How To Ride in Traffic
My Cycling Background
The following advice
is based on my personal experience and years of safe cycling. I began riding as an
adult on the highways, roads, and streets while a college student in 1964, and I have
covered over 100,000 miles since then, including over 23,000 miles of different roads.
I also highly recommend reading the web booklets produced by John Allen and Wayne Pein (see the sidebar). I also recommend taking an Effective Cycling course in the US or a Can-Bike course in Canada, if such course is locally available.
does not come from chance or from a James Bond-like ability to do the impossible;
instead, it comes from a knowledge of the traffic laws and careful attention
to the behavior of others. I was fortunate that when I was a child and was
learning to ride a bicycle that I was instructed to ride my bike
on the right side of the street and to obey traffic laws. This instruction came both from
my father and from my grade school (I recently discovered a safety bulletin sent to
my parents and me from that school). As I grew up, I took the traffic laws seriously
and taught them to the other kids in my neighborhood. Even when playing chase, we
remembered to stay on the right side of the road and to stop for stop signs. By obeying
traffic laws, we not only avoided collisions with automobiles but we also avoided crashing
into each other. When I began riding as an adult on the highway, I was about
the only cyclist on the road in my part of Alabama. Nonetheless, the motorists respected
me because I was obeying the traffic laws. Before making my first bicycle rides, I
had learned the Alabama traffic laws, and I soon added the advice from some pre-WWII
cycling books from England in our library (these were the only books available on cycling
at the time). These books also helped me understand bicycle touring and camping.
I wrote my first article on bicycle safety in 1966 for the Anniston Star newspaper.
The advice I gave then was the same as the advice I give now, except I am now
providing greater detail.
For those with
little experience, I suggest reading what I say carefully, thinking about
my suggestions, and then applying them thoughtfully and observantly. Don't
apply any statement blindly. Remember always that safety is always the most important concern.
Requirements for Safe Cycling
are required to ride a bike safely in traffic: strength, bike handling
skill, experience, and knowledge. The knowledge necessary can be learned from
the traffic code and from advice from other cyclists, including what I have written here,
books and other web pages on cycling in traffic, and personal contact with other riders,
if possible. Strength, bike handling skills, and experience will all have to be acquired
more slowly and while bicycling. I suggest riding on side streets and country roads
with light traffic until comfortable in all three areas. Riding off-road can help with bike
handling skills and strength; however, the requirements for cycling on the street and
in the dirt are extremely different. Riding on bike paths will probably not be helpful at all.
Since I will be talking mainly about how to ride in traffic, let me first talk about strength and bike handling briefly.
How to Obtain Cycling Strength
Strength is built
up through exercise. Those who spend time walking, hiking, jogging, skating,
cross-country skiing, or playing any sport that requires constant running
should have a good base to build on. Nonetheless, muscles will have to adapt
to very different strength and energy requirements, and the legs will have to
learn new behavior.
short periods of time, while sprinting through an
intersection or climbing a short, steep hill, the legs will be burning energy
at a furious pace, while the lungs won't have even had enough time to start
breathing hard. At the beginning of the sprint and at the crest of the hill, the legs
will be moving slowly, applying great pressure to the pedals, while near the end
of the sprint and at the bottom of the hill, the legs will be spinning rapidly,
applying much less force to the pedals but just as much energy. Spinning is a
whole new ballgame and might be said to mark the difference between a bike
rider and a cyclist. It's a light and rapid application of power that results in
less fatigue, once the cyclist adapts to it. A coach told me that more than 20 reps
in one session of weight-lifting was not a good idea as it was too much strain
on the muscles; I told
him that, on a bicycle, I was used to as high as 50,000 reps in one day.
long-distance riding takes even more changes, as the body has to learn how to
conserve and expend its energy wisely. Those who have not been active in an aerobic
sport that uses the legs will need to build up more slowly because the
body is going to have to make even greater changes. The body has the amazing
ability to transform itself, but the process takes time. Those who
are overweight are going to require even more time and some caution. And
those with heart trouble are going to have to be especially watchful.
simple way in which to build up is to ride some distance that is comfortable
but not too far at a speed that is fast but not too hard. Breathing so
hard that talking is impossible or having to stop and gasp for breath are
both signs that the exercise was too difficult. On the other hand, never
having to breathe hard is a sign that the exercise is too light, at least
after the first couple of weeks. It's necessary to put some effort into
cycling, but never so much that it becomes a strain or painful.
distance should be increased on a weekly basis, but by no more than half.
