Bikes to Watch Out For: How Not to Die on the Road

This is you, if you were Evan Rachel Wood Bisexual (or Jamie Bell) on a bicycle.

This is an SUV.

You might notice a couple of things offhand, like say, how SUVs are basically giant speeding hunks of metal, how humans are soft, squishy bags of water and organs in comparison, and wow, does anyone look bad in a p/leather jacket? (You might be thinking of how soft and squishy Evan Rachel Wood Bisexual looks, I don’t know, maybe, it’s your brain.) Now if we were to pit soft-squishy-you-on-bicycle against giant-hulking-metal-SUV, you would probably lose. I’m sorry! I’m rooting for you! But you would.

Balanced on a thin frame on a road shared with much larger and hardier vehicles, cycling puts you in a pretty vulnerable position. It is risky, unfortunately — crashes and other accidents are a normal part of the experience, and this is true whether you’re a velodrome veteran or only brush the dust off your bike a couple of times a year. Safer cycling is a thing though, and it’s easier to master than dental dams, so this week let’s look into ways to make commuting by bike less intimidating.


 

1. Know the Traffic Rules…

Look up where you can or cannot cycle: cyclists aren’t allowed on most expressways, but may be permitted on pedestrianised streets. Don’t cycle on pavements and always give way to pedestrians. Bike lanes are great but remember that you’re still vulnerable to the usual road hazards when you’re on them, especially if they’re just painted lines on the road.

You funny, road planner. via The Telegraph

You funny, road planner.
via The Telegraph

Don’t ignore road signs! They’re meant to give you information that you can’t get from observation alone.

Well. Mostly. via The Telegraph

Well. Mostly.
via The Telegraph

Finally, it’s useful to know who gets right of way. As a general rule, vehicles on the major road (on which you don’t see stop lines at junctions) get to go first, and at roundabouts, give way to those on your right (left in the US). Always slow down at stop signs/lines even if the coast seems clear from afar.


 

2. …but Don’t Expect Them to Protect You

Plenty of motorists aren’t fans of cyclists, and traffic police aren’t exceptions to this. I’ve seen a van reverse out into a busy major lane without warning, almost knocking a cyclist over a process — so naturally a passing police car stopped the cyclist for being reckless.

Abiding by traffic laws isn’t always going to be enough to keep you safe. Some drivers see bike lanes as prime parking spots, while others will corner you into dangerous positions when you’re stopped at red lights. Learn to ride defensively, i.e. anticipating potential problems and dangers above and beyond what road signs prepare you for, and know your rights for when you get harassed by road ragey drivers.


 

3. Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Possibly the only thing I miss about public transport commutes is catching up on reading or TRMS podcasts while I’m crammed into tube carriages — but this really isn’t the time to be listening to an audiobook for your next class. Check behind you frequently, especially before making a turn, even if it seems clear at first glance. (Electric cars and pedestrians can be really quiet!) If you encounter a hazard on a busy lane, brake instead of swerving into traffic.

Be especially wary when cycling alongside parked cars, lest you get “doored.”

Bad bike lane placement 101 via Chris Baskind

Bad bike lane placement 101
via Chris Baskind

Don’t wear headphones! Especially on quiet routes – if you’re not expecting to run into anything/anyone, you won’t be looking out for them. If you really need to, get open-back headphones that don’t block sound.


 

4. Wear a Helmet…

Your head is full of lots of important things, like neurons and glia cells and hopes and dreams and feelings. Putting on a helmet decreases your risk of brain and head injury.

BIKE HELMETS MAKE ME REALLY HAPPY via Shutterstock

BIKE HELMETS MAKE ME REALLY HAPPY
via Shutterstock

Wear a helmet no matter how short your journey is – fatal head injuries are possible even when colliding with pedestrians at slow speeds. Make sure your helmet fits well and securely, so it doesn’t move at all in a fall. Try to get one appropriate to the type of cycling that you do, too. Streamlined racing helmets look cool but might also twist or catch on the road if you fall on a regular commute.

Helmets are single-impact items! Get yours replaced after a fall even if there are no visible signs of damage, because it’s useless if the solid foam has been crushed internally.


 

5. …but Don’t Rely on It 100% Either

Helmets cannot protect you from body injuries (e.g. from being run over) and from high-speed collisions with vehicles. Research on the effectiveness of bike helmets is contentious, and in 2006 Dr Ian Walker showed that drivers go closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those who don’t. (The same study also revealed that drivers give more space to cyclists that they perceive as female.)

Helmets are not a substitute for safe riding (and driving). So don’t forget to put one on, but remember it’s not a panacea for all road dangers.


 

6. Make Yourself Seen

Wear bright, hi-vis clothing and use bike lights, especially at night.

