Toolbox: Street Survival
Many people are afraid to get on a bicycle because they are uncomfortable riding in traffic. Motorists may honk with annoyance at cyclists, often leaving the rider confused about what aggravated the driver in the first place. Most cyclists will tolerate traffic but may be uncertain how to behave or react in different situations. What can you do to minimize your risk when riding a bicycle in traffic?
By John Howard
Most motorists have a general agenda, that is, they want to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, whether the objective is getting to work, going to a sporting event, or to the mall. Anything that impedes the progress of a goal-driven motorist is frequently viewed with impatience and irritation. Bicyclists have many agendas, which include training rides for future competition, commuting to work for exercise, social group rides, or a casual cruise with friends. Whatever the reason for being on a bicycle, motorists generally perceive the cyclist’s objective as being less urgent than his or her own.
If you live in an urban environment, riding your bicycle in traffic is inevitable, and a physical confrontation between a bicycle and an automobile is likely to end badly for the cyclist and his machine. Safe handling of your bike in traffic and maintaining a flexible attitude toward motorists must be your top priorities. You cannot take the mental approach that you have certain rights to the road that automobile drivers are required to observe; you must take responsibility for minimizing the opportunities for them to do you harm. Do not make the potentially fatal mistake of expecting them to look out for you!
Plan your routes to avoid busy, dangerous intersections and heavily congested roads. Do your interval training on rollers or a trainer. This will allow you to focus on the intensity of your training without the distraction of having to worry about motor vehicles. If possible, avoid riding in traffic in rainy conditions. Automobile tires kick up gritty water that may compromise your ability to see, and bike handling can be tricky on wet, slippery roads. If you have ever had your wheels go out from under you while cornering on a slippery road in traffic, then you are well aware of how frightening it is to be on the ground and virtually invisible to approaching vehicles.
Be an Ambassador on the Road
Another extremely important concept to recognize is your role as an ambassador for cyclists. The motorist who becomes angry with a cyclist on one day is more likely to vent his or her frustration on other riders encountered in the future. Some common courtesies to observe that will work to improve motorist/cyclist relationships include:
• Do not block vehicles from making a right turn on a red light. Move over as far to the left as possible, even if you must move into the intersection a little.
• Do not ride two and three riders abreast on a busy road and obstruct the progress of automobile traffic.
• Stop your bike to talk on your cell phone. Both of your hands should be available to take evasive action if you need to maneuver out of danger quickly.
• Behave in a predictable manner and maximize your visibility to motorists by wearing brightly colored clothing and/or lights. Clearly indicate lane changes with hand signals, and make eye contact with drivers before proceeding.
• When a motorist extends you a courtesy, such as waiting for you or motioning you to proceed, acknowledge the action with a friendly wave and a smile.
• If a driver performs a dangerous maneuver, avoid getting angry, shouting obscenities, or making rude hand gestures. If possible, calmly explain the situation and why it posed a hazard, and that will do a lot more to increase bicycle awareness and diffuse hostility.
Common Clashes with Automobiles
There are some automobile/bicycle incidents that occur with more frequency that you should anticipate and be prepared to take evasive action to avoid:
• A motorist blocks or is stopped to the left of the bike lane waiting to make a right turn. Do NOT attempt to pass on the right. Remain behind the vehicle or to its left if there is sufficient space. If you cannot see the driver in the car’s side view mirror or rear view mirror, you are invisible. You can never assume that the motorist is aware of your presence or that he or she will behave appropriately if you ARE seen.
• An automobile increases its speed to pass you and abruptly makes a right turn in your path. Anticipate this and be prepared to brake and/or evade the vehicle depending on the traffic to your left.
• A motorist approaches an intersection from the opposite direction and makes a left turn in your path. ALWAYS exercise caution when you approach an intersection. Drivers aren’t looking for cyclists, so you must ride defensively to avoid a tragic confrontation. If the driver tentatively starts to turn in front of you, it often helps to extend your upraised, flat hand in a gesture that says “STOP”!
A less common, but more potentially dangerous incident occurs when a motorist overtakes a cyclist on the road and fails to see the cyclist, striking him or her from behind. According to cycling attorney and friend Bob Mionske, these incidents account for only 1.3% of automobile/bicycle confrontations. However, they are responsible for 50% of serious injuries and fatalities.
Most of us who ride bicycles also drive cars, so keep your own personal experiences with the dynamics and frustrations that drivers face in traffic in mind. I’m especially vigilant about riding on Friday afternoons. Most of the confrontations that I have had with motorists have occurred on Fridays. Be aware of potential hazards, assume responsibility for your own safety, and behave in a courteous manner toward motorists, and your cycling experience will be significantly safer and more enjoyable.
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.