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Bicycle Safety: How to Not Get Hit by Cars

"Since I've become more observant of how bikes and cars interact, I've decided that bicyclists have two major safety threats: cars and themselves." -- Lee Nichols

 BICYCLE SAFETYThis article shows you real ways you can get hit and real ways to avoid them. This is a far cry from normal bike safety guides, which usually tell you little more than to wear your helmet and to follow the law. While helmets offer some added security, they do nothing to prevent you from getting hit by a car. As for advice to follow the law, most people are already aware that it's stupid to race through a red light when there's cross traffic, so the "follow the law" advice isn't that helpful because it's too obvious. What you'll find here are several scenarios that maybe AREN'T that obvious.

The other problem with the "follow the law" message is that people may think that's all they need to do. But following the law is not enough to keep you safe, not by a long shot. Here's an example: Your typical safety guide will tell you to always signal your turns. While this is a good idea, what they DON'T tell you is that if you're in a position where a car has to know that you're about to turn in order to avoid hitting you, then you're a prime candidate for getting hit. Even if you signal.

(Obviously, cruising through a stop sign when there's no cross traffic isn't necessarily dangerous, but I can't recommend that you do so, because it's against the law, not because it's unsafe. You should understand the difference. By all means follow the law, but understand why you're doing so.)

The emphasis on helmets in other bike safety guides may lead people to believe that wearing a helmet magically makes them safe. But consider this for a moment: Wearing a helmet will do absolutely nothing to prevent you from getting hit by a car! Sure, helmets might help you if you get hit, and it's a good idea to wear one, but your #1 goal should be to avoid getting hit in the first place. Plenty of cyclists are killed by cars even though they were wearing helmets. Ironically, if they had ridden WITHOUT helmets, yet followed the guidelines listed below, they might still be alive today. Don't confuse wearing a helmet with biking safely. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Don't get hit.

Ten Ways to Not Get Hit

Collision Type #1: The Right Cross

BICYCLE SAFETY This is one of the most common types of collision or potential collisions. A car is pulling out of a side street, parking lot, or driveway on the right. Notice that this are actually two different kinds of possible collisions here: Either you're in front of the car and the car hits you, or the car pulls out in front of you and you slam into it.

How to avoid this collision:

1. Get a headlight. If you're riding at night, you should absolutely use a front headlight. It's required by law, anyway.

2. Honk. Get a bell or a horn and USE IT whenever you see a car approaching (or waiting) ahead of you and to the right. If you don't have a horn, then yell "Hey!" You may feel awkward honking or yelling, but it's better to be embarrassed than to get hit. Do it.

3. Slow down. If you can't make eye contact with the driver (especially at night), slow down so much that you're able to completely stop if you have to. Sure, it's inconvenient, but it beats getting hit. Doing this has saved my life on too many occasions to count.

4. Move left. Notice the two blue lines "A" and "B" in the diagram. You're probably used to riding in "A", very close to the curb, because you're worried about being hit from behind. But take a look at the car in the diagram. When that motorist is looking down the road for traffic, they're not looking in the bike lane or the area closest to the curb; they're looking in the MIDDLE of the lane, for other cars. The farther left you are (such as in "B"), the more likely the driver will see you. There's an added bonus here: if the motorist doesn't see you and starts pulling out, you may be able to go even FARTHER left, or may be able to speed up and get out of the way before impact, or roll onto their hood as they slam on their brakes.

In short, it gives you some options. Because if you stay all the way to the right and they pull out, your only "option" may be to run right into the driver's side door. Using this method has saved me on three occasions in which a motorist ran into me and I wasn't hurt, and in which I definitely would have slammed into their driver's side door had I not moved left.

Of course, there's a tradeoff. Riding to the far right makes you invisible to the motorists ahead of you at intersections, but riding to the left makes you vulnerable to the cars behind you. Your actual lane position may vary depending on how wide the street is, how many cars there are, how fast & how close they pass you, and how far you are from the next intersection. On fast roadways with few cross streets, you'll ride farther to the right, and on slow roads with many cross streets, you'll ride farther left.

Collision Type #2: The Door Prize

 BICYCLE SAFETY A driver opens his door right in front of you. You run right into it if you can't stop in time. If you're lucky, the motorist will exit the car before you hit the door, so you'll at least have the pleasure of smashing them too when you crash, and their soft flesh will cushion your impact.

How to avoid this collision:

Ride to the left. Ride far enough to the left that you won't run into any door that's opened unexpectedly. You may be wary about riding so far into the lane that cars can't pass you easily, but you're MUCH more likely to get doored by a parked car if you ride too close to it than you are to get hit from behind by a car which can clearly see you.

