No matter what state you live in, you, as a cyclist, have the same right to the road as any car driver. You also have the same responsibilities as drivers to obey the traffic codes in your city and state.
Unfortunately, not all drivers are aware of cyclist’s rights, and their lack of understanding can make the roads a dangerous place. Just as defensive driving is a smart strategy for avoiding potential accidents, defensive cycling can help you avoid problems before they happen.
Chances are if a driver sees you, you won’t wind up under the car. The occasionally garish clothing for which cycling is (in) famous does have a real-world upside: It’s hard to miss anything that painful to the eyes.
Here’s where the clothing you select can make a difference. You may have noticed that most fast-food restaurants use red and yellow in their signs. Red, orange, and yellow are the three colors with the longest wavelengths in the visible light spectrum. As a result, your brain can pick these colors out of a mass of visual stimulation more quickly than any other colors. As a driver, if you like to drive fast, avoid red—it gets you noticed. Pick a black car; black is a hole in the visual field—it’s the absence of color. As a cyclist, stick to red, orange, and yellow if you are concerned about being noticed. Also, coordinated outfits that repeat the same color in the jersey and shorts create an object with a larger appearance; you’ll be noticeable from farther away. Just think: If dog poop were red, no one would ever step in it.
How to Ride on City Streets
If you have a driver’s license, you know 99 percent of what’s necessary to ride legally. If in doubt, use common sense: stay to the right, signal your intentions, and make sure you are aware of what other drivers are up to. Beyond that, a little refresher on your state’s mo- tor vehicle code never hurts. In some states, there are exceptions to certain laws that can make sense of certain situations. For instance, in some states, it is OK for a cyclist to treat a light triggered by sensors as malfunctioning if it won’t change. After waiting through a cycle, it is permissible to cross when safe.
Dealing with Traffic
Unless you live in a small town surrounded by a network of rarely used back roads, you are going to have to deal with traffic, which means you are going to encounter drivers who may not know your rights or may even be hostile to your presence. No matter where you live, you can employ a number of strategies to ride safely.
Where to Ride
Taken in its extreme, you should attempt to ride where cars aren’t present. Given that if you and a car try to occupy the same patch of asphalt on the road you will lose, the opposite of that is your goal. Practically speaking, avoid major thoroughfares if you are on your own, unless they have a wide and well-marked shoulder, or better yet, a bike lane. Residential streets used by local residents won’t experience the rush of traffic found elsewhere, except near a school zone.
When to Ride
Try to ride when fewer drivers are on the road. The big priorities in your life—job, school, and family—will be the biggest determiners of when you can ride, but within the free time you have, some times of day make for better times to ride than others.
Naturally, no matter where you live, you want to try to avoid the morning and evening rush hours. The reality is, the earlier you can ride, the better. There aren’t many cars on the road at sunrise. A road too busy to safely ride at noon can be part of a viable training route early in the morning. For those with a nonstandard schedule, late morning and early afternoon will feature fewer cars on the road, thanks to most folks being at work.
Where you position yourself in traffic depends on the distance between lights. Naturally, you are going to be in the right-most lane, but how you deal with cars depends on the distance between lights, your comfort level, and your fitness. Generally speaking, it is better to stay behind the pack of cars that moves from light to light. Initially, a cyclist may accelerate across an intersection faster than the cars present, but the cars will overtake the rider almost immediately thereafter. If the lane is narrow and there is a long line of cars present, it might be safer to wait behind the cars rather than experience each of them passing you.
In congested urban areas where lights govern each intersection, a strong cyclist is better off taking the lane and sprinting from light to light. This is one situation where having a double-sided clipless pedal that can be rapidly engaged (such as Speedplay or Crank Brothers) can aid your acceleration away from a light.
Parked cars pose two hazards. First, they have the effect of narrowing the road shoulder, thereby forcing you closer to passing traffic. Rather than weaving in and out of parked cars, it is best to ride to the left of the parked cars so that approaching traffic will be able to see you and (hopefully) will accommodate your presence by moving left slightly. If you suddenly weave back into the flow of traffic from behind a parked car, you may startle a driver who didn’t expect to encounter you. Naturally, if the parked cars are few and far between, you should move to the right after passing the car.
The other hazard of parked cars is having a door suddenly opened in your path as you’re about to pass. Many drivers fail to check their rear view mirror before opening their car door to exit. Because many cyclists travel within two feet of parked vehicles, a door is a serious threat that can result in a fatal accident. To guard against this, look in the rear window for signs of activity as you approach parked cars. Because you can’t tell if the driver is about to exit the car or not, if you see a head on the driver’s side, give yourself a little extra room as you pass.
The more you know about your immediate surroundings, the safer you are. No matter where you ride, hazards exist. From glass in the road to pedestrians jaywalking to bus drivers rushing to maintain their schedules, the safest rider is the one looking around at all times.