This should probably do the job. via Wikipedia

This should probably do the job.
via Wikipedia

Don’t sneak between cars, and don’t wait in their blind spots. At junctions, try to get ahead of waiting vehicles so you know they can see you – some will have space reserved at the front especially for cyclists.

Counterintuitively, if you’re feeling unsafe or unsteady, moving closer to the middle of the lane is safer than hugging the kerb. Cycling too close to the side encourages cars to overtake you dangerously, or you might brush against the kerb or skid on drainage covers. Most recommend keeping a distance of 0.5–1m from the kerb, or directly to the right of lane markings.


 

7. Learn Hand Signals

You are good with your hands, yes? Signalling tells drivers and other cyclists what you’re about to do so they can adjust their own paths accordingly.

In text form:

  • Turning left: point to the left with your left hand
  • Turning right: point to the right with your right hand OR raise your left hand
  • Stopping: point downwards

If you’re unsteady on your bike, it helps to practice one-handed cycling in safe environments before hitting the road. Don’t brake sharply while signalling – you will fall, and it won’t even make a cool story.


 

8. Know Your Cars

Get to know what cars can or cannot see (hint: not much). Back when I was a newer cyclist than I was a driver, I imagined that every driver on the road was like me – not very good and too small for the driver’s seat. After midnight, just assume that everyone on the road is drunk so avoid avoid avoid.

The blind spot is what you need to be especially wary of. Drivers can’t see what’s immediately beside their cars, which is why you should avoid squeezing between vehicles as far as possible.

Familiarise yourself with what car rear lights mean, too:

  • Single flashing light: car is about to turn right/left
  • Two flashing lights: hazard signal (usually when car is stopped)
  • Bright white light: car is reversing
  • Red light: safety/visibility feature in the dark or inclement weather
  • Brighter red light: car is braking

If you can’t get to the front of traffic, stop behind cars and large vehicles at junctions so you know what they’re planning to do.


 

9. Avoid Heavy Goods Vehicles

HGVs have really, really big blind spots and much slower reaction times.

Undertaking refers to passing the vehicle on the side away from where the driver is, and doing this at junctions (as in the picture above) can be fatal. Just take it as given that HGV drivers can’t see sh*t. Buses have slightly better visibility due to wider windows and drivers more thinkingly looking out for cyclists, but as a general rule, if it’s a hundred times bigger than you and could possibly crush you to death, avoid it.


 

10. Make Eye Contact

When you’re passing drivers or jaywalking pedestrians, make eye contact so you know they see you. People are less likely to do mean things to you on the road if they remember that you’re human. (This should go both ways!)


 

This has been the fifth installment of Autostraddle’s bike column, where we discuss the joys and perils of getting in (okay, on) the saddle. Here we talk how-tos, gear guides, history, travelling and anything else that comes to mind. The title “Bikes to Watch Out For” was inspired by the iconic lesbian webcomic, Dykes to Watch Out Forby Alison Bechdel.

Profile photo of Fikri

Politiqueer, student and future cubicle drone-person fond of trees, bicycles, and strawberry sponge cake. Abuses en-dashes. Undecided about the Oxford comma. Follow her on Twitter or her occasionally updated blog.

Fikri has written 51 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. Thumb up 3

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    This is a great list.

    My rule of thumb is that if you haven’t made eye contact you haven’t been seen. I’ve been in a lot of near miss situations where a driver or pedestrian should have seen me (because I was right in their line of sight) but have still done something dumb like trying to turn into the bit of road that I was occupying.

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    “Pavement” you mean sidewalk? I miss living in England with all that wacky vocabulary!
    All of this is great. The eye contact thing is important- but sometimes you still have to resort to banging on the car hood to make sure the old lady pulling out of the driveway right in front of you doesn’t run you over.

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      You have no idea the amount of self-doubt that writing for USians invokes. WILL PEOPLE UNDERSTAND ME IF I SAY KERB INSTEAD OF CURB? DO I SAY “SOCCER” OR STAY TRUE TO MYSELF*? HOW IS “NEIGHBOR” A REAL WORD?

      (* Okay, this one’s not a question I’ve really had to contend with, because staying true to myself means pretty much never talking about football.)

      I don’t think people bang car hoods in Britain. I think you might get exiled to the ends of queues forever.

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    Honestly, much of what I have learned in the year and a half that I’ve been bike commuting (14 miles round-trip) is “Most of the drivers hate you and are jerks in control of death-machines and you know the rules of the road better than they do.” I constantly get fools trying to tell me (by which I mean shout at me) that I’m not allowed to be in the road or not allowed to be in the lane. Or honking at me, usually as they come up behind me, for maximum startle response. The worst was the guy who shouted some very misogynistic and homophobic names at me while saying that he was going to run me over. And any cyclist who gets hit, people will find a way to blame them for it.

