My used bike buying guide has been way more popular than anything I have ever written.
Since it is geared towards new riders, I feel obligated to share some statistics I just learned - confirming what I have known for many years - about the best ways to stay safe in traffic.
Riding among fast moving two-ton steel machines can be very nerve wracking when you first start out.
The number one fear of most new cyclists in traffic is getting hit from behind by a driver, but it is important to know that this is, statistically, actually the rarest type of accident.
The most common are at intersections and driveways, when the driver didn't see the cyclist - usually because they weren't expecting the bike to be where it was. That's why I (and the official League bike safety classes) recommend riding with the normal flow of traffic.
Riding with the normal flow of traffic means riding in the street, to the right (in America at least), and obeying basic traffic laws, such as stopping for red lights and going the correct way on one-way streets. It means never riding against traffic (facing on-coming cars) and never riding on the sidewalk.
Although it feels much safer to be on the sidewalk, away from the cars, in reality most accidents happen at driveways and intersections, and a driver is less likely to see you if you are anywhere other than the street.
You reduce your statistical chance of being hit by a car by somewhere roughly on the order of 90% compared to the average rider just by riding predictably, following the law, and being extra visible, because, as it turns out, the vast majority of bike accidents are (at least partially) the cyclists' fault.
So what exactly does riding safely entail?
There are several ways a car and bike can make contact:
(If you are having trouble visualizing what I am describing, the following two websites have similar information, along with pictures of examples of each. Note that they both come to the same ultimate conclusions:
http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/chapter2a.htm and/or http://bicyclesafe.com/ )
- Bike is at intersection (or driveway) going straight, car on cross street hits (or is hit by) bike.
Much of the time, this is because the cyclist ran a stop sign or red light.
Another common reason is because the cyclist was not riding with the normal flow of traffic. Car drivers tend to naturally look only where they expect to find cars coming from, so they don't notice bikes coming from somewhere else.
This can also happen because the cyclist did not have a headlight on in poor visibility. A car's headlights don't light up your reflectors from a 90 degree angle.
Solution 1: Do not run lights/signs.
Solution 2: Never ride on the sidewalk, or against traffic.
Solution 3: Use a bright headlight - even in daytime if visibility is poor (even cloudy / overcast) - see the next section, below, for more on being visible.
- Bike is at intersection going straight, car comes up from behind, turns right in front of bike
Solution 1: Do not hug the shoulder. Ride as far as a parked car away from the curb, even when there is no parked car there.
Solution 2: Again, do not ride on the sidewalk, as a turning driver won't expect anything faster than a pedestrian to be coming into a crosswalk.
Solution 3: Do not ride in a right turn lane if you are going straight. Cross over to the same lane cars going straight use. Either ride the stripe between lanes, or take the forward lane, depending on the situation.
- Bike is at intersection going straight, oncoming car turns left into bike
Solution: Combination of the two above: use bright flashing headlight, even in daytime, and ride out in the lane where you are more visible. Also, pay attention, and be ready to brake at all times. (In the event that this does happen, turning right, with the car, is your best bet to avoid a collision.)
- Bike is riding too close to a parked car, driver of parked car opens the door and bike hits it
Solution: Ride several feet to the left of parked cars
Someone asked me the question, what do you do when there isn't enough room to stay far enough from parked cars without getting in the way of traffic? That's certainly not an uncommon scenario. One thing that can help is looking into the rear window of each parked car you pass, to see if it is occupied. This doesn't work at night, or when the sun is behind you and glare is in the windows, or if the windows are tinted, but it works often enough. If the section with limited space is small, and especially if it is either a 2 lane (each direction) road, or has only light traffic, check that no cars are right behind you, signal that you are moving left, and then ride in the center of the traffic lane. Cars will either have to go around you, or wait. This may annoy some drivers, but it is the safest option, and it is legal under those circumstances. Move to the right as soon as it is practical and safe, and wave any cars that have been stuck behind you through.
In the case where there isn't enough room for a long stretch, just ride in the "door zone", but ride slower than normal. This gives you more time to react, and in the unlucky case that you don't see the driver about to get out through the rear window, and the driver doesn't check before they open the door, and the timing works out that it opens immediately in front of you, an impact at 12mph is simply not that big a deal. You might get some cuts and bruises, but running into a car door at 12mph won't break any bones and it certainly won't kill you.
- Bike is just riding along, car comes up from behind and clips cyclist
Solution: Don't worry about it. This almost never happens. Seriously. Of all the types of bike/car collisions, it is the least common. For all practical purposes, it never happens. (That being said, there are some things you can do to reduce the risk even further, which I will get to below)
Yet this last one, being hit by passing cars, is the one that ALL new cyclists worry about the most.
Unless a cyclist is riding at night with no lights and no reflectors, it is pretty easy as a driver to see when you are coming up behind one. The one place even distracted drivers tend to be looking is the road straight ahead of them. They have plenty of time to see that you are there. Unlike with a side collision where the driver has very little time to see you and react, if a bike is going 15mph and a car is going 25, the relative speed is only 10mph because you are both going in the same direction.