Ten miles per day is a good target for those interested in health alone. It will
take some people a long time to build up to ten miles a day, while others will
find themselves able to ride ten miles on the very first day. For weight reduction,
fifteen miles a day or more would be recommended (recent studies found that those
losing weight burned 2,800 kCal in exercise each week). Those interested in long
rides or a bicycle trip should gradually increase the weekend distances
while trying to ride ten miles or more daily during the week.
every day is important physically and psychologically, but don't worry
about missing a few days, either on a regular basis or due to bad weather
or an illness. To help with finding time to ride, cycling can be used to
travel to work or to run errands. If cycling is not possible for long periods
due to the weather, walking or other exercises should be substituted.
How to Improve Handling Skills
Bike handling skills
also have to be developed over a period of time. Those who learned to ride as children
have an enormous advantage over late learners. Riding in a straight line is an important
first skill; motor vehicles often pass with just a foot or two of clearance, and motorists often
honk at cyclists that they see swerving. Other important skills are gear shifting, mounting
and dismounting the bike in various ways (especially at a traffic light or stop sign), avoiding stones, holes, or glass on the road, looking back while cycling straight ahead, turning sharply and suddenly, climbing while standing, descending rapidly, and avoiding the bites of dogs or kicking back at them to keep them away. Before riding in much traffic, a cyclist should be comfortable with the bike, even under emergency conditions. As children, we used to play
lot of games or perform tricks that were actually bike-handling training rides. An adult learner can do the same thing. A large empty parking lot is an excellent place to practice. Try to maintain a straight line along a painted line, both looking ahead and to the rear, and to swerve to avoid some colored paper cut-outs prepared ahead of time. Practice almost stopping without putting a foot on the ground and then starting again. Practice mounting and dismounting under different conditions, including on slopes. Glancing back while riding straight ahead is difficult to learn, so many will want to get a rear-view mirror. Mirrors are
sold which attach to the bike frame, the handbars, the glasses, and the bike helmet.
My Safety Rules
Riding safely in
traffic involves more than just obeying the traffic laws. I have five sets
of rules that I follow when riding a bike:
- Obey the traffic laws.
- Keep alert at all times.
- Be visible day and night.
- Take the least traveled way.
- Keep the bike in good repair.
Obey The Traffic Laws
The Uniform Vehicle
Code is designed to help traffic (anything moving on the road) and vehicles
(bikes, mounted horses, buggies, wagons, tractors, cars, motorcycles, and
trucks) avoid having accidents.
Traffic laws are
important because they help people predict each other's behavior. Imagine
what it would be like if people could drive their cars in whichever lane
they felt like, the way pedestrians walk on whatever side of the sidewalk
they feel like. The number of accidents would be very high. Vehicles can
move safely and quickly because everyone obeys the same rules.
Some bike riders
feel that it is OK for them to disobey the law. By behaving unpredictably,
they are endangering themselves and other people. Unpredictable behavior is also
very irritating to other vehicle operators (including cyclists) and can create hostility against cyclists in general.
and the Uniform Vehicle Code give everyone the legal right to travel by
bicycle on the road in the US and in every country in the world. However,
each state has its own traffic laws based on the uniform code which vary
in some small details. Most of these can be found through this web site:
Bicycle Laws in the United
In regard to bicycles,
some states define bicycles as vehicles, some as slow-moving vehicles,
and some give them all the rights and responsibility of vehicles without
being vehicles. If a lawsuit results, these slight differences may be important;
otherwise, they mean little. The important part is "all the rights and
all the responsibilities of vehicles." "All the rights" means that the
cyclist has the same right to use the road as the fellow in the motorhome,
whether that fellow thinks so or not. A motorist can use illegal
methods to force a cyclist off the road, but nothing in the law says that
any vehicle is more important or has any priority. "All the responsibilities"
is a reminder that each of us is our brother's keeper. Everyone on
the road, including the cyclist, has to obey the traffic laws and has to
behave in ways that don't endanger others. Recently, for some strange reason,
the codes have started saying "all the duties" which means the same thing.
