Some tips and advice on how to ride safely and competently.
No 1: Ride to survive. Play the odds and minimise your risks. This means knowing the major risks for cyclists and either avoiding them or being extra careful if you cant.
What are the major risks? From my reading on the subject, the major risks of serious injury for adult cyclists are: accidents at intersections, including roundabouts; being hit by car doors opening; being hit by traffic when riding onto a road from the footpath or driveway; “left hooks” by motor vehicles when turning left or changing lanes carelessly and “right hooks” when a motorist turns right in front of an oncoming cyclist. Many cyclists are more worried about being hit by vehicles coming up behind them and not overtaking safely, but this is probably not as common a bike accident as the other types, but leading to more serious injuries on higher speed roads.
For children, most accidents are of the losing control type – just plain falling off when hitting a bump or going too fast around a corner etc, often compounded by having a bike that is too big or brakes that dont work. But the more severe childrens’ accidents occur when they ride onto a road from a driveway or from between parked cars without checking for other vehicles. Parents must teach children to stop when entering a street and look left and right, and what to do at intersections.
Intersections. Ask yourself: Is that on-coming motorist going to turn right across me and has he seen me? Is the motorist behind me going to overtake and turn left in front of me? Is the motorist on the side street going to give way to me? Is that driver going to run the red light on the cross street? Has the driver entering or about to enter the roundabout seen me? Children need to learn about giving way at intersections and when you have to stop.
Left turning trucks and buses. Be very careful of large vehicles turning left at an intersection. Don’t get trapped against the kerb. Make sure the driver knows you are there by moving in front of the vehicle if you can and making eye contact- either that or stay behind the vehicle, well out of the way of the back wheels, which often track very close to or over the kerb when the vehicle turns left. The driver may not check his mirrors once he is turning.
You will try to be aware at all times and anticipate problems before they happen.This is one of the joys of cycling – it needs mental alertness. You can’t doze off and go onto auto pilot on a bike, at least not around the city and not on country roads either – look for potholes and even snakes!
Be consistent and positive. Ride in a straight line, dont weave in and out. Look confident and signal clearly and definitely so motorists know what you are doing.This way you have a greater chance of avoiding any conflict.
Changing lanes and merging is another area where you need to practice some skills. If you just dart out in front of other vehicles and hope they give way you are very likely to be hit, so always look behind you, check you have time to move into the next lane, signal, then change lanes quickly but smoothly. Sometimes you need to start changing lanes well before a right turn lane for instance, to give yourself plenty of time to get across into the desired lane. When wanting to turn right on a multi lane road you may need to change lanes in a step wise fashion, checking each time that you can move into the next lane. If you cant, hold your lane position until you can safely move into the next lane. If traffic is really heavy or too fast, stay in the left lane and use traffic lights to make a “box turn” (now legal – this is where you pull over to the left and stop in front of the traffic on the cross street and use the change of lights to proceed in the new direction), or dismount and cross as a pedestrian.
On narrow roads or where lanes are narrow (less than about 3.5m), and cars are overtaking too close to you for comfort, you should practise “taking the lane” – that is, riding in the centre of the lane, or at least out 1.5m from the left hand side so that motorists get the hint to change lanes when overtaking. This is perfectly legal and is recognised in the Motor Traffic Handbook. However dont insist on doing this if it puts you in greater danger, such as when a large truck insists on passing and there is oncoming traffic – you may just have to move over to the left and let the truck by.
There are other times you should ride out a bit from the kerb – such as when the edge is broken or there is a lot of glass and rubbish on the side. Riding out helps keep you visible and if you keep a straight line and look confident most motorists will have no trouble going around you. Another place to “take the lane” is on the approach to a road narrowing, for example a traffic calming slow point or a kerb extension at a pedestrian crossing or entry to a small roundabout. Move out well before the road narrows (check behind to see if you can do this safely). This will help prevent cars overtaking you at the squeeze point, and put you in the best position to go through a small roundabout (big ones can also be handled like this, but you can also keep left). If only more roundabouts were like this one in Chatswood, Sydney.
Parked cars and opening doors are a real problem, but best handled by either riding out far enough to avoid any doors or riding slowly and keeping an eagle eye out for anyone about to get out of the car. Many drivers park badly, ie too far from the kerb. If you see such a car ahead it is probably best to move out into the traffic lane, checking behind before you do to see if it is safe, and give the car sufficient room in case the door is opened. On many Sydney streets (typically 12.8 m wide) bike/parking lanes are being marked at 3.4 m, below the minimum Austroads standard of 3.7 m. Because of this you will often be in two minds where to ride, close to parked cars or out in the traffic lane. In my opinion it is usually best on these streets (like Glebe Point Rd or Darling St in Leichhardt) to position yourself on the white line or up to half a metre into the traffic lane, away from car doors. Following traffic will generally slow and wait till they can overtake. If you are in the bike parking lane and can’t get out and there are cars parked in it, slow down and keep a look out.
Riding on the wrong side of the road. This is dangerous because you may hit a cyclist riding correctly and who is not expecting anyone coming head on at them. Also, you are increasing the head on risk with motor cars. Accidents tend to be severe because the speed of collision is higher – impact velocity = your speed plus the cars speed. Also you cant see the road signs – they are facing the “wrong” way.