Collision Type #3: Red Light of Death

 BICYCLE SAFETY You stop to the right of a car that's already waiting at a red light or stop sign. They can't see you. When the light turns green, you move forward, and then they turn right, right into you. Even small cars can do you in this way, but this scenario is especially dangerous when it's a bus or a semi that you're stopping next to. An Austin cyclist was killed in 1994 when he stopped to the right of a semi, and then it turned right. He was crushed under its wheels.

How to avoid this collision:

Don't stop in the blind spot. Look at the diagram. Stop either either point A, where the driver can see you, or at point B, behind the first car so it can't turn into you, and far enough ahead of the second car so that the second car can see you clearly. And it does no good to avoid stopping to the right of the first car if you're going to make the mistake of stopping to the right of the second car. EITHER car can do you in.

If you chose spot A, then ride quickly to cross the street as soon as the light turns green. Don't look at the motorist to see if they want to go ahead and turn. First of all, if you're in spot A and they want to turn, then you're in their way. Why did you take spot A if you weren't eager to cross the street when you could? When the light turns green, just go, and go quickly. (But make sure cars aren't running the red light on the cross street, of course.)

If you chose spot B, then when the light turns green, DON'T pass the car in front of you -- stay behind it, because it might turn right at any second. If it doesn't make a right turn right away, it may turn right into a driveway or parking lot unexpectedly at any point. Don't count on drivers to signal! They don't. Assume that a car can turn right at any time. (NEVER pass a car on the right!) But try to stay ahead of the car behind you until you're through the intersection, because otherwise they might try to cut you off as they turn right.

While I'm not advocating running red lights, notice it is in fact safer to break the law and run the red light if there's no cross traffic, than it is to wait legally at the red light directly to the right of a car, only to have it make a right turn right into you when the light turns green. The moral here is not that you should break the law, but that you can easily get hurt even if you follow the law.

Collision Type #4: The Right Hook

 BICYCLE SAFETY A car passes you and then tries to make a right turn directly in front of you, or right into you. They think you're not going very fast just because you're on a bicycle, so it never occurs to them that they can't pass you in time. Even if you have to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting them, they often won't feel they've done anything wrong. This kind of collision is very hard to avoid because you typically don't see it until the last second, and because there's nowhere for you to go when it happens.

How to avoid this collision:

1. Ride to the left. Taking up the whole lane makes it harder for drivers to pass you to cut you off or turn into you. Don't feel bad about taking the lane: if motorists didn't threaten your life by turning in front of or into you or passing you too closely, then you wouldn't have to. If the lane you're in isn't wide enough for cars to pass you safely, then you should be taking the whole lane anyway. Lane position is discussed in more detail below.

2. Glance in your mirror before approaching an intersection. (If you don't have a mirror, get one now.) Be sure to look in your mirror well before you get to the intersection. When you're actually going through an intersection, you'll need to be paying very close attention to what's in front of you.

Collision Type #5: The Right Hook, Pt. 2

 BICYCLE SAFETY You're passing a slow-moving car (or even another bike) on the right, when it unexpectedly makes a right turn right into you, trying to get to a parking lot,driveway or side street.

How to avoid this collision:

1. Don't pass on the right. This collision is very easy to avoid. Just don't pass any vehicle on the right. If a car ahead of you is going only 10 mph, then you slow down, too, behind it. It will eventually start moving faster. If it doesn't, pass on the left when it's safe to do so.

When passing cyclists on the left, announce "on your left" before you start passing, so they don't suddenly move left into you. (Of course, they're much less likely to suddenly move left without looking, where they could be hit by traffic, then to suddenly move right, into a destination.) If they're riding too far to the left for you to pass safely on the left, then announce "on your right" before passing on the right.

If a bunch of cars are stopped at a light, then you can try passing on the right cautiously, being prepared in case the traffic starts moving again unexpectedly, or you may suffer #3, the Red Light of Death.

Note that when you're tailing a slow-moving vehicle, ride behind it, not in its blind spot immediately to the right of it. Even if you're not passing a car on the right, you could still run into it if it turns right while you're right next to it. Give yourself enough room to brake if it turns.

2. Look behind you before turning right. Here's your opportunity to avoid hitting cyclists who violate tip #1 above and try to pass you on the right. Look behind you before making a right-hand turn to make sure a bike isn't trying to pass you. (Also remember that they could be coming up from behind you on the sidewalk while you're on the street.) Even if it's the other cyclist's fault for trying to pass you on the right when you make a right turn and have them slam into you, it won't hurt any less when they hit you.

| Go to Part II of this article |


Copyright Michael Bluejay, bicyclesafe.com. Reprinted with permission.







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