There are some
bad bike laws. Some states and cities have laws or ordinances that say that cyclists must use bike paths instead
of the road whenever possible. This law seems to be unenforceable anyway,
since pedestrians are going to walk on bike paths and skilled cyclists
are not going to ride on sidewalks or on paths used by pedestrians.
Mixing pedestrians with cyclists is bad business. Cyclist travel
four to six times as fast as pedestrians on flat ground and can easily
reach 30 mph for short periods of time, while pedestrians can turn suddenly
into the path of a bicycle they can't hear. Riding a bike on the sidewalk also increases the chances of a collision with a motor vehicle. The law that states that bicycles
should not be ridden on sidewalks is safer for cyclists and pedestrians
alike. I also am opposed to mandatory helmet laws.
Finally, some states have silly laws, such as the requirement to have a
bell on the bicycle. (This law is silly because pedestrians are seldom
walking on the road, can't hear a bell, and wouldn't recognize its
purpose anyway; speaking or calling to pedestrians -- before getting
too close -- is much more sensible. Two cyclists have protested that they have
found bells to be quite helpful. That's great, and bells might be very useful
under some circumstances, but that's no reason to make them
Most of the other
bicycle-related laws cover sensible safety issues, such as the use of lights
and not riding two to a one-seater bike. These laws were not written
by cyclists and therefore don't always focus on the important details. For example,
the light requirement is often substandard (more about lights later).
And of course,
a cyclist is still supposed to follow all the normal procedures of other
traffic vehicles, such as stopping for stop signs and red lights, riding
on the right side of the road, signaling turns when appropriate, yielding
to traffic that has the right of way, not behaving in an unpredictable
manner and so on. In fact, we could say that, with one important exception,
the laws concerning bicycles are the same as the laws concerning all other
motor vehicles. Operate a bicycle just like a car, in other words.
However, one very
important law, not stated clearly in most states, has probably caused more
accidents than any other although it has prevented many accidents too.
Usually this law says that the cyclist must ride as far to the right "as
practical" or sometimes "as possible." This law is very unclear, perhaps
deliberately so. It saves the lives of some cyclists who are overtaken
from behind by motor vehicles too quickly for them to get out of the way.
However, because of this law, many cyclists feel they must hug the ditch
and thus encourage motorists to pass them when sufficient room is lacking,
other cyclists make left-hand turns from this position (which is likely
to be fatal), and quite a few cyclists move over as far as possible and ignore the traffic
altogether, which puts them at great risk from turning vehicles. In fact,
riding on a sidewalk is more dangerous than riding in the street because
a turning motorist can't see the cyclist coming towards him. And because
of this law, some cyclists feel they have no rights.
In other words,
this is both a very sensible law and a very foolish law. If bicycles
could move at 60 mph or if they were as big and heavy as trucks, this would
be a foolish law beyond question. However, because some motor vehicles
may be moving at four or more times our speed and because the operators
may not have time to stop once they spot us, it is sensible for us to keep
to one side. However, whenever any distinction is made between two kinds
of people, it tends to lead to intolerance. Jerks and bigots love
to have someone to look down on and harass, and other people are easily
influenced by bigoted ideas, thus we hear: "The larger and faster vehicle
should always have the right of way," something that is not found in any
traffic law anywhere, but which is simply bigotry restated as law.
I always make one
important point about this law in the form of a question: "Who gets to
decide how far to the right the cyclist must travel?" The answer
has to be "the cyclist." Therefore, it is the cyclist who determines
how far from the curb or edge of the road to ride. Obviously, if the cyclist
is about to make a left-hand turn, the cyclist must move all the way over
to the left -- that extreme left position is as close as the cyclist can
be to the right and still be safe.
In explaining how
to react to this law, I am telling exactly what I do. Each person has to
make the decision as to how to interpret it, since the law is not explained.
I think my interpretation is very safe, and my 100,000 miles of safe cycling
support this belief. My behavior depends on several factors, how wide the
road is, how fast the traffic is moving, and how much traffic there is.
