cycling safety

Cycling Safety: Are You There Driver? It’s Me, Mara.

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By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor

The weather is warming up, and there are already more bikes and more cars on the road. It’s not just a seasonal phenomenon either: According to an analysis by the League of American Bicyclists using the latest U.S. census data, in some cities the number of people commuting by bike has increased more than 400% over the past three decades.

Still, any kind of bike riding remains a novel activity for the vast majority of Americans. It’s trickier to calculate the total number of folks out pedaling because the census doesn’t track recreational riders, but according to a 2015 People for Bikes survey conducted by the Breakaway Research Group, only 32% of people reported getting on a bike at all in the last year. For those who did ride, not all did so regularly: the median frequency was a bit more than once a month.

That survey also reported that 52% of people are afraid of getting hit by a motor vehicle while bike riding. If we want to expand the reach of our cycling community, we need safer streets — admittedly not always an easy task. Last spring, I wrote a CTS blog about the importance of each cyclist doing his or her part to follow the rules of the road in order to create a safer ecosystem for us all. This year, I’m sharing an excerpt of a column I wrote about bike-car relations for my hometown newspaper, proposing a contract of compromises for road users. It was written with a humorous slant, but I still think it contains quite a few grains of truth.

To the drivers of the world, from one avid cyclist:

I promise I will always signal clearly. I hope you will too. We will all move predictably. Should I run up on roadkill, glass, or a manhole cover, I will make sure the coast is clear before entering your lane, and I’d love it if you would do the same. Acts of mysterious drifting will be avoided by all parties at all costs.

In exchange for you a) passing at a distance that doesn’t ruffle my arm hair, and b) toning down the type of from-behind honking that is more likely to result in a change in underwear than behavior, I will only ride two-abreast in places it is allowed, and will stay on the shoulder when safe and possible to do so.

If we enter an intersection from opposite directions, you’re turning left and I’m going straight, you will not, under any circumstances, smash me. If you are pulling out of a side street, you will look twice. In return, I will not disembark sidewalks like a human-sized jack-in-the-box on wheels, and I will always have a bright tail and headlight with me — I’ll even use them.

I will not dart erratically through parking lots, so long as you back up slowly. I will do my best to not make fun of you when you have to pay for parking or when you can’t find a spot, so long as you feign sympathy when I am fumbling on my expedition mittens in a sleet storm or trudging my flat-tired steed to the nearest shop.

When I put out a request on Twitter for “pet peeves about cyclists” (I didn’t want to miss anything important), one gentleman mentioned that he didn’t like it much when riders blow snot on his car, a form of retaliation that I had honestly never considered. Though entertained, I promise I won’t take up the habit.

I will never listen to music so loudly that I can’t hear you, as long as you don’t get so distracted by texting so that you can’t see me. Come to think of it, I won’t text either. We’ll make that one universal. No. Texting.

Above all, I know I have to take full responsibility for my own safety. Nonetheless, as the combined powers of physics and combustion engines would have it, my life also sort of lies in your hands. Please remember that, because it is very real.

With respect,

Mara

While we wait for the signatories to start lining up, here are a few things you can do yourself to stay safe on your bike this season.

  1. Wear bright colors – I spent three years riding for teams with either navy blue or black kits, and my mom frequently asked if I couldn’t get a contract with a competing team whose jerseys were fluorescent yellow. Bright colors help you stand out to drivers, and studies have shown the effect to be even stronger if the color is on a part of your clothing that is subject to regular movement, like socks, shoes, or even the hem of your shorts.
  2. Add a light – Over the last few years, I’ve seen more and more people use a flashing taillight when training during the daytime (including big boss Chris Carmichael!) A flashing light is another great way to catch a driver’s eye, and if you’re ever caught out in the dark, you’ll already be prepared.
  3. Know the hazards – The more miles we put in, the more familiar we become with the typical situations that can lead to a bike-car crash. Here is a fun animated guide to a few of them that includes “how-to avoid” tips for both cyclists and drivers. It concisely distills many of the things riders know instinctively, and is even a great resource to share with the drivers in your life if you are feeling particularly brave.
  4. Pick “low-stress” routes when possible – The most direct route out of my neighborhood is a heavily travelled road with a narrow bike lane. There is also a dedicated bike path that can take me to the same area, but my ride is about a mile longer. I’ll admit that I don’t always take the bike path, but I try to make a point to during rush hour or busy event days. Take a look at some of your common routes, and see if there are modifications you can make to use paths or neighborhoods rather than main thoroughfares. A few extra minutes of riding is worth it if it helps you get home safely.

