Non-legal bicycle safety advice

November 11, 2014

I got a GoPro as a treat/present. Other people seem to use theirs to show how dangerous drivers can be (especially in London, what is it with London?), I figured it would be more constructive to show how things can work. And yes, sometimes drivers can be clueless and/or dangerous, that’s just the way our world works right now, but a lot of that risk can be managed.

Here are little bits and pieces of my commute, showing how various bits of safety advice play out in the real world. This is “non-legal” because so often the safety advice to cyclists starts and mostly ends with “obey traffic laws” as if that were either necessary or sufficient (and as if that were actually standard practice for drivers). The laws that people tell you to obey were not designed with bicyle safety in mind — sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t. They’re definitely not enough. The examples below illustrate rules I actually use.

My background is “long-term recovering Effective Cyclist” — I learned all the moves for riding in traffic, and I’m relatively comfortable doing that, but I think that overall that’s not going to work for most people. If it weren’t so necessary to “share” the road with drivers so often, this advice would be much less useful — but we’re stuck with crappy shared roads, so maybe this will be helpful to you. I recorded several commuting videos without specifically intending to demonstrate anything and then reviewed them looking for examples, so this is more or less rules-as-practiced, warts and all (I think I ride too close to the door zone, at least it sure looks like it on the video).

Without further explanation:

Lights on, always

All my bikes have dynamo hubs and run front and rear LEDs, day and night. There is no off switch; I do have switchable “low beams” on the bike I usually ride so I can avoid blinding pedestrians and other cyclists:

Daytime lights have been studied in relatively well-designed trials (randomized with control and test groups, though obviously not blinded, but the researchers even worked to correct for the effects of the resulting bias) and appear to prevent half of all collisions with other vehicles. It also appears to me (this is purely anecdotal) that I “surprise” far fewer drivers than would otherwise be the case, and this seems to prevent most of the angry interactions that I might otherwise have (that I have sometimes experienced in the past).

Think about lane position

If you’re riding a bicycle in traffic, one of the first bits of advice you get is that you are a vehicle and you are entitled to your part of the lane (this is also the law in most states), and whatever you do, don’t ride too close to parked cars because you might get doored (and it may be against the law for a driver to do this to you; it is in Massachusetts, though the fine is only a fraction of the cost of an ER visit). How different people do this varies — some people like to maintain a position that is always adequate to keep you clear of any hypothetically opening door, where I am somewhat more flexible, and move from side to side based on what is coming — but I don’t swerve quickly left. And yes, for a moment or two I’m quite close to the moving car next to me, but they’ve seen me, and I can keep an eye on them, nobody’s making sudden moves.

Check behind when moving into lane
Usually you’ll hear a car near behind if there is one, but it’s important to check anyway — sometimes they coast, and some car tires are relatively quiet. I’ve tried mirrors in the past and they’ve never worked for me, but I cannot help thinking that perhaps I should try again after looking at all these shoulder checks:

Watch out for confused drivers

One thing not well appreciated by car drivers is how cognitively impaired they are — not only are they generally moving faster so they have less time to make sense of what they see and hear, they also can neither see nor hear as well as someone walking or biking. It’s important to recognize when a driver is making mistakes and likely to make more mistakes, and to treat them carefully when that is the case.

The van in this rotary wants to turn right, is signaling to turn right, but is in the wrong lane within the (two-lane) rotary. Other traffic passes in front of her hoped-for right turn. I’m a little worried she’s distracted and might not notice me, and might make a sudden move when her path looks clear (of cars).

Here, a driver signaling for a right turn first passes me, then slows down, then discovers a pedestrian in the crosswalk where they want to turn right. The fact that they pass me that close to the turn is evidence that they’re either unable to judge my speed, or not paying attention, or just plain don’t care that much about other people — no matter what, not trustworthy, so you want to put yourself where your paths won’t intersect. Watch out for sudden stops when passing behind; it might not be clear from the video, but they did slow rather abruptly when they caught sight of the pedestrian.

Be wary of side traffic

I need additional videos here, but this is one example. Traffic approaching from the side and traffic loading, unloading, or maneuvering to the side can sometimes move out into the travel lane quickly; they may not see you, may misjudge your speed, or may just expect that of course you will stop (these are all true even when you are driving a car). One advantage on a bicycle is that you can give such vehicles a fair amount of room without leaving the lane, so do that.

Here, a car from the side causes me to look back just in case I need to swerve,
and a truck from the side cleanly enters the road with enough time and space that I feel comfortable.

Here’s some more examples:

Be careful of right turning vehicles

Whenever possible, watch for cars and trucks turning right, especially trucks.
If you pass on the left, it’s good to do it gradually so that you don’t pop out and startle oncoming traffic, but soon enough so that you appear in the turning vehicle’s left-turn mirror (so they can see you, if they are trying to figure out where that bicycle they saw went).

And in theory it’s polite to let people turn right when they were signalling and there’s lots of room, but look what the next guy does:

Running a stoplight for safety

At some intersections obeying the law to the last detail is not the safest thing to do. At this intersection, between the green for cross traffic and the green for through traffic, there is a pedestrian signal. Technically, a ridden bicycle is a vehicle, and the red light applies, but when that light turns green a lot of the through traffic turns right, and that is a risk to any cyclist. Furthermore, just a bit down the road it dives into an under-construction tunnel where I’d very much prefer not to “share” the road with any passing vehicles, and don’t care to play the “take-the-lane” game with potentially ignorant drivers. I probably should have — note the cab passing me near the end, though there actually was a fair amount of room.

If there’s not such a compelling safety advantage to running the light, or if the intersection is full of pedestrians, then you either don’t go early, or you walk the bike, as a pedestrian. I do both here:

Alternatives to running a red light

Become a temporary pedestrian:

and yes, I’ve got quite a lot of practice getting on and off the bike without stopping. With a low top tube it’s pretty easy to learn to get a leg across for dismounts — for mounts, you need to kick the near-side pedal into a drive position, shift into a relatively high gear, and step on that pedal for both motion and boost up onto the seat.

Right-U-right = straight through:

Don’t play in the oil

Oil can be astonishingly slippery; don’t get it on your tires:

Weave with care
Don’t cut close in front of cars that may lurch/creep; get all cuddly with the rear end of cars instead (unless you see backup lights on, of course).

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