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An Essential Cyclist Safety Guide for Riders and Motorists

Cyclists on Vancouver Seawall with view of downtown Vancouver

Vehicle and motorcycle drivers understand that there are certain rules that make things safer for everyone on the roads. However, they may not know that there are specific guidelines for dealing with cyclists. Likewise, riders must obey certain traffic laws to keep things safe for themselves and motorists. However, you don’t need a license to ride a bike. That’s why it’s even more important to educate both drivers and cyclists about safety on the road.

How Common Are Bicycle Accidents Involving Vehicles?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 2 percent of all traffic deaths in 2014 involved bicyclists. In fact, 726 cyclists were killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2014. Bicycle accidents are most likely to happen in urban areas between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Automobile drivers have a shell of protection surrounding them. Bicyclists don’t. According to the League of American Bicyclists, the number of motorist deaths has decreased in recent years, but the number of cyclist fatalities has gone up.

What happens to an automobile driver in a car that crashes while going 25 mph is very different than what happens to a cyclist in the same type of accident. For that reason, some provinces are enforcing Vulnerable Road User (VRU) laws, which increase protection for riders.

Although these laws are not yet widespread, they are bringing attention to the importance of road safety. In areas that have VRU laws, motorists may be subject to increased penalties if they are involved in a collision with a cyclist.

Even if your area doesn’t have a VRU law, understanding that bicyclists are vulnerable can help motorists have more patience when sharing the road with them. According to Tim Blumenthal, the president of People for Bikes, the bicyclist always loses when he or she is involved in a crash with a vehicle.

Familiarize Yourself with The Laws

Laws for cyclists, including helmet laws, vary from state to state. Whether you’re a cyclist or a driver, you should know the laws.

In most areas, a bicycle is considered a vehicle, and riders must follow the same traffic laws as drivers. That means that they should stop at red lights and stop signs and yield to traffic that has the right of way.

Cyclists should ride on the right side of the road along with traffic. It is unsafe (and often illegal) to ride against traffic. If you’re a beginning cyclist, you might think that riding against traffic is safer because you can see oncoming cars and bail out if they get too close.

However, Parade reports that the primary cause of bike-vehicle collisions is cyclists that are riding on the wrong side of the street. Few riders are hit from behind.

If you think about it, this makes sense. A car can drive slowly behind a bike going in the same direction for as long as necessary to gain room to pass the cyclist. If the cyclist is coming at the car and both vehicles are moving, if there is not enough room for both of them on the street, they will crash unless they both come to a standstill. It’s unreasonable to expect a car to stop completely in moving traffic.

Cars at intersections are used to looking in a certain direction for oncoming traffic. If the cyclist is moving with the cars, he or she will be visible. If you’re a cyclist who is riding against traffic, a car pulling onto the road may not see you. Pedestrians may also walk out in front of you, increasing your risk of hitting someone with your bike.

Cyclists who follow traffic laws are more likely to be treated like a vehicle by drivers. In other words, they are more likely to be seen, avoided and not harmed. Sharing the roadway with vehicles leads to fewer accidents.

Riding Position

Don’t Ride on The Sidewalk

A study published at Bicycling Life reported that it is more dangerous to ride on the sidewalk than on the road. The greatest risk is for adults traveling on a sidewalk against the flow of traffic. In fact, riding the wrong way on a sidewalk is 4.5 times more hazardous than riding the right way on a sidewalk.

At intersections and driveways, cars are more likely to notice cyclists that are riding on the street. Cyclists moving on and off of a sidewalk are more likely to be hit.

Stay Away from The Curb

Riders should also ride two to three feet away from the curb. This is counterintuitive, because it typically puts you on the edge of the bike lane closest to traffic. However, these are some reasons why giving yourself more space is safer:

  • You force cars to move into the other lane to go around you.
  • If you ride close to the curb, cars are more likely to squeeze by and give you less space.
  • More obstacles gather close to the curb than in the roadway.
  • If you have to veer out of an obstacle’s way, cars have already given you space, and you’re less likely to run into them.

Travel in The Vehicle Lane If Necessary

When you’re on a road lined with parked cars, it is generally safer to ride in the vehicle lane. This prevents you from weaving in and out when you approach the parked cars. Your movements are more predictable to drivers.

It also allows you to leave at least three feet of distance between you and the parked car. A driver may not look for bicyclists when he or she opens the door of a parked car. This poses a risk to the cyclist.

According to Yield To Life, there are some cases in which it’s safer for a cyclist to get in the lane with moving traffic. If the rider is going the same speed as the cars, he or she may be more visible in the center of the car lane instead of off to the side. This is especially true when turning at an intersection.

It can be tempting for cyclists to move over into a turning lane to allow cars to pass even if the rider is going straight. Weaving in and out of empty spaces makes you less predictable to drivers. So does passing vehicles on the right. Stay in the lane with the vehicles, drive straight and wait your turn.

Eye Contact

As the driver of a bicycle or motor vehicle, it’s helpful to make eye contact with other drivers. Bicyclists crossing an intersection will have confidence that they have been spotted if they catch the eye of a motorist. Motor vehicle drivers can better predict what a cyclist will do if they obtain eye contact.