Drivers rarely randomly swerve side-to-side when driving along a straight road. If they did, they would be constantly clipping the mirrors of parked cars, side-swiping each other, and running up on the curb when there is no shoulder. These things (almost) never happen, just like drivers don't run into cyclists from behind as they are passing them.
Even in the very unlikely case that a car did clip you from behind, it is most likely going to be their rear view mirror brushing your arm. This may, or may not, cause you to fall.
That being said, there are definitely a few skills you should have before venturing into traffic on a bike. As I pointed out just above, car drivers almost never randomly swerve to the right when driving. However, new and wobbly riders do sometimes swerve to the left. Before you venture onto streets with no bike lane or wide shoulder, it is important that you are able to ride in a perfectly straight line.
Next, you need to be able to ride in a straight line, while taking one hand of the handlebars (in order to use it to signal your intentions to other road users).
And finally, you need to be able to turn your head and look back over your shoulder while riding in a straight line (so you can check for cars before changing lanes or going around obstacles). This may sound silly to experienced riders, who don't remember how challenging that was to learn, and impossible to new riders. It may not be automatic, but it is easier to learn than initially learning to ride a bike, so if you have gotten this far, you can do it. Just spend some time practicing on an off street bike path or a big empty parking lot. Pick a painted stripe on the ground, and try riding on it. When you can ride along a 4" wide stripe without swerving off of it, try taking one hand off the bar and holding it out like you are signaling a left turn, and stay on the stripe, and when that's easy, look behind you and then check that you are still on the line.
I recommend NOT having a rear view mirror. If you are going to change lanes, it is important to actually turn your head and look. A mirror has a limited field of vision, and your own body/head blocks part of that field. Plus, like it says on the sticker, "objects are closer than they appear". If you are not planning to change position, there is no reason you need to know whether a car is approaching you from behind or not. If they are there, or not there, your actions should be exactly the same: don't suddenly swerve out into the traffic lane. Wanting to know if a car is approaching is just a manifestation of the fear of getting hit from behind, but that knowledge can not help you. There is no possible way to tell if the trajectory of a car behind you will have them pass you with 6" to spare, or with clip you with their mirror as they go by - the car is too big, the speeds are too fast, the clearance too small, and the driver could make a course correction at any moment. Therefore, regardless of if a car looks like it is going to pass close, you should simply keep riding in a straight line. You have a much better chance of injuring yourself by diving out of the way of a car that wasn't going to hit you anyway, than you do of successfully avoiding one that would have.
But if you need to turn and double check before changing lanes, and if it just makes you paranoid about something you can't do anything about anyway the rest of the time, what purpose does it serve? For the same reason, I find no reason not to wear stereo headphones - there is absolutely no way you can tell whether a car will hit you or not just by sound. Besides, you could be being passed by an electric car, or another faster cyclist, in which case hearing nothing doesn't mean you are safe. Therefore the habit of relying on sound to know if cars are around is a bad one - but I am not necessarily advocating riding with headphones either. In some places it is illegal, in which case you should probably avoid using them.
Because of the importance of not suddenly swerving into traffic, unless you have turned and checked and are sure nothing is coming, it is usually better to just ride over potholes, garbage, glass or other small obstacles in your path rather than going around. When there is an obstacle you can't go over (say, a delivery truck in the bikelane), or you need to cross the main traffic lane to reach the left turn lane, first turn and check if there is space to merge without getting hit, and put your left arm out to signal your intention. Then move over and ride in the center of the lane if you need to, to prevent cars from trying to force their way past you if there isn't room. Then get out of the way as soon as its safe, to avoid agitating drivers unnecessarily, and give them a sign to let them know they can pass.
A bike is considered a vehicle, and you have the same rights and responsibilities as a car driver.
As long as you are 1) visible and 2) predictable, it is safe to flow with traffic - even on dense, crowded, or high speed roads.
Uneducated drivers may be annoyed that you are riding in the street in the way you are legally supposed to, they aren't going to hit you deliberately (well, it does happen occasionally - but very very rarely. Still, depending on where you live, it may be prudent to carry a camera...)
Accidents happen because cyclists do things that drivers weren't expecting. That's why it isn't safe to ride the wrong way down the street, or to ride on the sidewalk (getting off and walking is of course always ok)
The best way to keep drivers from coming up way too close to you when there is no shoulder and barely enough room for both car and bike is, counter-intuitively, to move more to the left. Make them change lanes to pass you. If you hug the curb because you are afraid of cars, drivers will take advantage of that and squeeze past. Moving to the left - even if it means taking the entire lane, if you need to to be safe - is legal (but you will have to look it up yourself for your state).
Ride like you have as much right to the road as a car driver - because you do!
So, you read all this, and you still aren't convinced.
How about some actual stats collected from real life bike crashes?
