Biking for Beginners: 10 Tips to Ride Your Bicycle Safely in Traffic

Riding in traffic, even slow traffic, is one of the scariest obstacles that many beginning riders have to overcome.  Thinking of being hit by a car while on your bike is enough to discourage many from even attempting to ride their bicycle in the city.

When I first started riding, I had visions of myself and my snazzy blue bike pinned under a bus every time I went out on the road.  I was constantly worried that I would get “doored,” a dog would run into my path, or I’d meet my death in some other horrible bike/car related way.

It took a while and a little perseverance, but I can finally ride the road comfortably and feeling safe and confident.  Following are a few tips that helped me learn to ride with traffic, and others that I learned along the way.

1.  Keep you bike in proper working order

from Sanitaryum.com

Keeping up with bike repairs is probably ne of the most important things a rider can do to ensure their safety.  A loose chain or flat tire at the wrong time can spell disaster.  Fortunately, keeping your bike working properly is not very difficult.

The League of American Bicyclists suggests the “ABC Quick Check:”

A – Check Air pressure
B – Check Brakes
C – Check Cranks, Chain, and Cassette
QUICK- Check Quick releases
CHECK- Check it over

There is a more detailed version of the ABC Quick Check on the League’s website: http://www.bikeleague.org/resources/better/beginningcycling.php

By remembering this short phrase, you will be able to make a fast check of your bike every time you ride.

2.  The Gear

by BLMOregon, Flickr Commons

The right gear can make a big difference.  Despite the helmet controversy, if you are in a bike accident, your helmet will protect your head from injury and may even save your life.

Another piece of equipment that I have found extremely useful, especially when I was still learning to balance on my bike, is a mirror.  Mirrors can be mounted on a helmet or on the handlebars, but either way, they are very helpful in keeping an eye on traffic behind you without having to constantly turn your head or body to look around.

A bell, horn, or whistle is also a good basic item to alert motorists, other riders, and pedestrians of your presence.  Your bell should be loud enough so that motorists can hear it.  The Illinois Department of State’s Cyber Drive Illinois  suggests a horn that can be heard from 100 ft.   Delores Simmons of Black Women Bike DC (BWBDC) recommends a whistle to get drivers’ attention.

Comfort is also important.  Make sure the clothes and shoes you are riding in fit comfortably and protect you from the wind and elements.  It is much easier to focus on the road without the distraction of ill-fitting shoes or being too cold.

3.  Be Visible

It is extremely important for riders to be visible to motorists, other riders, and pedestrians.  Cyber Drive Illinois has a list of equipment necessary to make you as visible as possible while on the road.  The list includes:

  • Clear front reflector
  • Red rear reflector visible for at least 100 ft.
  • Wheel mounted side reflectors
  • Reflector pedals
  • Front light visible for at least 500 ft., if you plan to ride at night

Others suggest a reflective vest, and/or a flashing light for night riding.

4.  Make eye contact with drivers

Never assume that a motorist sees you on your bicycle.  Always try to make eye contact with drivers to ensure that they are aware of your presence.

When you are behind or beside a car, avoid riding in a car’s blind spot.  Remember that if you cannot see the car’s rearview mirrors, the driver cannot see you.  Even when you can see the mirrors, never assume that the driver has seen you.

5. Obey traffic & bike signals and lane markings

When there are no specific bike signals, cyclists must follow regular traffic signals and lane markings, like any other vehicle on the road.  Riders should stop at red lights and stop signs, obey right-of way laws, as well as ride on the rightmost lane of traffic.  Riders should also ride with traffic and not against it.

From Bicyclesafe.com, 10 ways to not get hit

One of the complaints that I have heard from riders lately is people riding the wrong way on a one-way bike lane.  Even though it may not seem like a big deal to ride against traffic, riding the wrong way on a one-way bike lane can be very dangerous for you and other riders.  For one thing, if you meet an oncoming rider and you are riding the wrong way, there may not be enough space for both riders and a car, which can be very dangerous.  Moreover, if you are riding in the wrong direction, cars making a turn onto the street may not see you or expect you, which can lead to a collision.

6.  Use hand signals

There are four basic hand signals for cyclists.  Learn them and use them every time you are going to stop or make a turn.

by CAA Bike Safety

7.  Turning

Turning, especially turning left, can be tricky, as motorists may not be ware of what you are doing.  Always signal appropriately when turning, giving motorists and other riders enough time to see you and react.  Before turning, (1) think about what you are going to do, (2) scan for obstacles and hazards, (3) signal, and (4) turn.  Turn from the proper lane and make sure to avoid turning only lanes well before the intersection if you are not turning.

To turn left at an intersection, there are two options.  (1) Signal and change lanes to your left, and turning from the left lane; or (2) remain in the right lane, cross the intersection, and wait until the light changes to cross.

8.  Sharing the road with other cyclists

If you are riding with other cyclists or in a group in traffic, always ride in a single file.  When passing another rider, make sure you pass on their left.

9.   Ride the lane when appropriate

Bike Allowed Use of Full Lane CVC 21202, San F...

Bike Allowed Use of Full Lane CVC 21202, San Francisco. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most traffic laws state that, where there are no bike lanes, cyclists should ride “as far to the right as practicable.”  This means that riders should ride leaving enough space to their right to maneuver in an emergency as well as to avoid getting hit by the door of a parked car.

On wider roads, there is enough room for cyclists and cars in the same lane.    On these roads, cyclists should ride just to the right of the lane, being careful to leave adequate room to avoid the “door zone,” and always riding in a straight line.

Where the lane is not wide enough for a car and a bicycle, cyclists should take the lane and ride the right third of the lane to avoid getting buzzed by cars on the left or being hit by turning vehicles, vehicles exiting driveways, or parked car doors.  This should only be done in areas where cars are traveling at the same speed as bicycles or if there is an obstacle or hazard that makes the road too narrow to share with a car.

10.  Keep calm and stay alert

Freaking out is the worst thing you can do while riding in traffic.  It is important to remember the basic rules and safety tips and not to push yourself too far beyond your comfort level.   Confidence comes with practice and time.  If I can do it, anybody can.  Remember you can always pull over (do so safely and signal!) and walk your bike if you feel traffic is too heavy or until you feel comfortable.

Staying alert and anticipating what others will do is the best way to avoid an accident.  Ride defensively and assume that motorists do not see you.  As you become more familiar with routes in your area, you will be able to identify dangerous stretches and intersections, where you can learn to spot potential hazards and distracted drivers.  Michael Bluejay of Bicyclesafe.com (http://bicyclesafe.com/) suggests riding as if you were invisible, “It’s often helpful to ride in such a way that motorists won’t hit you even if they don’t see you.”