Eye contact is not always possible. However, eye contact can help remind drivers that a real person is maneuvering a bicycle and gain riders more respect on the road.

Alerting Pedestrians

In some cases, cyclists will ride on a greenway or pedestrian path. When sharing a route with pedestrians, it’s important for cyclists to let them know that they’re coming up behind them.

Shouting something like “On your left” can have the opposite result from its intention. Pedestrians who are not familiar with cyclists may freeze or jump into the lane in front of the cyclist.

Cyclists may wish to announce themselves with a phrase such as “Coming up behind you!” They should announce themselves early enough to shout it again if necessary. Riders should also slow down when passing pedestrians, especially if they’re not sure whether the pedestrians noticed them.

Wearing Headphones

According to BicycleLaw, most states (and provinces) do not have laws preventing cyclists from wearing headphones. Florida is one state that does restrict cyclists from listening to music through earphones while riding. However, the ban does not seem to have reduced the number of cycling deaths.  You will want to check your local laws with respect to the legality of wearing headphones or earbuds while cycling.  

Still, researchers have found that listening to music may make cyclists less observant which can increase the chance of crashing causing personal injury. Important audio cues can tell cyclists when traffic is approaching. Riders may not hear warnings, like a car horn, that can alert them to danger.

If you do wear headphones while cycling, keep one earbud out and make sure that the volume is not preventing you from hearing outside noise.

What about using headphones while driving a motor vehicle? Most states in the US have no laws against it, according to a report by Lifehacker and AAA. In some states, it’s completely illegal, and in others, there are specific details indicating how to use headphones while driving.  In British Columbia, you are permitted to wear an earbud or listening device in one ear.

Wearing headphones while driving can be more distracting than listening to the radio. Some headphones can drown out the sound of sirens and other cautionary road noises. The wire can also get in the way of your steering. Bluetooth headsets are allowed in most states and as stated above, one listening device is permitted in BC.

Even if the law says that you’re allowed to wear headphones, if you’re pulled over, the authorities may consider your use of headphones as reckless or negligent.

Should Cyclists Wear Helmets?

Properly fitted bicycle helmets can prevent some head trauma in a crash. However, states that they may not prevent death in a serious collision. If you’re a cyclist, don’t assume that wearing the proper safety gear will save you in an accident.

The helmets that are widely available today are not designed to protect against concussion, according to Bicycling magazine. Some research even shows that helmet laws may discourage safer cyclists from taking to the road. That leaves the speed demons, who weave through traffic on fancy bikes with their high-end helmets, compromising their safety and the security of motor vehicle drivers.

Helmet laws vary from place to place. It’s up to state and city governments to set and enforce laws concerning bicycle helmets. Helmet laws began to be enforced in 1987. Most of them only involve children under the age of 18.

However, some areas have found that enforcing helmet laws is ineffective and even expensive. In 2012, the New York Times reported that one Washington town reversed its helmet laws to cut back on lawsuits and costly enforcement efforts.

The bottom line is that if you’re a cyclist, relying on a helmet isn’t going to help you stay safe in every scenario. Following safety guidelines comprehensively will.

Driving and Riding Under the Influence

You know that it’s not safe to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The same goes for operating a bicycle. The NHTSA reports that about 20 percent of bicyclists who died in accidents had blood alcohol levels that exceed the legal level for motorists.

Additional tips for cycling safety in British Columbia here.

Safety Tips for Automobile Drivers

Expect Bicyclists to Be On The Road

Riders are entitled to the same rights as automobile drivers. Drivers should treat riders like slow-moving cars.

It’s important for motorists to understand that cyclists have the right to use the road. Some motorists wonder why cyclists don’t just stay on the sidewalks. Drivers with this kind of philosophy may not give riders the distance they need to operate safely.

Have Patience

Patience is crucial when operating a motor vehicle on the same road as bicycles. When it comes to sharing the road with bicycles, patience may involve:

  • Avoiding tailgating
  • Allowing cyclists additional time to move through intersections
  • Giving cyclists the right of way in situations that call for it.

Be Careful When Turning

If a car is turning right at an intersection, it’s possible that a bicyclist is to the right and/or behind the vehicle, intending to go straight. If the car doesn’t signal the right turn, the bicyclist could plow into the car. If the cyclist is in front of the car, it’s not safe for the car to speed up to make the turn ahead of the cyclist. The driver should wait for the cyclist to proceed before turning.

Automobiles are at risk of colliding with bicycles when making left turns too. An article explains that drivers often expect bikes to be moving more slowly than they are.

As a car speeds up to turn left in front of an oncoming bicycle, the driver may not realize that the bike was moving so quickly. This scenario can easily end up in a collision. Yielding to the bike as you would another car can prevent an accident.

Whether you’re operating a bicycle or a motor vehicle, being patient and following traffic laws is your best bet for staying safe. As a cyclist, you can take additional measures to minimize your risk, including:

  • Wearing high-visibility and reflective clothing
  • Installing lights on your bicycle
  • Using hand signals to indicate turns

Conventional hand signals for bikers may be confusing for motorists. One rider describes a better way to signal in this article on The Globe and Mail. The bottom line is that if you drive or ride predictably and respect other people using the roadways, you’re more likely to stay safe.

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