The following is from http://www.bicyclinglife.com/Library/TaleOfThree.htm
At first, looking at the data, it doesn't look like this is true as the first two involve a car which should have stopped hitting a cyclist, but if you keep reading to "discussion" you find out that in the vast majority of those cases the cyclist was either riding the wrong way, or on the sidewalk (85%). In the 3rd most common, the cyclist ran a light or sign:
"The three most frequent collisions in Gainesville comprising 82 (51.9%) crashes involve the motorist facing either a traffic control device or merging from a midblock location and the bicyclist on a crossing path. Of these bicyclists, 65 (79.3%) were riding on the sidewalk facing traffic. [emphasis mine]
"These crash types ["Drive Out At Stop Sign," "Right Turn On Red," and "Drive Out At Midblock"] are more likely to occur as a result of riding on the sidewalk."In other words, the 3 types of common crashes which appear to be the fault of the driver, are all more likely from riding on the sidewalk (regardless of whether going with or against traffic). The next most frequent accident types are clearly the fault of the rider (failure to yield).
"Conclusions/Recommendations... Due to the inherent conflicts at driveways and intersections, bicyclists should ride in the street and not on the sidewalk. "So now you realize you should always ride in the street, with traffic, and follow the same traffic laws that apply to cars. But as a new rider, its still freakin scary.
The only way to get over that is to just do it, and keep doing it until it feels normal.
Think of it like riding a bike for the first time, or just learning to drive.
The second most common reason for bike car collisions, (after the bike rider doing something illegal and/or dangerous), is when a car driver fails to notice a bike - bikes tend to be less visible than cars. They are not only smaller, but they don't have lights built in.
But you can fix that.
Legally (at least in CA, but probably similar everywhere) after sunset and until sunrise, you need, at a minimum:
Front, rear and side reflectors (all bikes come with them stock - if yours are missing, you can replace them with reflective tape)
A white, front facing headlight.
A headlight is much more important than a taillight for the same reason you should ride on the street in the same direction of traffic.
At night a car's headlights light up your rear reflector, so they can see you with no taillight.
But as you approach an intersection, a car on the cross street has its headlight pointed straight ahead - not at you - so they don't see you. You need a light facing them or they can't see you at all.
While any front facing white light is sufficient to meet the minimum legal standard, I strongly suggest that no one skimp on lights, even if you never ride at night.
Even in day light, if it is overcast and cloudy, foggy, shady (like under overpasses or tree lined streets), or the sun is low in the sky, you are much more noticeable to drivers if you have a flashing light on.
At a minimum, you should get a light with either 3 or more regular LEDs, or one "super" LED (luxeon or cree), which is powered by either AAA, AA, or a rechargeable battery pack, and which has a flashing mode. These can be found for around $20 online or at any bikeshop, and are bright enough to be seen even in daytime.
Lights which run on button cell batteries are not powerful enough to be seen in daylight. It never hurts to augment your main light - I have a little button cell single led on the top of my helmet - but I recommend against using one as your primary light.
In addition, its a very good idea to have a bright, flashing, rear light - again, 3 or more regular LEDs, and/or a luxeon or cree "super" led, running on triple A, double A, or built-in rechargeable batteries.
If you ride at night, even occasionally, it is worthwhile to augment your flashing headlight with something bright enough to actually see where you are going (this also adds very substantially to your night time visibility). This means one or two super LEDs powered by a separate battery pack. Very few self-contained units can match the light output of the battery pack lights.
Look for a light rated for at least 200 lumens of output - the more the better.
These normally range from $100 to $300, and the brightest of them compete with a car's headlights in brightness. This may be as much as you spent on your bike, but it also may save your life. Considering that even if you buy the best bike components, you will never come close to the cost of a car, and that a bike can get you places gas-free, it is a reasonable investment.
I got a 1200 lumen (according to the manufacturer) headlight from MagicShine for about $50 from dx.com
A good idea for night riding is to mount one light on your handlebars, and another on your helmet. This way one is always facing forward, no matter what you are looking at, so oncoming and cross traffic cars see you, and you can use the other to look in different directions, or to briefly flash directly at cars that appear to be on a collision path with you and aren't slowing down (like when a car on a cross street passes the crosswalk and stops sticking out in the intersection). I have a red flashing light on the back of my helmet too, where it is up high and moves with the head. You can't have too much visibility.
In addition to your lights, I highly recommend one of those florescent safety green jackets (if the weather is cool) or vests (if its warm).
From personal observation, they are much more noticeable, night or day, then orange or yellow. In day time especially, they stand out even more than reflective clothing. At night color matters less than reflective stripes. With a jacket or vest you can wear whatever clothes you want for when you get to your destination, even a suit, and still have maximum visibility. When you get where you are going, the thin safety jacket or vest stuffs so small you can put it in a pocket.
Between bright lights and a high visibility jacket, (and, of course, riding in the street with traffic) your chances of getting hit by a driver who just didn't see you plummet.
At this point, if you want to add helmet lights, reflective tape on your bike and helmet, spoke lights, or a lazer beam bikelane (also available from dx.com) all that is just gravy.
I wear a pair of reflective gloves, (meant for cops directing traffic), so that drivers can see my hand signals at night.
So now you know. Apply what you have learned, and your chances of getting hit by (or hitting) a car become far below the statistical average, and you will actually be much safer biking in traffic than you would be driving. Add in the health benefits, and... well, its just obvious, isn't it?
Get out there and ride!