6 Counterintuitive Tips for Bicycling Safely In Traffic

My bicycle is my freedom machine. Whether it’s for transportation, recreation, exercise, or a way of traveling the world, cycling is one of my favorite things.

But my least favorite thing about cycling? Riding in traffic. Maybe you can relate?

In most places in the world, and certainly here in America where I live, roads are mainly designed for motorized vehicles. If you want to try and claim your space as a small and vulnerable human on a slow pedal-powered contraption, you need to be smart in order to stay safe.

Sadly, injuries and fatalities can and do happen when things go wrong for cyclists in traffic. In the United States in 2018 alone, 857 cyclists were killed in traffic accidents. We need better infrastructure, like bike lanes, to protect us, and we need drivers to pay attention. But we also need to do everything we can to ride carefully and defensively, because infrastructure isn’t good enough in many places, and drivers make mistakes.

There are already plenty of great guides out there on traffic safety for cyclists, so why do I want to add one more? Because I’ve ridden my bicycle 10,000+ miles in 9 countries over the last few years, and I’ve learned a few things that I feel aren’t covered adequately in most of these guides.

I’ve had a few close calls, and I’ve learned the hard way that some of the most important bicycle safety guidelines are not always what you would expect.

Basic Bike Safety Rules

First, a few basic rules that are fairly intuitive:

  • Ride with flow of traffic and follow traffic rules, which are mostly the same for cyclists as for cars (stop at stop signs and lights, etc)
  • Don’t just be visible, be unmissable. Wear bright clothing and always use lights and reflectors, especially at night (which is when half of cyclist traffic fatalities happen).
  • Be especially careful riding through intersections where vehicles might turn into you, a common cause of cyclist deaths. This is especially common with large trucks and buses turning right.
  • Signal your turns; a simple right hand or left hand held out to the side you plan to turn to is good enough.
  • Look for eye contact and body language from drivers. If you can’t see a driver seeing you, assume they don’t.
  • Wear a helmet (ideally a helmet with a good safety rating)

Those are all very important, but probably not too surprising if you’ve been riding for a little while.

Now, let’s get on to the cycling safety rules that might not be as obvious.

If only all roads were so nicely shared.

Avoid Riding on Sidewalks

When you’re feeling the squeeze on a busy road, that sidewalk looks oh-so-tempting. Yet it’s probably not the safest place to be riding. Drivers aren’t processing every detail; they’re scanning the street in front of them, and they’re not used to looking for bicycles zipping along the sidewalk. It’s all too common for a car to make a turn directly into a cyclist where the sidewalk crosses a side street or driveway.

Technically, in the US at least, it’s actually illegal to cycle on the sidewalk. Many cyclists do it anyway, and some drivers actually believe that we’re supposed to (I was once asked not-so-politely to “get on the f-ing sidewalk” by an angry driver in rural Missouri). We need to work on changing this perception.

That said, there ARE times when I will bail to the sidewalk and recommend that you do too. On streets with fast, heavy traffic and no shoulder, especially where there are not multiple lanes that would allow drivers to pass you safely, sometimes it really is better to poke along on the sidewalk. Just be especially alert whenever crossing driveways or intersections, and yield nicely to pedestrians.

Don’t Hug The Shoulder Too Closely

Simply put, don’t be a gutter bunny. I know it feels safer to hug the far right edge of the road, but this can be dangerous for several very important reasons:

  • Drivers visually scan the center of the road, not the edges, and are less likely to see you way over there.
  • If you give drivers just barely enough room to squeeze by you in their lane without having to cross the center line, some of them will cut it too close.
  • The edge of the road likely has more debris and obstacles (storm drains, trash, cracked asphalt, etc) which could cause you to crash or suddenly swerve into traffic.
  • If cars are parked along the road, you risk getting doored.
  • If cars are parked in the shoulder and you swerve around them to return to the curb, you risk popping back out and surprising a driver who didn’t see you.
Sometimes a nice wide shoulder is used as a parking space, and swerving back and forth around parked vehicles is dangerous.
Sometimes the shoulder is hazardous…

Hopefully you can see that as tempting as it is, hugging the gutter can be dangerous. But if we’re not riding close to the edge, doesn’t that mean we’re blocking traffic? Which brings me to…

Block Traffic (Sometimes)

Wait, what? This sounds like a surefire way to get flattened, or at least a honk and a one finger salute from the angry drivers behind you. But “taking the lane” or “controlling the lane,” as it’s often called, is sometimes your best option.

Though not every driver knows it, cyclists actually have a right to use the full lane when necessary. When is it necessary? To avoid all the dangers that come with being a gutter bunny (see above).

If you can’t safely ride far enough out of the traffic flow that vehicles can pass you with three feet of space, then you’re better off riding IN the traffic flow.

