Cycling Safety and Etiquette

On my way to work yesterday I was either forced to stop or move off the road by four different motorists who were not paying attention. In every case, I was watching the driver and expected them to see me after the incident and at least give me a wave as an apology. I was expecting too much. Not one driver ever knew I was there.

This brought to the forefront of my mind something I already knew. We cyclists are like ants on a sidewalk and if we are not careful we could get squashed.  We need to assume that our safety is one hundred percent our responsibility. I know there are laws protecting our rights on the roads, but as I mentioned my last post, The Ignorant Motorist, some people don’t know that.

There are two types of drivers that concern me most:

  • The distracted driver – This is the most dangerous person on the road. These are people who have other things on their mind and do not look both ways as they come to an intersection. Some people will drive over a sidewalk and then look to see who is coming. Every driver is a potential threat. Never assume someone will see you or obey the traffic laws.
  • The stressed-out driver – This person is wound very tight and the smallest thing will set them off. I recently  had someone lay on their horn because I caused them to slow one or two seconds early before their turn. Most of these people won’t try to run you down but they will try to squeeze past you when it is not safe to do so. This type of driver is more of a challenge.

My first suggestion is to carefully plan your route if you can. I use Google Maps or Google Earth. These programs can give you a street level view so you know what the roads are like. I try to keep my ride to trails, back roads and streets with bike lanes as much as possible.

My other suggestion is to consider the driver. Help them out as much as possible. If you are courteous to drivers, you not only keep them from snapping, you might even help other cyclists by giving that driver a more positive image of all cyclists.

If you are riding for time or trying to push your limits, you may not be able to do everything I suggest here, but do what you can. I always use hand signals when I ride so that drivers know what my intentions are. This helps both them and me. I also try to keep from slowing them down as much as possible. I have a mirror on my helmet so I can see when someone is behind me and I try to make it easy for them to pass. If they can’t pass because of traffic, I speed up. If they can pass, I might slow down so they can pass quicker. Sometimes if cars back up behind me, I will move to the sidewalk until the road is clear and then move back.

One word of caution. I sometimes tend to ride as far over as possible but have found this to be a bad idea for two reasons. When there is heavy traffic, drivers tend to try to squeeze past you without moving into the other lane, and there is a risk that you will hit the edge of the road and lose control just as a car is passing you.

I had a hard time finding specific data on how safe cycling was compared to driving but I did find this report  from the Department of Transportation. It reports that cyclists accounted for 1 percent of the traffic but 1.9 percent of fatalities were cyclists. This seems high but it also shows the District of Columbia as being the hardest hit. This indicates to me that urban cycling is much more dangerous.

This post is not ment to be pessimistic. I believe cycling can be very safe, even safer than driving, but only if you take responsibility and always pay attention to what is going on around you.


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