Itís a hot summer day. (Isnít it always in our cycling fantasies?) Youíre riding down the side of the road, hair blowing in the wind, pedaling smoothly into an intersection, when suddenly a car pulls out from a side street right in front of you. You slam on your brakes, but itís too late. Your front tire impacts the rear driverís-side door and the next thing you know, youíre flying through the air. You land heavily on your right shoulder and your head hits the pavement. When you wake up you have a severe headache, your vision is blurry, and your neck and shoulders are in a brace. Youíre lucky to be alive.
Not the sort of fantasy we want to have about cycling, is it? But for many, itís all too real a possibility. While we canít possibly avoid every bad thing that could happen to us, abiding by a few simple safety rules can make them less likely, and make it less likely that weíll get hurt if we are in an accident.
First and foremost, wear your helmet! No, most of us didnít wear one when we were kids and we survived just fine. I donít know about you, but I rely on my brain not only to keep me alive, but to allow me to earn a living. I want to protect it at all costs. In the fantasy above, the riderís hair was blowing in the wind, a pretty sure sign of that she wasnít wearing a helmet. Further evidence was the signs of a concussion. While a helmet may not protect you from every injury, it gives your fragile brain a much better chance of surviving an impact uninjured. Every discussion Iíve ever read about wearing helmets has included innumerable stories about people whose helmets were crushed instead of their heads. If your helmet has been involved in a crash, however minor, or is more than a few years old, replace it. The foam in helmets can break down over time, decreasing its effectiveness. A helmet that has been crushed, however slightly, is also less effective. Get a new one and wear it.
Follow the rules of the road. Anytime youíre riding on a street, highway or country road, you are just another vehicle with the same rights and responsibilities of cars, trucks and semis. This means that you should ride in the same direction as traffic, stop at lights and signs, turn from the appropriate lanes, and use hand signals.
You do know the hand signals, right? Hold your left arm straight out to the side to signal a left turn. Bend your elbow and hold your left hand up to signal a right turn. Bend your elbow and hold your left down (pointing at the ground) to indicate that you are going to stop.
If you can safely ride on the shoulder of the road, do so. Donít, however, leave yourself nowhere to go if a passing car pulls too close to you. If you canít ride safely on the shoulder, take the lane. You have as much right as a car to be on the road if there are so many intersections you canít ride on the shoulder without risking being hit, if youíre going downhill at speed, if cars parked along the side of the street pose a hazard, or for any other reason in which your safety is in question.
Avoid riding on sidewalks. Not only are you a hazard to pedestrians, motorists arenít expecting you to be there and wonít see you as you ride across intersections. If you must ride on a sidewalk, behave like youíre walking. Stop at all intersections, even driveways, and walk across streets. Whatever you do, donít suddenly switch from the street to the sidewalk or vice versa to take advantage of lights or crosswalks. It is critical that you be consistent so that motorists will better be able to predict what you are going to do and avoid hitting you.
Be as visible as possible while you ride. The primary reason cyclists get hit by cars is because motorists didnít see them. Wear brightly colored clothes (itís amazing how far away you can see bright or neon yellow). Use reflectors everywhere: on your clothes, bike, helmet and accessories. If youíre riding at night, use both a headlight and a taillight, and maybe even a helmet light so you can always see where youíre looking. Go overboard; you canít be too visible.
Given that motorists arenít looking for you, you have to be looking for them. Keep your eyes moving, always assessing each intersection, each parked car, and the traffic around you for hazards. If you donít like riding with traffic because you canít see the cars coming up behind you, buy and use a mirror. Your safety is your responsibility, so pay attention.
In addition to using your eyes to maintain situational awareness, you should also be using your ears. You can often hear things around you that you canít see. You canít hear, however, if your ears are plugged and youíre zoned out to music. As enticing as it might be to listen to music while you ride, donít. If you must, try just using one headphone in the ear that faces away from traffic.
If you have children, it is even more important that you model safe cycling habits and teach them to the kids. When I ride with my daughter, we always wear our helmets. At all times, but especially when weíre on a road, I keep up a running commentary of what Iím looking at, what decisions Iím making, and how Iím keeping us safe. Kids imitate what they see; make sure they imitate you being safe.
Ride safe and have fun!