Some motorists may abuse you or even threaten you. The best strategy usually is to assert your rights (I am entitled to use the road, you are not allowed to harrass, menace or threaten me) but dont escalate the situation- keep on going or leave the scene, rather than continue any argument. If you can, take down the licence plate and make and colour of car if you are really threatened, or if injured, and report it to the police. They will sometimes take action against the motorist, although witnesses are usually required and there have been many cases where police have failed to act. In this case report it to someone higher up or consult BNSW lawyers.
Staying in control
This means not going at top speed everywhere, especially downhill, and riding at a pace where you can stop soon enough if a vehicle does turn in front or a pedestrian walks out on the road. Also by riding a little slower you will conserve energy and have some left if a real need for speed occurs or quick reactions are needed.
Maintain your bike, particularly brakes and tyres (keep tyres pumped up and replace them when worn or damaged). Give your bike a quick once over before riding to see if there is any obvious problem – chain, brakes, tyres, handlebars, stem, seat. Get a professional bike check at your local bike shop once a year.See Park Tools for handy bike repair and maintenance tips. Bicycle NSW has good books on bike maintenance.
Wear a helmet – even a small bump can damage the brain. After a while you forget you have it on, and it keeps the police happy. There isnt much evidence that they reduce fatalities and motorists should wear them too but its no big deal to put a lid on.Make sure it fits properly, especially on your children, and do it up correctly. Note added in 2016: fines for not wearing a helmet are over $300.
Know the road rules. The rules help you understand behaviour of other vehicles on the road. You are classed as a “driver of a vehicle” by law, and the rules do apply to you.Cyclists who do crazy things like totally ignoring traffic lights or jumping off kerbs into traffic without looking are really giving all cyclists a bad name – some “street wise but street legal” cyclists may help to retain the balance.
You might choose to break a few rules, like the average motorist does,(I dont condone it) but if you at least know the rules you will also understand the risks of what you are doing.
The give-way rules are probably the most important ones and you should know them.
Lights and clothes. Always have a decent light front and back at night. A head on collision is quite likely if you buzz around without a front light so have both. You may think there is enough light from street lamps etc but there are dark areas where a light is essential. A red flasher at the back is ok, but attach it firmly so that it points straight back and not down to the ground or out to one side. A steady white front light is best but the bright flashing front lights are highly visible. Wear something white or reflective at night, and something bright during the day.
Cycling in the rain. Your brakes may not work very well in the wet, so ride slowly and take extra care to avoid oily or slippery surfaces. Motorists may be having problems seeing out too so take that into account.
Cycling in a group. You may feel safer when riding with other cyclists but there are some things to watch. It is easy to fall off if you touch wheels with the cyclist in front of you, so keep a close watch on your front tyre and the rear wheel of the rider in front. Don’t get too close or overlap wheels, and keep a little to one side as well. Ride in a straight line and watch out for cyclists who tend to wobble or veer or slow unexpectedly (there is often a day dreamer on a ride, or someone who is just inexperienced). Don’t blindly follow the pack – always make sure you can make the turn, go through an intersection or change lanes safely. The lead cyclists might be quite OK but cyclists further back may not have time to get through safely.
You are allowed to ride two abreast, and a third cyclist can pass legally. Riding two abreast is often safer than riding single file, because a car has a shorter distance to go to overtake the whole group, but riding two abreast does take some practice. Allow motorists to pass when it is safe to do so, particularly if they have been patient and given you a fair go. A little bit of courtesy is a good thing.
Dont stop suddenly when riding with a group. Signal clearly and move to the left well off the road or path before stopping.
Shared Path Etiquette, or smile when you pass.
Cycling numbers are increasing. There are many shared paths around these days (too many some say, there should be more separate cycleways) and cyclists and pedestrians often become irate at each other.
Pedestrians are often oblivious of their surroundings, congregate in the middle of paths for a talk, and let dogs wander across the path. Cyclists ride too fast, pass too close, dont give warning when approaching and abuse dog walkers, amongst other behaviours.
By law cyclists on a shared path are obliged to give way to pedestrians, which means slowing and if necessary stopping to avoid a collision. You should also leave one metre clearance when passing if possible- this is not a rule but is recommended in the new regulations issued in 2016. Bells must be attached to bikes- and do not hesitate to use them to warn pedestrians, in plenty of time. Use your voice too, to say “passing on your right or left” as the case may be.
Not as well known is that pedestrians are obliged by law (see the Australian Road Rules) not to obstruct other users on a shared path, which means (my interpretation) that they should move out of the way of a cyclist if they are aware of a cyclist trying to pass, and they are blocking the way; not stop to talk in the middle of a path; restrain children, strollers and dogs etc. But do be patient, it may take time to clear the path.
These laws seem reasonable and not onerous on walkers or cyclists.
Mutual cooperation, understanding and respect should allow all users to move freely and safely.
There are a lot of web sites with bike safety stuff on them too, so have a surf around. See the links page for starters.
Added in 2016- see this link to group riding basics from Bicyclenetwork.