First of all, in
a narrow or restricted lane, I take the middle of the road. Usually, these
narrow lanes occur in alleyways and other places where my speed is sufficiently
fast. However, in any case, it is important that I not allow myself to
be trapped between a car and a parked vehicle, an opening car door, a sewer
grating, or any other hazard, so sometimes I must take this space even
when the road is otherwise wide enough. Nothing in the law requires me
to move into a gutter or otherwise endanger myself. Politeness would
dictate that if several vehicles are trailing behind me that I move over
at some point to allow them to pass, and in some states, that is the law.
If I am traveling along a high-speed highway, and I come to a narrow spot,
such a narrow bridge, I wait for a break in the stream of traffic until I can
travel in the middle
of the lane. I have crossed many long bridges in many states under these
circumstances, and the vehicles that have caught up with me in mid-bridge
have either waited behind until I was safely across or passed using the other lane.
Second, on a somewhat
wider road, when the traffic is moving at the same speed that I am or when
it is slowing down for the traffic light or when I need to make a left-hand
turn, I get into the center of the lane and act like a motor vehicle, moving
with the traffic. When the traffic is moving at my speed, it is silly and
dangerous for me to ride alongside the vehicles as they might suddenly
turn right. In the center of the lane, I can see better, and I can be seen
better. So as I approach traffic lights, I always queue up with the other
vehicles and proceed through the light with them. This is a very safe way
to proceed through the intersection, as I don't have to worry as much about
turning cars. When I need to make a left turn, I am in the proper position to
turn into the turn lane
and wait for the signal as if I were driving a car, giving hand signals
to let motorists know what I am doing. When I am traveling slower than the rest
of the traffic but need to make a left turn, I look behind, waiting for a break to move
over to the left-turn lane. Often, motorists will infer what I am wanting to do and will
wait for me to move over. If the traffic is too heavy or fast
for me to get into the left turn lane, there are three options: 1) I can
dismount and walk across with the pedestrians on the crosswalk (this requires
crossing twice to get back to the proper lane), 2) I can turn right and
then make a U-turn to join the end of the queue of cars waiting for that
light, or 3) I can pass under the light and stop at the corner and wait
for the light to change to a) walk across with the pedestrians or to b)
wait until the line of cars has traveled through the light and then follow
them in the traffic lane. The regular left-hand turn is the quickest, the least complicated,
and on the whole the safest.
Third, when I am
traveling in the lane with the traffic, and the speed increases, I try
to keep up, but when I see I am falling behind and will not quickly catch
up at the next light, I move over and allow the car behind me to pass.
In this situation, if the vehicles are moving at double my speed or less,
I stay fairly close to the traffic lane, so I can get back in, and so I
can be seen more readily. However, if the volume of traffic is light and
passing me presents no problem, I stay in the lane.
Fourth, when the
speed of the traffic increases again, so that it's now moving three times
my speed, I move away from the traffic stream more, either onto the
shoulder or closer to the edge of a wide lane. I will not ride on roads
with moderate to heavy traffic at these speeds unless I have a shoulder
or wide lane. However, if the traffic is light, I stay in the lane, and
the traffic passes me in the opposite or inside lane.
Finally, when the
speed of the traffic is moving four times my speed, and traffic is heavy
or moderate, I stay entirely off of the road and on the shoulder. If such
a road does not have a shoulder, I won't use it unless the traffic is light.
In Alabama, I put most of my mileage on roads with light traffic, no shoulders,
and high speed limits. Many fine cycling roads, such as the Blue
Ridge Parkway, have these characteristics. Under those conditions, motorists
slow down or move into the other lane to pass, and pass without difficulty,
due to the light traffic.
However, cyclists have to pay careful attention after going around bends
or over hills because motorists will have less time in which to spot them.
It makes good sense too, if a long train of vehicles should appear from
behind, to pull off and let it by if traffic is passing in the other direction
It should never
be assumed that riding on a shoulder or bike lane is safer than riding in the regular
The greatest risk is from turning vehicles, and the farther the cyclist
is from the traffic lane, the more likely it is for him to not be noticed
by motorists turning off the road. I also find that once I cross onto
the shoulder that motorists make no further attempt to reduce speed when
passing, even if the shoulder is very narrow. Bike lanes and shoulders can
create some ambigous situations where it's not clear who has the right of way.
