulled forward and ran over her back wheel. The driver claimed she did not see my friend even though my friend had JUST passed in front of the driver’s field of view.

So the best course of action is to never assume a car sees you. When approaching an intersection, cover the brakes and slow down if necessary so you can stop if someone pulls in front of you. Attempt eye contact with drivers, but don’t assume this means they see you or will yield to you. Keep an eye out for exit points where you can turn to avoid a car. And when approaching intersections always start scanning ahead for trouble points.

5. Use a Mirror

Would you drive your car without a rearview mirror? Would you feel like you are driving blind without it? I certainly would, and I feel that way on my bike too.

Most people fear being hit from behind more than any other type of bike accident. This type of accident is actually quite rare (only 3% of car/bike collisions). But having a rearview mirror can go a long way to alleviating this fear just by knowing what is going on behind you.

You can keep an eye on who’s coming up behind you and if they are going to give you space so you can take appropriate action. When you need to move left for a left-hand turn, you can keep an eye on what’s behind you well before your planned move, so you can find a break in traffic. In fact, now that I’ve ridden with a mirror for so long, I cannot imagine riding without one.

There are handlebar mounted mirrors or ones that go on your helmet. One is not inherently better than another, so try them out and see what works best for you, but you’ll be glad you did.

6. Ride Farther Left

Many beginning riders make the mistake of riding too far to the right of the road, hugging the curb or the ditch “so cars can get past”. I think this is probably due to the fear of being hit from behind and wanting to be out of the way, but often works counter to this purpose.

For example, I have one section of narrow road without shoulder that I sometimes ride (when traffic is low). The white line is at the edge of the pavement and to the right of that is a grassy ditch. If I ride right on the line, traffic coming from behind often will squeeze past me when there is oncoming traffic, resulting in a narrow pass for all 3 vehicles involved (me, the overtaking car, and the oncoming car). It makes me nervous because there is nowhere to go if I need an exit, except the steep ditch. Instead, I ride out about a foot from the line into the lane. Overtaking cars then will slow down to pass me, usually using part of the oncoming lane. And if there is oncoming traffic, they will think twice about squeezing by. Of course once in awhile you get the guy who wants to do it anyway, but with my mirror I can see this guy coming, and now I have about a foot of space to move into to give myself a little more room.

Even in the city, riding out into the lane a little will also put you in a position where cars tend to be looking for other cars, and thus more likely to see you. It will also put you out of the “door zone” where parked cars might open a door into you. Of course, you must use common sense, but giving yourself a little extra space by riding out often results in a safer situation.

7. Stay Off the Sidewalk

Sidewalks are designed for pedestrians that move slowly and stop at intersections. Although it may seem safe to ride on the sidewalk, cars and other vehicles are not expecting a bike on the sidewalk so are even less likely to see you. The chances of a car running into you when you are crossing an intersection or driveway on the sidewalk are actually quite high and this is a common accident type.

If you do need to ride on the sidewalk for any reason, assume that no one will see you, ride slowly, and of course be considerate of walkers who you will surprise.

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Follow these guidelines and you’ll be a long way towards gaining confidence and riding safely. But don’t stop here, there are many educational resources available to help you master biking in traffic. My favorite resource is the excellent book

“The Art of Cycling: A guide to bicycling in 21st century america” By Robert Hurst

This excellent book goes into many of these points and others in detail, is entertaining to read, and I found to be incredibly useful in learning how to cycle on streets. Read it, Digest it, and you’ll be a safer and happier cyclist.

4 thoughts

  1. Excellent safety points! In the sixties I rode a bike ( I lived in Japan from 1959-64 where bikes were common) and then came back to the States where the car was king. But I bucked the norms and kept riding my bike through high school & college. Hard to believe now but back in those days I never gave a thought to wearing a helmet! But I did follow most of safety tips you listed intuitivly. . . . & I’m here to tell about it.
    In my thirtys I rode motorcycles for a time but followed some of the same rules. Thank you for laying them out so clearly.

  2. Very good road riding rules. I do basically the same thing, and have ridden over 250,000 miles without any major accident (PRAISE THE LORD). I have been using the bicycle for transportation since I was very young (yes, I do have a car, and it gets great gas mileage sitting in the driveway!!!). I do a lot of night riding to/from activities. I have 2 high intensity flashing tail lights (Planet Bike) on the top bar of the seat back on both of my recumbents, 2 headlights to see whats in front of me, and a third head light(wider angel) for the cars to see me!

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