Improving Your Odds

A car-on-bike collision is probably the greatest fear of cyclists. And that’s not surprising, because the repercussions can be so serious. In fact, it turns out that many drivers have the same fear of car-on-bike collisions, and that fear is a motivating factor in much of the bias against cyclists. Strange, but true.

Although the consequences of a car-on-bike collision can be catastrophic, most bike accidents are solo crashes, and most of those are just crashes involving kids learning how to ride. Serious crashes, particularly serious crashes involving cars, are a relatively rare event. However, the near-misses that every cyclist is familiar with are reminders of just how quickly things can go from good to bad.

The good news is there’s a lot you can do to keep your rides safe. Taking some safety precautions won’t guarantee your safety, but it will significantly improve your odds.

One thing that is often overlooked in discussions about bicycle safety is the mechanical condition of your bike. This can be a factor in some crashes, and therefore, a safe bike ride should begin with a bike that is in safe riding condition.

Anything else? Yes. I always ride with a mirror. On my racing bike, I have a mirror that attaches at the bar end. It’s small, light, and unobtrusive, but it’s very easy to use for monitoring traffic behind me while riding. I also ride with a bell on my cruiser, because not every crash involves an inattentive driver; sometimes you have to let a pedestrian or another cyclist know you’re approaching.

If you will be doing any riding under low light conditions, you will need to be equipped with lights and reflectors. There are two things you need to know here—what “low light conditions” means, and what equipment you should have. First, “low light conditions” obviously includes nighttime. If you are riding at night, you need lights and reflectors—it’s required by law. It’s also essential for helping drivers to see you. But “low light conditions” means more than just “nighttime.” It really means any period of time when visibility is reduced; for example, during fog, or during a heavy rain or snow storm. So the rule is, if visibility is reduced, the law requires you to be equipped with a front white light, and a red rear reflector, plus whatever side reflectors the law in your state requires. But the truth is, the law doesn’t require enough—you really need a red rear light, in addition to whatever reflectors are required. And here’s something else to think about—it has become standard practice for motorcyclists to ride with their lights on even during the day. Why? Because they have the same problem with “I didn’t see him” drivers that we do. You’re not required to do this, but there’s no reason that you can’t ride with lights during the day too, if you want to.

One more thing that will help drivers see you—bright clothing. You are not required by law to wear bright colors or reflective material. However, wearing “hi-viz” clothing will help drivers see you better; studies have demonstrated that the distance at which drivers see you (and thus, the amount of time the driver has to react) increases dramatically when the cyclist is wearing bright clothing.

Finally, always obey the traffic laws. There are a couple of good reasons you should be doing this. First, it can help prevent collisions. I see a lot of reports of bicycle crashes, and failure to observe the law is a major factor in those crashes in which the cyclist is at fault (two examples I’ve seen recently: cyclists running stops and getting hit, and cyclists riding into the paths of oncoming trains). You might think that you can decide when it’s safe to break the law, and when it’s not safe, but the cyclists who broke the law and crashed were thinking the same thing.

The second reason to obey the traffic laws is because if you are breaking the law, and a crash occurs as a result of that, you will be “at fault,” and that can dramatically affect your ability to be compensated for your injuries.

Some people have very different attitudes before they are injured, and after they are injured. Before they are injured, they may believe that they will just tough out whatever happens if they are injured. After they are injured, and dealing with the reality of serious, and perhaps permanent injuries, and the medical bills and other costs that come with that, their attitudes change, and they want to be compensated for their injuries. But by that time, it’s too late to obey the law. If a crash does occur, you will want the driver, and not you, to be the one at fault. So, to protect yourself legally, you need to make obeying the law a regular part of your riding habits.
 

Comments (Comment Moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until approved.)
Do you "always obey the traffic laws?" Do you come to a complete stop at all stop signs, including unwarranted 4-ways when no other traffic is present? Do you signal all your turns and braking? Or do you decide "when it's safe to break the law?"
# Posted By Todd Scott | 5/31/11 10:57 PM
I applaud the principle of this blog post, but I don't agree about always observing road signage rules that were not designed with bicycles in mind and which do not suit bicycle riders.

Opposing laws that do not adequately provide for a law-abiding sector of the community is an essential part of any democracy, and bicycle riders need to be more vocal and more organized in the way we do this.

I agree fully that by failing to observer stop lights and stop signs a cyclist has little or no legal protection in the event of an accident, and therefore this should be considered foolhardy behaviour.

But here's the thing: if all cyclists stop for every stop sign and stop light, local authorities will refuse to recognize there is any need for change and no change will be made.

In Idaho, as many of us know, cyclists are legally allowed to treat stop signs as yield signs and stop lights as stop signs.

This is the change in road law that many cyclists seek, and which I believe cyclists should strive for wherever they are.

To my knowledge the change in Idaho law has had no effect on the rate of car/bicycle and bicycle/pedestrian accidents.

One thing cyclists must always do is respect the right of way: if another vehicle or a pedestrian gets to the junction first, they have right of way.
# Posted By Paul Skilbeck | 6/1/11 1:47 AM
Obeying the law brings up an interesting question, are speed limits enforceable for cyclists. Bicycles are not required to have speedometers, so how is the cyclist supposed to know if he/she is speeding?
# Posted By Jim | 6/2/11 9:38 PM
Oh, so you want a preview of our August Road Rights column, do you? OK, here it is:

Yes, speed limits are enforceable, even though bikes are not required to have a speedometer. Motorists with broken speedometers can get tickets, and so can cyclists with no speedometer. If it's an issue that is likely to crop up in your life, you might want to get a computer. It's not required, and I don't ride with one myself, but it will let you know what your speed is.
# Posted By Rick Bernardi | 6/2/11 9:47 PM
Which brings up another issue, radar enforcement in California. According to CA law, radar enforcement requires a speed survey and setting the speed limit at a certain percentile. Many beach bike paths have posted limits for bicycles of 8 mph and radar is periodically used by the LEOs to catch the scofflaws. Do the CA laws re radar apply to bike paths as well as the streets?
# Posted By Jim | 6/3/11 12:18 PM
I am a bit concerned about the comment that say, "
says, "One thing cyclists must always do is respect the right of way: if another vehicle or a pedestrian gets to the junction first, they have right of way." It is never safe to assume, "that one has the right of way," even though the law may require the other person to relinquish it. If for some reason or other the other person does not see you or realize that you have the right of way, you may just be DEAD right.
# Posted By Jim Lucas | 6/4/11 8:16 AM
I am sharing this with all of my cycling friends - thank you!
# Posted By Tara | 7/25/13 4:13 PM