When traveling on a bike lane or shoulder, be aware that not all motorists will
see you and that many of them will not hesitate to turn across your path.
Finally, I must
point out that I do not like four-lane highways under any circumstances,
although four-lane streets cause fewer problems. The trouble with
a four-lane is that motorists engage in pack behavior and are preoccupied
with racing each other rather than scanning the road ahead for danger (pack
behavior and racing can occur on two-lane roads as well, but is unusual
there). A common occurrence: a motorist coming up behind a cyclist on a
four-lane road with no shoulder pulls into the inside lane in order to
pass safely. The following vehicle that was about to pass the motorist
in the inside lane then suddenly swings into the outside lane without slowing,
the driver not seeing the cyclist until the last second.
Keep Alert at All Times
There's a school of
thought in driving which expects the driver to always watch out for other
people's mistakes. The name for this is usually "defensive driving." Of
course, I can't use the term "defensive cycling" because cyclists are already
likely to be too defensive and not assertive enough. I suppose we could
label it thus: "Always assume that the other guy is an idiot." I concatenate
two rules into this one:
Number one: The
cyclist must always act as if he owns the road. People judge others by
their behavior. Someone that acts fearful or uncertain will soon have motorists
yelling and honking. Instead, the cyclist must always act as if he owns
the GD road. It's amazing how strong a confident attitude is. Years ago
when I was the only cyclist on the road, I found that motorists treated
me exactly like a motor vehicle operator because I acted like one. On construction
jobs, I have had to direct traffic on temporary basis without a safety
vest or flag, and motorists will almost always respond. In fact,
I directed traffic as an eleven-year-old boy in the safety patrol, with only rare problems.
Number two: The
cyclist must always be on the lookout for idiots, cell phone users, dreamers, jerks, and
bigots. The cyclist has excellent visibility and can see everything. To
that must be added an instant readiness to respond to bad moves, and I've
had motorists make them all (I'm writing a separate article on this subject).
It must be assumed that any car door could be opened, that the car coming
towards the cyclist could suddenly cut across his path, and that the car
passing the cyclist could suddenly turn right. These things happen every
day in every town. In addition, other bike riders will fail to stop for
lights and stop signs; I consider them more dangerous than the motor vehicles.
Finally, pedestrians can't hear a bicycle and will step into the road without
warning. The bicycle is the most maneuverable vehicle on the road, and
all that maneuverability can save the cyclist's life and has saved mine
more than once. The statement "eternal vigilance is the price of
freedom" must have been written by a cyclist. In remaining vigilant, I don't just
depend on my eyes: I use my ears as well. Often my ears will alert me to a
speeding car or truck coming from behind which gives me extra time to think ahead.
It's important that
the cyclist watch out for more than the other people as well. Dogs and other animals
can be very dangerous if they tangle with the bike wheels, so the cyclist has to scan
the sides of the road as well as watching the traffic. It's also important to keep an eye
on the roadway immediately in front of the bicycle. Glass and nails can cause flats,
while sand, gravel, boards, exhaust pipes, bricks and rocks, road and bridge cracks,
drain grates, and pavement holes and breaks can cause a crash. When descending a steep hill,
it's important to keep the speed down on curves, as loose gravel or deep holes could
be waiting just around the bend. Watching for all these dangers, plus operating the
bicycle while putting out a great deal of energy, keeps the cyclist very occupied with
no risk of falling asleep.
Be Visible, Night and Day
One of the excuses
that motorists often give for hitting pedestrians and cyclists is that
they can't see them. There are two reasons for this (in addition to
plain inattention): 1) Most motorists are watching for large vehicles and
are not thinking about bicycles and pedestrians, and 2) a cyclist or pedestrian
is not a very big object to spot from several hundred feet away, and yet
the motor vehicle may be traveling 440 feet every five seconds.
