Cycle safety is of paramount importance and there’s no getting away from the fact that, as a cyclist you are vulnerable. It can be a frightening thought sometimes out on the open road when cars are passing you probably within a matter of inches and at high speed that your life essentially depends on the concentration, skill and minute motor skills every single driver. In a potential connection between projectile steel and human flesh and bone there is only one winner every single time.
The problem with cars these days is that they feel way too safe. They are warm, quiet, comfy, have music systems, computers and air conditioning. Actually my car is probably almost as cozy as my living room in my house – yes, it’s like a mini little living room on wheels! We forget, as car drivers, that we are piloting a tonne weight of projectile metal. A lethal missile that, despite our airbags and safety systems, is essentially a hard mass of energy that will crunch anything that gets in it’s way.
Many people cite cycling safety as a reason as to why they don’t get on a bike. They are afraid they will be knocked off and injured, there are too many cars on the road and they feel they are putting themselves in unnecessary danger.
However, do the facts really support this safety argument?
Mile for mile you are actually as safe on a bike as you are as a pedestrian. There are over 3.2 billion miles cycled just in the UK in a year and year on year the number of cycle related injuries has fallen consistently since 2010. There are a number of reasons for this including the building of more cycle paths and road safety campaigning but the main reason is simply the sheer number of cyclists out on the road now. Think about it – safety in numbers – if you are one of 50 bikes a motorist encounters on a journey rather than the odd one you are in a much safer position. Drivers are getting much more used to, and much more aware, of cyclists purely due to the fact that there are significantly more on the roads now.
Statistically the gains far outweigh the risks. Cycling has great health benefits and the number of life years gained by cyclists offset against the number of lives lost through cycling is 20:1. I strong and encouraging ratio. If you are still put off cycling by safety concerns you should also avoid walking near roads and, if you don’t do any other form of exercise, expect to die sooner as well. Harsh words……just saying though!
OK, so cycling is basically healthy and safe but people do get injured and killed out cycling so what can you do to make your cycling safer and reduce the chances of anything happening to you?
1 – Choose your route carefully
I live in a lovely area just outside a beautiful ancient city with lovely country roads and scenery right on my doorstep. There is, however, a major dual carriageway about two miles away which is basically a high speed racing circuit for commuters, it’s always fast and busy with vehicles. Why, oh why then do I see, on an unbelievably regular basis, cyclists cycling on this road with cars flying past them at 70mph when there are easy, quiet, beautiful alternative routes only a matter of metres away? It makes no sense to me at all and it seems to me that people are putting themselves at risk with no good reason.
When you get on your bike, for goodness sake, don’t automatically take the same route that you would do in the car! Look for quieter, safer roads, avoid traffic jams, certainly avoid dual carriageways and take the opportunity to explore the more interesting back routes and short cuts.
I personally also have a distinct dislike of roundabouts. I always feel vulnerable going round a roundabout and, if I can choose a route to avoid them I will. Many city roads have underpasses and cycle lanes around them and it is always safer to use them if possible. It might seem a bit slower but , in the long term safety is paramount.
On the subject of cycle lanes many cities now have brilliant dedicated cycle lanes that can take you away from the dangers of moving traffic and are dedicated to just cycles and pedestrians. These are great and so much better than the makeshift lanes to the side on main roads (the ones that are usually riddled with pot holes and broken glass) and, worse still, the ones that are basically pedestrian footpaths. In my opinion the converted footpaths are lethal unless you are prepared to cycle along at 5 mph and no faster. Visibility on them is frequently poor due to overhanging trees and vegetation, there are numerous poorly marked kerbs, cars pulling out from driveways don’t expect to see you, don’t have much chance of seeing you and can appear from nowhere in an instant. Add to this the hazards of pensioners, parents with prams and buggies, dogs and toddlers and you get the picture! You are safer cycling on the road with the traffic.
2 – Think about your positioning.
The most dangerous place to be on a bike is on the inside of a car. We drive on the left here in the UK so you are at your most vulnerable when you are to the left of either a stationary vehicle at a junction or on the inside of a vehicle, particularly and HGV, when they are turning left.
The main problem is one of expectation and visibility. Most of the time, in this position, you are in a driver’s blind spot and not visible. Also, driver’s aren’t trained to give way to traffic from their left they always instinctively look right. Being on the left you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position.
If you are approaching a junction with a row of standing vehicles it is safer to queue with them ie behind them than it is to sneak up on the left.
In slow moving traffic never overtake on the inside – even if the cycle lane encourages you to do so, all it takes is a left turning vehicle to cross your path and you are off your bike and onto the road.
Take special care around HGVs, particularly on roundabouts and corners as they may not be able to see you and can very easily cut into a corner with you on the inside and pull you under the vehicle.
Being hit on the left (inside) is the most common cause of cycling accidents. Just don’t do it.
3 – Think Invisible
If you assume that no other road users can see you and that they are all distracted incompetents than you will be well on your way to keeping safe on your bike! Assume you are invisible and assume that they haven’t seen you. This will encourage you to ride more defensively and also to take responsibility for your own safety. Don’t assume that it is the driver’s responsibility to look out for you, take on the responsibility yourself and assume that all drivers are unaware of you – make them see you.
On a practical level this means making sure that you are wearing appropriate clothing and that in poor visibility you have lights. No excuse. There is no excuse for the suicidal stupidity of a cyclist out at night without lights in dark clothing. It’s moronic. Even in the daytime it beats me why cyclists would wear all black as some seem to do. In many ways the brighter the better, dress to be seen and make sure that at least your top is predominantly brightly coloured.