    Occasionally there are really nice considerate drivers who restore your faith in driver-humanity, generally by doing things like acknowledging your turn signal.

    It’s good exercise though, and if you have stretches where there aren’t a lot of intersections or reasons for driver interaction, those can be wonderful.

    Since I should provide a useful tip here rather than just whining, mine is “Be careful about black ice.” If things melted yesterday and then froze over during the night? Don’t ride, or at least check traffic alerts.

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      “Occasionally there are really nice considerate drivers who restore your faith in driver-humanity, generally by doing things like acknowledging your turn signal.”

      Hell, I’ll take doing things like using *their* turn signal most days.

  4. Thumb up 1

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    Great article – thanks Fikri!

    I would also say as a general rule if you’re cycling on the roads, stick to the roads. I’ve seen cyclists suddenly mount the pavement/use pedestrian crossings and then re-enter the road. Confusing to other road users and fellow cyclists!

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    I’m glad you included the note about the helmet controversy, which I had never heard of before last week and have spent much time since then researching. To add on to what you said, there are statistics that show that helmet laws scare people away from cycling, when in fact the safest situation is to have more cyclists on the road; that cyclists are much less likely to experience head injuries than pedestrians; and that people (like me) who believe helmets have saved their life in the past may in fact be mistaken, as helmets often break on impact before the foam has compressed, which means they actually didn’t absorb any of the shock. The European Cyclists’ Federation‘s official stance is that they are opposed to helmet laws (but obviously ok with individuals choosing to wear helmets).

    *breath*

    Also, another piece of advice that I would add to this list is to not allow drivers who think they’re being nice to wave you through an intersection when they in fact have the right of way. Make them take their right of way so that they stop doing this, and hopefully don’t cause accidents for less-alert cyclists who follow their wave-through without checking the other lanes for approaching vehicles. I don’t know how many times I’ve been waved through when there was another car coming up from behind the “helpful” car at high velocity who would have creamed me if I had started across the intersection.

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      Yeah and there are def issues around access too – helmet laws can make it prohibitively expensive for some people to cycle, which matters when cycling is one of the few affordable transport options especially in urban inner city areas.

      Wrt safety coincidentally last week I lost my helmet and I learnt that 1. my ALH is REALLY annoying without anything pinning it down, and 2. I am probably a way safer cyclist without a helmet than with one. In particular I avoided going too fast and making sharp turns because while I’m always alert to vehicles, without a helmet I also became more aware of the different ways in which I could simply slip on wet roads or potholes and crack my head open. (I once read about an accident where a cyclist died after colliding with a rollerblader – so at a REALLY slow speed and not against a hard object – because he fell on his head.) Helmets don’t protect you at all from many of the more serious injuries that actually cause fatalities, but they do prevent minor slips from becoming more serious and make a real difference to the way you perceive risk on the road (for me at least).

      (I have so many helmet feelings! And a new snazzy helmet now.)

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        Helmet feelings!

        Yeah, I’m still pretty convinced that a helmet has in fact saved me from grave injury at least once, maybe twice (I fell off backwards once – don’t ask – and the back of my helmet was completely crushed in on the asphalt, so I’m pretty sure I would have cracked my skull if I hadn’t been wearing it). But I have the same experience as you in that I’m a lot more vigilant about road conditions if I don’t have a helmet for some reason – especially on the lookout for thin layers of gravel on the road, which can be even more dangerous than ice in my experience because it’s hard to see and unexpectedly slide-y.

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        Also, I’m really enjoying this series of articles! One thing I’d like to see, if you’re taking suggestions, is links to good articles or videos on how to do minor repairs on your own. Despite how much cycling I do I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never so much as replaced a punctured tube on my own, and I really feel like I should learn some basics.

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          I am definitely taking suggestions! And I really really want to do that too but thus far the weather has been too shitty for me to do much stuff to my bike and take photos of it all (I don’t have access to a bike workshop rn) so it might have to wait till I’m in Singapore.

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    Thanks for this Fikri, and it is particularly applicable for any Londoners reading this. I walk along the “Cycle Super Highway” (Mile End to Aldgate) twice every day and pass 3 memorials to cyclists who have died recently just along that short stretch of road in the past few months. Two of them are just a few feet apart by Aldgate station. That’s not counting the many many other cyclist/vehicle collisions I have witnessed. A friend of mine has had 2 very serious near misses on Fenchurch Street recently – one required a new helmet and one required hospital attention.

    So yes, when I see cyclists taking unnecessary risks or not wearing a helmet – when the roads around here are clearly very dangerous as it is – then it makes me really angry. From now on I’ll point them to here!

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