One solution to
both problems is the use of bright colors which tend to jolt the motorist
into recognition. When I first heard of this idea, I didn't consider it too important;
however, I needed a light jacket, and I found a yellow one for just two dollars. It
seemed to me that traffic began acting more cautiously around me that very day. I
made it my practice to wear yellow or another bright color at all times.
In the spring of 1999, my yellow rain jacket was badly ripped. Since I was traveling
to work, I just depended on my light-colored work shirts to make me visible.
During that summer, it seemed that motorist were getting much more impatient,
honking at me, yelling at me, and passing too closely. Then, when I got my new
yellow jacket in the fall, I
suddenly quit having any problems with traffic at all. It may be my imagination, but
I have become more firmly convinced than ever that bright colors -- especially safety
colors -- make a lot of sense.
At night, it's
essential that the cyclist use lights in addition to the reflectors.
For commuters, the best front light is the very bright rechargeable lamp.
For the day tourer, it's important to carry a small, battery-powered lamp for
the trip that ends up finishing after daylight has ended. Unfortunately, many of the lights
sold for this purpose are inadequate. For long-distance travelers, those who
ride long distances in the country at night, or those whose habits are sporadic,
a generator front light is bright and always available for use. Athough not required
in most states, I highly recommend a tail light in addition to the rear reflector. The
cost is very low and the dependability high. Reflectors are much brighter than lights
when motor vehicles are close, so they shouldn't be taken off of the bike. Be sure
to carry some spare bulbs for the headlight; however, it is a good idea to swap the
regular rear reflector for a larger and brighter one. The
importance of lights and reflectors at night can't be overstated; Riley Geary reports
that 56% of the adult cyclists who get killed are riding at night.
Take the Least Traveled Road
As the number of vehicles
increase on a road, the chance of an accident increases. The more
traffic on a narrow two-lane road, the more likely that vehicles will pass the cyclists
in both directions at once. On four-lane roads, as the traffic gets heavier, the
motorists cease to pay attention or fail to scan for cyclists and pedestrians,
instead they focus all their attention on the other motor vehicles.
When the drivers are undergoing strain from closely following vehicles,
they are less likely to slow down when passing. Under these conditions when
turning off of a road, the motorists are likely to turn off at a higher rate
of speed and to take less time to scan ahead. In addition, in designing
roads for high volume, high-speed traffic, engineers are more likely to
forget about bicycles and the need of cyclists to get through the intersection
safely. Finally, the greater then number of vehicles, the greater the strain
and the smaller the enjoyment for the cyclist.
Wherever I live,
I take a little time to explore the highways and by-ways, looking for the
best routes. That exploration is fun too. I try to have more than one way
of getting everywhere; that just makes life more interesting. Traveling
on the back road takes a little longer, but it is more enjoyable.
Keep the Bike in Good Repair
A large percentage
of bike accidents happen due to poor maintenance on the bike. Of
greatest importance are the brakes (adjusted properly, brake pads and cables
good), the wheels (taunt, trued, with tight quick-releases or nuts), and
the tires (good condition, properly inflated). On a bike with a coaster
brake, if the chain breaks, the brake fails. Other causes of accidents
might be from loosed bolts, such as the brake bolt, or from carried items
that are not securely fastened. Handlebars and seats can also come loose.
A badly adjusted derailleur can cause the rear wheel to suddenly lock.
Any rattles or noises from the bike should be investigated. Nuts should
be first tighten snug, then given an extra quarter turn to lock.
The rules applying
to safe cycling are the same that apply to driving an automobile. Children
who are old enough to ride are old enough to learn to ride on the right
side of the street and to stop for stop signs. That's what I did as a little
boy. Teenagers are old enough to learn all the traffic laws and to travel
on the less busy streets and roads. A state driver's handbook will provide
a good reference. The experience that children get from years of safe cycling
will help lead to them being safer drivers. Those who are learning to ride
bicycles as adults can follow basically the same rules that they use in
driving a car. However, every cyclist who becomes a motorist and every
motorist who becomes a cyclist still have learning to do because the problems
and dangers of both kinds of travel are different.
Take time in mastering
these skills, and exercise caution as well as bravery. I used to kid about
my one cat (who was a coward) that his motto was "discretion is the better
part of valor." It's a good motto for a cyclist.