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Comments 19

  1. Mara,

    Your heart-felt letter to motorists is so needed! It’s going to take the involvement of all parties on the road if we are going to see biking as a growing reality in all towns and cities and if we are going to keep tragedies from occurring at their current alarming rate!

  2. I have lived in Evanston, IL and visited Fort Collins, CO, both bike-friendly cities that not only have safe, useful bike lanes and trails, they also have thoroughfares designated for motor vehicles only, i.e. “Bicycles Prohibited”. If we as bicycle users would loosen our grip on our rights to the road just enough to share our entire townships, not just each road we happen to be using, it would go a long way to improving the vehicular relationships that are often strained, at best. And I agree with others here, that a friendly display of gratitude to the driver who chose not to kill you makes a positive difference for both of you. Thanks for the humorous approach to a serious issue.

  3. Great article, thank you!
    I have to make noise about a particular TV show that aired this week! “Blackish” was all about being a good person, but in the last few minutes of the show was mind-blowing. “So I can swerve to scare cyclists” , “I’ve done it a few times” and then they both have a good laugh about it!
    Watch it – you’ll be as angry as I am!

  4. Great article and comments. Agreed on waving is one of the best ways of sharing the road. I like to remember that driver’s peripheral vision is being used when approaching cyclists from the rear. Peripheral vision is attracted to movement. Use the bright colors on feet, hands, and helmet… along with the jersey. Also, use the flashy tail light, just not in rave mode.

  5. I think cyclists ought to demand bike shorts that aren’t black.. 90% of the ones I see in shops and online are. Why not red and orange or neon green or yellow. I understand the historical tradition why they are black.. but traditions don’t make cyclists safer.

  6. Great article Mara, now all you and we need is to put this message out there where non-cycling car drivers will read it (you mentioned Twitter for example-great). We need to engage non-cyclist in a friendly exchange of understanding at a time and place that is appropriate not on the road. For example from the car drivers point of view anyone riding a bike is a cyclist and we here know that is not true. No helmet or kit, riding on the sidewalk or crosswalks, and just indigently riding thru traffic like an entitled fool is not a cyclist. Just like all drivers are not going to harm you because they empathize or understand the impact of their actions and choices in a 4000# vehicle or are cyclist using their car, but we can’t always tell that initially-be aware of your surroundings. The single problem it always comes down to is one thing, the problem is US! We always try to fix behavior by all means we can other than to change the behavior whether is it cycling, driving, use of cell phones or drinking and driving, or any other human activity and interaction. Be aware, be kind, and think of everyone getting home safe each day by our choices in all we do and our interactions.

  7. “I will never listen to music so loudly that I can’t hear you, as long as you don’t get so distracted by texting so that you can’t see me.”

    Is it necessary to listen to music at all? Anything reducing ambient sounds will affect your situational awareness. This is an issue even with running on trails; I have to assume it’s a much bigger issue when cycling on roads.

    1. I did listen to music while I trained, but I long ago made a deal with my mom to only put an earbud in my right ear (traffic is to the left) so I could hear cars behind me.

      1. Where I live (in the mountains, north of Montréal, province of Québec, Canada), it is simply illegal to ride with ear buds or headphones….the fine is between $80 and $100. But then so is using your phone (texting, talking, entering a destination, anything) while driving and the penalties are severe. What can I say, I live in the socialist hell north of the 49th.