Of course you don’t want to do this ALL the time, and you will need to use your best judgment about when it’s appropriate.

Good times to take the lane include:

  • When approaching an intersection, to increase your visibility and decrease the chances of being hooked by a turning driver
  • In a roundabout / traffic circle, for the same reasons
  • Going through a pinch point where the shoulder disappears or the road narrows

To take the lane: start your movement well in advance, look over your shoulder and use a hand signal to show your intent, and then smoothly and predictably move left when there is a safe break in traffic.

While it’s your right to take the lane, I probably don’t have to tell you it’s courteous to not delay drivers more than necessary. A good rule of thumb is to pull over and let them pass when five or more vehicles are stuck behind you. I usually pull over even sooner, and if I’m actively blocking traffic I make sure I’m riding purposefully, not lazily dawdling along.

Don’t Watch Your Rear View Mirror Too Closely

They may look dorky, but I’m a big fan of rear view mirrors (this helmet mirror is the best I’ve found) for cycling in traffic. They let you keep an eye on the vehicles behind you on busy roads, and also spot infrequent cars on quiet roads without constantly looking over your shoulder.

Helmet mirror and high-viz vest: decked out for safe cycling.

But, I have spent enough time with one eye on my helmet mirror to know they can actually be dangerous too! Here’s why:

  • We don’t look over our shoulder as often when we can see traffic in a rear view mirror. This makes it harder for drivers to read our body language when we’re turning or changing lane position. Consider looking over your shoulder even when you don’t need to (it never hurts to double check) and definitely use hand signals to indicate turns and lane changes.
  • Mirrors can be distracting. Because traffic coming from behind seems to be outside our control and hard to keep an eye on, it’s easy to worry about it more than necessary. Being hit by a car coming from behind, especially when riding in a bike lane or shoulder, is actually not very common. Don’t spend so much time watching cars in the rear view mirror that you forget to scan ahead and to the side for obstacles and turning vehicles.

Which brings up my next cycling safety tip…

Don’t Worry So Much About Drivers…

… that you stop worrying about your own riding. I learned this the hard way during one of my closest calls ever. While riding the potholed shoulder of a fast highway in rural Missouri, I worried so much about the cars whizzing by to my left that I didn’t notice the pothole right in front of me.

The pothole knocked me off balance and sent my body falling uncontrollably toward the left, where cars were passing at 70mph. I hit the pavement just outside the white line, fortunately, and when I dusted myself off the only damage was wounded pride and an adrenaline overdose.

I learned an unforgettable lesson that day: motor vehicles are not the only source of risk. Maybe I’m more likely to be injured by getting distracted and making a mistake than I am to be hit from behind by a vehicle.

This type of rural road is an important place to stay alert, both to other drivers and to your own riding.

Don’t Be Too Careful

Ok, technically careful is good, but sometimes cyclists confuse “careful” with things like nervous, tentative, and reactive. This leads to unpredictable riding, sudden moves, ignoring what’s in front for what’s in the rear view mirror, and the dreaded gutter bunny syndrome discussed above.

All of these habits make us more vulnerable to crashes.

Your goal as a cyclist is to know the biggest risks, ride smartly to reduce them, and stay aware of your surroundings. THAT is being careful. You can still by careful and also ride predictably, smoothly, and when necessary assertively, as when taking the lane to ensure your safety.

A note for those who travel by bicycle, one of my favorite ways to see a new place: this is also very true overseas. I’ve cycled in highly chaotic traffic in cities like Hanoi, Vietnam and Khartoum, Sudan. In these places, if you hit the brakes at the wrong time or make an unpredictable move, you’re toast. It’s all about going with the flow and following the local “rules” of the road as you blend into the organized chaos.

DO Ride Safe

As you can hopefully see by now, some important bicycle safety tips are counterintuitive.

Instead of focusing on staying out of the way, try to ride predictably and assertively.

Worry less about the traffic behind you and more about what’s in front of and beside you.

Stay alert but not nervous, be unmissably visible, and communicate with drivers via body language and eye contact.

If you do all those things, your odds of a safe trip are high! Enjoy the ride.

If only all the roads we cycle on could be like this: beautiful and empty!

More Cycling Resources

If you’re into cycling, you might also find these helpful:

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve biked over 10,000 miles (enough to stop counting) in nine countries and still haven’t kicked the bike travel bug. Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more or say hi.

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1 thought on “6 Counterintuitive Tips for Bicycling Safely In Traffic”

  1. Might I add: RIDE AT NIGHT. When it’s dark and you have the appropriate clothing and lights, drivers will be a lot more considerate of you, respect the space you need on the road and generally be more careful with you.

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