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Buying a Bicycle -- A Basic Guide: Safe Cycling

WATCH OUT FOR THE CARS! That was the extent of safety instruction I received from my parents when I got my first bike. Translated into today’s world, that may have been, “Always wear your helmet.” Makes good sense, but falls far short of an adequate preparation for safe cycling. I, for one, soon learned that running into a parked car while anxiously watching out for moving ones was a quick way of earning my first ride in an ambulance, and you may experience something similar if you put all your faith in that helmet and not enough in using its content—your head.

If you think you bought a mountain bike and you’re going to ride it off-road, and therefore don’t have to worry about any of this, think again. Cycling-related injuries of most types are about as likely to occur off-road as on the road. True, you’re not likely to be hit by a car, but out in nature there are equally formidable risks, and most of the material covered in this section will apply off-road as much as it does if you ride mainly on paved roads.

The vast majority of bicycle injuries, including the most severe, are the result of the rider falling off the bike. Whether or not another party is involved—a motor vehicle, a bicycle, a pedestrian, or an animal—your skill in keeping control over the bike is crucially important.

Most accidents happen where there are others around—in other words, on the road—because that’s where most cycling is done. Per mile ridden, separate bike paths are at least as accident-prone as regular roads. Even off-road, in terrain only accessible to mountain bikers, you’ll be at risk.

The seriousness of the accident is of course another factor. The majority of very serious and fatal accidents involve head injury, many of those as the result of a collision with a motor vehicle. So, although that helmet won’t ward off any accidents, it certainly tends to lessen the injury level of any fall on your head. Wear your helmet, and stay just as alert as you would be if you were not wearing it.

Let’s divide all injuries into two groups—those resulting from falls and collisions with stationary objects, and those resulting from collisions with moving objects (motor vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, and animals). The first category is referred to as “single participant accidents,” the second one as “multiple participant accidents.”

Single Participant Accidents

The way to prevent this category is to learn to handle your bike, and the basics of that were outlined in Section 9, “Getting Familiar with Your Bike.” In addition to mastering the maneuvering skills associated with balancing, steering, and braking, you’ll also have to work on your level of awareness. Think about what you’re doing, where you’re going, what may be in your path, and how you have to react to follow a safe path or avoid suddenly appearing obstacles. Consciously continue to practice and perfect your skills with the exercises described in Section 9. Eventually, you’ll gain the level of experience that helps you avoid falls and accidents (and makes riding a bike more fun).

Be aware of the particular kind of hazard you’re likely to encounter, and prepare for it. In wet weather off-road, you’ll have to deal with muddy terrain, and you should expect not only to get stuck in muddy puddles, but also to be aware of the deterioration of brake performance in wet weather.

On slick surfaces, you’re more likely to skid, causing loss of control when braking, steering, or accelerating. You can control that risk by not doing anything very abruptly—don’t lean into the curves too much (take them gently rather than suddenly), brake gently, and accelerate gradually.

On rough and loose surfaces, you’ll encounter similar problems as with slick surfaces, but they’re even more unpredictable if you’re not fully aware of the surfaces. Learn to judge where the terrain is loose and where there’s a solid patch. Use this information to decide where you can safely turn, brake or accelerate, and where you have to avoid such maneuvers.

Particularly tricky are ridges in the surface that run diagonally across your path. Even worse are those that run parallel to it and so close that you have difficulty avoiding getting caught in them. Examples are erosion ruts on unpaved trails and railway tracks on roads.

The trick is to cross them perpendicularly with the bike upright. Achieve that by making the necessary diverting maneuver well ahead of the problem, and straightening out the bike before you get there, staying upright long enough by correcting your path only after you have safely crossed it. On the open road, make sure nobody’s following you so closely as to be a threat to your, or the other party’s, safety when you make the maneuver, and perhaps later have to veer out into the road farther than your regular path. Slow down and let the vehicle following pass first if necessary.

Multiple Participant Accidents

Most of the accidents in this category are highly avoidable. After all, they involve two parties and each party has a chance of taking avoiding action. The message is: use your head, and don’t only think of what you’re about to do, but also think about how it affects others, and how you can avoid an accident potentially caused by the other participant’s mistake.

The first and simplest rule is to be predictable. Stay on a steady course, and don’t do anything that forces you into a position from which you’ll have to make a sudden diversion. An example is riding along a road with parked cars. Stay on a straight course far enough from those cars not to be endangered by doors suddenly opening. If you skip in and out between parked cars, following motorists won’t be aware that you may suddenly have to move some six feet toward the center of the road, and you put yourself into jeopardy every time you do.

The second rule is to look. Look behind you before you start out and before making any maneuver that may interfere with the path of following drivers or cyclists. If someone is close enough to be hindered or endangered by your maneuver, wait until he or she has passed you. To alert those who are farther behind, give a hand signal to indicate what you’re about to do. Legal hand signals for cyclists include extending the right arm for a right turn in most states of the U.S. (and probably just about everywhere else with right-hand traffic). Check your state’s driver’s hand guide if you’re in doubt. Where the extended right arm is not legal, you’ll be expected to raise your left hand up to signal a right turn. To indicate that you’re about to slow down or stop, swing the left arm up and down (the right hand in countries with left-hand traffic). To turn left, extend the left arm.

Even more important than those signals is your position in the road as a predictor of what you’re about to do. If you want to go straight at an intersection, don’t hug the outside edge of the road, but move boldly into the middle of the appropriate lane after having looked behind you and judged a safe time to do so. To turn left, depending on the number of separate traffic lanes, move close to the center of the road or into a lane dedicated to left-turning traffic. Again, if you’re riding in a country with left- hand traffic, make the logical corrections to these instructions.

Finally on this subject, learn to interpret the other drivers’ behavior for clues to their future actions. A car that’s hugging the curb probably intends to turn right, and one close to the center of the road probably intends to turn left. Slowing down suggests uncertainty and perhaps a sudden stop. Move into a position in which you are not going to run into that car if it does stop. Don’t do anything abruptly, and always first look to make sure it’s safe to carry out your maneuver.

People make mistakes. Others do, and if you’re human, you will too at some point. In traffic, we’re all dependent on an intricate interaction between different people, each of whom should be willing to make allowances for one another’s mistakes. As a cyclist, you’re more fragile and vulnerable than most other traffic participants. That probably means you have to give in to other people’s mistakes, and even aggressive behavior, more often than you would in a car. Accept that as a fact of life, and take every action necessary to avoid endangering both yourself and others, even if the other driver is “at fault.”

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