      2. Great tip Mara! I have done the same for years and feel very comfortable with the ability to hear traffic on the left. I would not remotely consider riding with buds in both ears.

        Most clubs discourage or don’t allow earphones in group rides, which makes good sense for the safety of the group. If everyone abided by the right-ear only rule it might be acceptable, but most wouldn’t.

    2. I’m with you on this one Bernard. In addition to our own attentiveness, wearing earbuds sends a message to drivers that we are not paying attention. Mara has once again written a great article. But she probably has an old, bad habit that she isn’t willing to give up.

    3. In response to listening to music……..
      If the guy in Colorado had been wearing earbuds (which he said he did frequently) when attacked by a cougar while trail running he would most likely be dead! Instead the cougar is!

  8. Great article. Every time I go out for a ride, I go back home thinking about the need of a better relationship between cyclists and drivers. After all, a bad driver is a potential killer.
    But as in any other situations in life, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly.
    Yesterday afternoon, I was riding in the countryside, it was windy and chilly so it was a tough ride. The roads I ride are not busy but in many cases, drivers who were passing me from behind, did not take the time to leave enough space between their cars and my elbow, even having the full road empty for them.
    However, something that made me smile was this nice guy who was coming from the opposite direction and needed to turn left. He had “enough time” to push the gas and turn in front of me, but he stopped and decided to wait for me. Normally, when I see that somebody is waiting for me, I push harder so I make them wait a few microseconds less, so I did the same. This guy saw I was trying to go faster for him, so he rolled down the window and waved, thanking me for that little act of respect.
    We can do great things with small acts. We all can.

  9. Lots of good points, Mara. Clothing is a big issue. It seems that many makers of cycling apparel think that black is the only color! One would think it would be standard for every jersey to be offered in a bright, high visibility color but apparently the goal of most cyclists is to blend in with the asphalt.

    1. Amen on the clothes! I’ve lost four cycling friends to motor vehicles and I go nowhere, night or day, without flashing lights front and rear, even on rural roads. I always wear bright colors. Yet every day, I see riders who are essentially invisible, blending into the road. From a distance, they look like mailboxes. I am consistently amazed that the publications like Bicycling continue to run ads and articles with riders in black, gray, or other dark colors. Even high-quality companies like Rapha produce a line that is largely muted colors. I don’t get it. You’d think they’d want subscribers and customers to LIVE so they could buy more!

  10. I ride on highways quite often and as most of you cyclists that have, it is quite tricky and potentially dangerous.
    I always have my Bontrager front and rear lights blazing, and ever since I purchased a helmet mirror, I will never leave home without it on my helmet. My mirror is the third eye, keeping watch of vehicles coming up from the rear of me!
    I live in a rural area and the country folk/hillbillies drive like they are all in the Daytona 500!
    No lie! They’re miniacs, driving 2-3 thousand pound road cycling steamrollers!
    My wife will not go cycling with me when I take the highway we live by, that’s how risky it is, but I like to go for long road trips without dealing with the stop and go of inner city cycling.
    I try to wave to as many motorist’s as possible. One, out of respect, and two, to gain as many allies on the road as possible.
    I look at it this way. Driving a car had its risks, walking down a city street has its risks, too. Every day circumstances have there risks.
    One has to be thinking ahead all the time, being ready to react in case of an emergency.
    Be safe fellow cyclists!

  11. As an active cyclist and commuter I honestly think cyclists should go out of our way to BE COURTEOUS as well as demand certain legal rights.
    Smiling, Waving and Thanking drivers when they do the right thing can go a
    Long way to keep the “jerk cyclist thinks he owns the road” mentality from being so pervasive.

    1. I have found that waving is a powerful tool.

      Not only is it polite, but if a motor vehicle driver has returned my wave… I know that they see me and I suspect that the risk of their hitting me is far diminished.

      I think that the impact on their behavior is two fold: first, if they wave back they have seen me; second, if they have waved we have a superficial social relationship which may make them more inclined to behave safely toward me.

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