It can even be worth having a flashing rear light on your bike during daylight hours as well. They do catch the attention of drivers and, although a bit contentious, draw attention to the cyclist. They might be a bit annoying but surely the attention adds to the safety of the cyclist?
4 – Make eye contact
Again, this one comes down to making drivers aware of your presence. If you approaching a junction eyeball the drivers who are around you – not in an aggressive way but in a positive and confident manner. Even if they are not looking at you we do seem to have an unconscious sense of another person staring at us and will often turn to look round. For example if you are cycling along at a reasonable speed and a vehicle emerges to join the road from the left – if you are a little more in the centre of the road (if safe) and you have made eye contact with the driver you are far more likely to bee seen than if you were head down right into the side.
In a more extreme example of this I have, on more than one occasion, been saved from a car running into my path by shouting. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, drivers just don’t see you. As a last resort, as the driver is pulling into my path I have yelled “NO” and they have braked and saved the day. This really is a technique to use if all else fails and can usually be avoided!
5 – Be aware of traffic behind you
It’s all too easy to become a little absorbed in our own cycling world and forget that there is traffic behind us as well as in front. Periodic glancing behind not only keeps you aware of what’s happening but also catches the eye of motorists behind you as well. They have a sense of being watched, or at least that you are aware of them.
6 – Practice Clipping In
A majority of road cyclists will use a clipless pedal system which is great when you are out on the road but less practical when you are in traffic and stopping and starting all the time. When you are clipping back in, particularly in traffic, you have to be able to do it quickly and, most importantly without looking down! We have all been guilty of this but, just consider how dangerous it is to be in moving traffic, looking down at your pedal to get your shoe clipped back in!
It’s a vital skill to master and you might well need to methodically practice clipping in and out on a quiet road before doing “for real” in traffic. It has to become automatic and second nature. You really need to be giving your full attention to the road in traffic and not worrying about which way round your pedals are!
7 – Check your braking distance
This sounds more like what you have to do to pass your driving test but it’s equally as important for your safety when out on your bike! The important thing is to make sure that you can always stop safely without running into anything.
The key here is to be aware of your speed and also the prevailing weather and road conditions. Obviously the faster you are going the longer it will take to stop and also the wetter it is the longer it will take to stop as well. On wet roads or roads with a poor surface there is always a risk of skidding so extra care should be taken and extra allowance made for braking distance and stopping safely.
The condition of the bike’s brakes will also be an important factor and it should rally go without saying that you should always make sure that your brakes are in full working condition. Check the pads regularly and adjust the brake clearances to make sure that you can always rely on your brakes in an emergency.
It is also good practice, particularly in traffic, to cycle in a position where your hands are ready on the brake levers. There is a tendency, particularly on a road bike, to ride on the tops where the brake levers are out of reach and you could waste valuable fractions of a second in reaction time if you have to brake quickly. You can brake more quickly with your hands on the hoods but most quickly on the drops as the levers are in the optimum position. Your centre of balance is lower and better placed for manouverability on the drops as well and this can be a safer position when riding in traffic.
Having said that though I do feel more visible when high on the hoods rather than crouched down on the drops. I think I can make better eye contact and make my presence felt more easily – it really depends on the prevailing road conditions and common sense.
8 – Use and practice signalling
Personally I find hand signalling on my road bike tricky. I’m just not that great at balancing and, with the narrow handlebars and the naturally highly strung feel of a road bike the temptation is not to bother signalling at all and hope for the best.
Also it doesn’t really feel all that cool to be wearing tight aero cycling gear, be on a light weight bike in a crouched aerodynamic position and then to be flailing your arms around at the traffic!
It seems blindingly obvious but, as a car driver too, the number of cyclists that just assume that you physically know where they are going is astounding! Signalling your intentions is absolutely vital for your safety and there really is no excuse for not doing it. If you feel a bit wobbly for a start then you need to practice! Find a nice quiet road and, for a start, practice riding one handed and, as your confidence grows practice signalling clearly from both sides. The hardest thing is signalling and also looking over your should er behind – practice it. It’s a vital road cycling skill.
9 – Take care when setting off
Fast cars, poor visibility at the side of the road. A cyclist wobbling slowly into the stream of traffic on the left – you get the idea. You are at one of your most vulnerable points when you are setting off both in terms of balance and also in terms of positioning in the road.
Do not just plonk your bike into the road and get on. You must be aware of other road users, filter into the flow and remember that a driver probably won’t expect you to be getting onto your bike at this point!
11 – Go on a course
Whilst writing this post I’ve realise that a lot of what I have been thinking has been from the viewpoint of a driver. I have ridden bikes all my life and driven a car for about 25 years so it’s relatively easy for me to get into the mindset of a driver and to see the safety of a cyclist from that point of view.
You are much more likely to have an accident on a bike if you don’t know how to think like a driver and you don’t have any “road training”. Just think about it – you are perfectly at liberty to ride a bike without having any idea about the highway code. It’s a bit crazy really!
So, if you don’t drive or feel you don’t have a good understanding of how roads work then it may well be very worthwhile going on a cycling safety course. In fact why not go on one anyway? It will increase your confidence and make your cycling safer and it could just save your life!
12– Wear a helmet
Finally, I’ve left the obvious one ’till last. I’m aware that I might have come across as a bit “preachy” above and I’m afraid that I just can’t help it when it comes to the question of wearing a cycle helmet. I’ve had plenty of preaching practice on this one as both of my teenagers refuse to wear one despite my frequent protestations.
I can’t see any reasonable justification for not wearing a cycle helmet. My children won’t because they think they look stupid and mess their hair up which I’m afraid is a pathetic excuse.
Why would you take the risk? It makes no sense to me at all but you must, of course, unless it is a legal requirement make up your own mind.