Riding a bicycle is exercise for some, commuting for others, and a pleasant afternoon in the park for still others. An accident while cycling changes all that; however, you can stay safer by adopting some simple, common-sense practices every time you climb aboard your bike. 

On the Streets

Obey Traffic Laws

Same rights, same responsibilitiesCredit: Peter Blanchard / flickr.com"Same Road, Same Rights, Same Responsibilities":  In every U. S. State, cyclists are granted the same rights as motor vehicles; and they are also required to observe the same rules and laws as a motor vehicle[1]. That means obeying stop signs, traffic lights, lane markings, and all the other road signage and markings. You should always ride in the right-hand lane unless you're preparing to make a left turn; and ride about three feet off the curb: this allows you to dodge obstacles without an unexpected turn into traffic. Do not stay in the right-most lane if it has become a right-turn only lane. 

Ride with traffic: there are some who believe they're smarter than the people who write traffic laws and suggest that you ride on the left instead. That's a bad idea, though, because:

  • All the traffic signs, warning signs and traffic signals along roads are set up for cars and cyclists who are driving on the right.
  • If you want to make a right turn from the left side of the road, you must "charge" oncoming traffic and then turn across traffic approaching from behind you. If you're riding on the right you are likely to find a nice, safe left-turn lane prepared for you.
  • Drivers making right turns onto your street from driveways and side streets do not expect traffic from their right, and many do not even look to the right before accelerating into the street. That could hurt - lots.
Christmas lights?
Credit: Richard Masoner / Cycleicious

Now that's being seen!

Be Seen

Most car-bicycle accidents happen when a driver can't see a cyclist or doesn't see him or her in time. Drivers sometimes can't see things like thirty-foot tall trees; so they certainly won't see you if you are wearing "camouflage." Black may be the "cool" color, but red is much, much safer. Follow the obvious advice of wearing bright colors when you ride, day or night - a personal favorite is neon yellow - and using blinking lights (both front and rear) and reflectors when riding in the dark or on cloudy or rainy days.

Stay within a driver's line of sight at all times: don't swoop in and out of lines of parked cars, and don't jump up onto a sidewalk to go around traffic. Make certain that you've been seen by making eye contact with drivers you encounter at intersections. Wave to get their attention if necessary.

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Be seen in this bright yellow cycling jersey.

Be Predictable

An unpredictable driver is likely to cause an accident; an unpredictable cyclist may be signing his death warrant. By predictable, I mean signal for lane changes and turns so that people know where you are headed.

Always look behind you when changing lanes (those Prii are awfully quiet). Mirrors are a good idea as well; if you're not using mirrors, look over your shoulder at regular intervals to check for traffic approaching from behind. Use your ears - do not fall into the trap of thinking you "must" have your music when riding; that MP3 player or phone you have plugged into your ears drowns out the sounds of vehicles approaching from the rear. That just happens to be the direection from which you're most vulnerable.

Ride Defensively

Expect every approaching driver, pedestrian or other cyclist to do something stupid: Murphy's law says they will, and Murphy was no dummy. Keep your eyes peeled for road hazards: potholes, loose gravel, broken glass, and other junk in the road can give you a nasty spill or ruin a tire. Do not ride across a sewer grate - your wheel just might fit into it - and cross railroad tracks as close to a right angle as possible: namy a cyclist has learned the hard way that the rails can "grab" a wheel.

Watch outCredit: VinnyR / wikimedia commons

Be prepared for drivers to look right through you when turning across your lane or pulling from parking places. Give parked vehicles a wide berth; at least the length of the door (see left); also be wary of people loading or unloading on the street side of vehicles.

Ride Smart

  • Wear a helmet: one way or another you'll show people you have brains. Keep your bike in good repair and roadworthy.
  • Don't carry loads in your hands; carry them in a backpack, saddlebag, or other on-bike storage.
  • Never carry a passenger, except perhaps a child in a child seat.
  • Don't give in to road rage: you may not really want to catch that driver who almost ran you into the ditch, especially in a "stand-your-ground" state. Instead, chalk your continued survival up to riding smart.

On a Trail

Follow the Rules of the Road

When riding a bike on a trail, follow the same common-sense rules that you follow on the road: stay on the right side of the trail except to pass, obey all signs and directions, ride defensively and stay alert. Pedestrians have the right of way and on most trails, you're expected to slow down when encountering people on foot[2].

Hey, Dude!

Credit: hotblack / morguefile.com

What part of "Ride on the right" don't you understand?

Special for Hike-n-Bike Trails

  • Warn pedestrians and cyclists as you pass them: use a bell or horn, or announce that you are "On your left!" You'll have to yell LOUD! for pedestrians with wires sticking out of their ears.
  • Always pass cyclists and pedestrians on the left unless they refuse to move; when moving to the left check over your shoulder for a passing cyclist who doesn't know s/he is supposed to warn you.
  • Do not stop blocking part of the trail, and do not stop where you cannot be seen - just below the crest of a hill or on a blind curve, for instance[2].
  • Assume any child on a bicycle - especially one with training wheels - is going to swerve in front of you, stop dead crosswise, or do something else dangerous. They can't help it.
  • Do not ever force a three-abreast situation: if you and a friend insist on riding two abreast, one should always drop back into single file when encountering another cyclist or a pedestrian.
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Make yourself heard without getting hoarse with a handlebar-mounted bell.

Take a Cycling Course

Biking 101
Credit: SLO County Bicycle Coalition / wikimedia commons

An introductory cycling workshop, San Luis Obispo County, California.

Be Prepared, Whether Riding on Street or Trail

  • Learn how to ride your bike. That includes learning how to shift a multi-speed bicycle, and how to handle it on hills, curves, and varied surfaces - wet or dry, paved or dirt, smooth or rugged. Many local bike shops offer beginner bicycle courses for new riders of all ages.
  • Learn how to maintain your bike, especially how to change a flat tire and adjust brakes.
  • Carry what you need for emergency maintenance: at the least, carry a spare tube and patch kit, tire levers and a pump. Carrying a multitool with hex heads and screwdriver bits is a good idea, too.
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Almost a floor pump, yet compact enough to carry with you on every ride.