Editor’s Note: I love it when I get an email out of the blue from an RBR reader offering to write an article on some aspect of road cycling about which they’re an expert – especially since it slots in perfectly with our ongoing series of articles about safe-riding and skills that help us avoid crashes, etc. It also gets to the heart of our reason for being: Sharing knowledge with each other to make us safer, better riders. The following is from Premium Member Fred Goss, a California attorney, long-time commuter and avid roadie. His “Letter to Lenny” was first written in response to a newbie who wanted to know how to ride safely. —John Marsh
I would like to respond to your comments about how you ride your bike in traffic. I think this is a very important discussion for bike riders. It is my opinion that the majority of bike riders simply do not know how to ride safely. By way of background, I have been riding seriously for 30+ years. I commute daily, rain or shine, including riding to court. I have had several dozen injured cyclists as clients and have learned a lot from their accidents and my own cycling experience. As part of my initial client interview, I give them my safety lecture, which is sort of what follows below. (I don’t think there is a need here to discuss the use of helmets.)
The biggest fear cyclists have is getting whacked from behind. To avoid this, they place themselves in more danger: riding close to parked cars, on sidewalks or against traffic. The biggest danger cyclists actually face is from what I call “cross traffic,” which is anything which cuts across your path of travel: car doors opening; pedestrians or children stepping in front of you; cars turning; cars pulling out of side streets, driveways or parking lots.
While some cyclists do get hit from behind, I have found this is the result of drivers thinking they have enough room to get by the cyclist who is doing everything to stay away from rear-coming traffic. (Occasionally there is the psycho driver who will purposely hit a cyclist; there is not much you can do about that no matter how safe you ride.) The vast majority of injured cyclists are injured by “cross traffic.”
So how do you ride safely? In two words: RIDE WIDE. As counter-intuitive as it seems at first, this means riding your bike just like you drive your car. Take your place in the road and keep it unless you need to take evasive action. When commuting, I wear a very garish bright yellow/orange reflective safety vest of the sort used by road crews, which makes it ideal for riding 24/7. I have a “halo” around the rim of my helmet – they are made for use on a motorcycle helmet – which allows me to be seen hundreds of feet away at night. My current commuter bike (a very nice Specialized Eleven Source) has a powerful Supernova light system, but on my old bike I used a clear blinking light in front and a red blinking light in back.
The first part of RW is to ride at least 5-6 feet from parked cars and taking your rightful place on the road EVEN IF this puts you in front of rear-coming traffic. If cars can see you AND if they know where you are going, it is very unlikely they will hit you. By riding 5-6 feet out from parked cars, you avoid doors opening into you. (I think this is the No. 1 cause of injured cyclists.) Drivers who are parked along the road and are attempting to enter traffic will be looking for rear-coming vehicles, not bikes. But if you are safely away from parked cars, these drivers will be much more likely to see you. This position will also allow you to see brake lights, back-up lights, front wheels turning and other indicators of a parked car moving.
This position will also allow you focus on the traffic in front of you – the “cross traffic” – where the real danger is. If a door suddenly flies open in front of you, especially if you are focusing on other potential dangers, you will be out of the way. You will not be forced to make a sudden turn into rear-coming traffic to avoid the door; you will not be knocked out into traffic if the door would have hit you.
One of the most important reasons for having this buffer zone is that it gives you another place to move to if you need to take evasive action. If you are riding up against parked cars, you literally have no place to go.
The second part of RIDE WIDE is to ride in a straight line, even if there are many empty parking places along the street. If you pull over into these empty places, you give rear-coming traffic permission to go on by you. But at some point if there are cars parked ahead of you, you have to look behind you – and thereby taking your eyes off “cross traffic” – to make sure it is safe to pull back into the flow of traffic. If that parked car is just about to pull into traffic itself, or if its driver is about to open the door, you will very likely not be able to react because you are not looking ahead!
Riding in a straight line allows the drivers behind you to see you, to see where you are going, and to react accordingly. Even when you come to a stop sign or stop light, keep your place in the road. If you pull over to the curb like so many cyclists do, you allow rear-coming traffic to take your place. Then as you proceed ahead, you are again faced with the problem of pulling back into rear-coming traffic and ignoring “cross traffic” just ahead of you.
But what about making left turns or having to leave your line of travel? Before I make any moves to the left, I first put my left arm straight out and keep it there. Once it is safe to look, I will turn my head to see if it’s safe to move to the left. I have found that most of the time cars will let you move over because they know which way you intend to go. I will wave “thanks” to the driver and move over.
I have found that RW works in most but not all situations. If I diverge from RW, I make a conscious choice to do so. If I am riding on a city street where the traffic is cruising at 50 mph, I might take an alternative route, even if it means riding on a sidewalk. But now that I have deviated from RW, I am aware of the dangers of riding on a sidewalk.
It takes practice to get the confidence to Ride Wide, but you will find riding a bike is really much more enjoyable when you control the space around you. Drivers will actually work with you when they can see you and know where you are headed. (As drivers, we all do this when we see cyclists, don’t we?)
Even if a driver yells at you or blows his or her horn, you have time to make a choice about what to do because the driver has seen you! You can signal the driver to pull around you, or you may want to pull into your buffer zone. I have found the vast majority of drivers to be courteous to me. Perhaps one out of a thousand drivers who pass me may blow his or her horn or yell at me. But they have seen me! Which means the chances are very good they won’t hit me.
And, bottom line, this is what we want.
Fred Goss is an attorney in Oakland, California. His focus has been on personal injury litigation for the past 30 years. He is an 18-time Ironman, including a trip to the World Championship in Kona. He has been commuting to work on his bike for almost 25 years. He has represented dozens of injured cyclists over the years. Fred can be reached at 510-832-0199.