Bicycle touring is, I think, the absolute best way to see the USA and meet the great folks who live here. Unfortunately, cycling can also be very risky, especially when:
• Drivers aren’t accustomed to seeing cyclists on the road or are aggressive towards cyclists
• The road has no bike lane, a poorly-kept bike lane, or has a narrow/non-existent shoulder
• You, as a cyclist, don’t take the risk seriously, or you do things to aggravate the risk
Recently, during a Critical Mass rally in Brazil, an angry driver intentionally plowed through a group of cyclists with his car, injuring several of them. This is a sad example of the first bullet-point above and, although I'll draw fire from many cyclists for this, I think also the third. You can see the shocking video of this attack here. Please be aware that the video does show cyclists being injured and so may be disturbing. This incident got me thinking about bike safety, and so I decided to share with you some relevant lessons and mistakes from my first ride.
Before my tour through the Deep South at the end of last year, I had never done any long-distance touring. My approach to staying safe on the road, therefore, was essentially a trial-and-error (trial-by-fire?) process, supplemented with things that I had read or picked up from other cyclists. I’ve summarized here some of the things I learned and rules/tactics I employed during my 1,700-mile ride.
• Wear fluorescent or high-visibility clothing (or an add-on vest): Probably the best thing you can do to be seen by drivers during the day. On my trip through the Deep South, I improvised first with a construction vest given to me by Brent Taylor, then with an orange hunter’s vest I bought at Wal-Mart (after I lost the first vest). Vests look a little dorky sometimes and can tend to flap around with the wind, so I'm going to look for high-vis shirts or jerseys for the next tour.
• Bling your bike with a flag: My flags aren’t only cool conversation-starters and political symbols. They serve a secret purpose as well: flapping around and hopefully catching the eye of daylight drivers coming up behind me.
• Reflectors only work at night: I have had numerous well-meaning non-cyclists admonish me about the necessity of reflective tape and plastic reflectors on my bike, helmet, etc. Yes, reflectors are helpful….at night, if the driver has his or her headlights turned on, and it’s dark enough to see the reflection (read: not in daylight or around dawn/dusk). Cyclists should internalize that bright clothes/vest and flags are really the only way to increase your visibility to daytime drivers; reflectors and usually even flashing lights are useless for this.
• Walk bridges: Bridges are dangerous for many reasons. Consider walking your bike
across if you don’t have a very wide shoulder to ride on. Keep your bike between you and traffic as you walk. Another option is to make a mad dash to cross the bridge before any cars catch up; generally only acceptable if you can see for a long distance behind you and the other side of the bridge isn't too far away. For very long bridges, you should either avoid them altogether by proper route planning, or stick out your thumb (see below).
• Cardinal direction matters: During my initial stretch in the Deep South, I was travelling due west, and so for safety I would get off of the road every day an hour or so before dark as the sun was setting an shining directly into the eyes of drivers coming up from behind me. Take a cue from the old WWII fighter pilots: unless you’re headed into an aerial dogfight, be sure you’re not directly between the setting/rising sun and your adversary (in this case, motorists in your lane).
• Give space to drivers: Most of the time, you will want to keep close to the edge of the road, riding on the shoulder and out of the driving lane. Sometimes your shoulder will narrow, and you will have to be near or even in the driving lane. When this is happens, giving vehicles room to go around you is usually the safest bet.
• Take space from drivers: I learned, however, that this is not always the case. Many drivers, if given space in narrow conditions (as in traffic), will squeeze right by you, sometimes driving very fast, and they don’t seem to care if they clip you when doing so. In these situations it seems to be best for a cyclist to help drivers make the safe choice and wait until they have proper space to pass you. You do this by riding your bike out into the middle of the lane, making it impossible for the driver to pass. This will often tick off the driver, but at least you don’t get hit (unless they decide to purposely run over you, like in Brazil). I try to humbly wave at drivers after doing this, hoping to ease their ire.
• Don’t flip-off maniac drivers: Cycle-rage is hard to suppress sometimes, but flipping-off aggressive motorists doesn’t help your situation, especially when they stop for gas and pass you again down the road. Trust me. The vast majority of motorists, by the way, are friendly and give plenty of space.
• Threats can come from ahead, too: We all know that, since we ride in the direction of traffic, the majority of threats to our safety tend to sneak up behind us. I learned a frightening lesson on the road: cars coming in the opposite lane & direction can kill you, too, especially when they are passing. Bottom line: don’t forget to keep an eye on both lanes.
• Know when to thumb: On two occasions in the Deep South I knew that I would be putting my life at an unacceptable risk if I were to continue riding onto a road that suddenly became very unsafe. The first time was on a 65-mph highway outside of Selma, AL that had absolutely no shoulder, the other was crossing a bridge out of Baton Rouge. Both times I sucked it up and stuck it out- my thumb, that is. If you’re patient and helpless-looking, you can generally find a nice guy with a pickup to give you a short ride through a particularly dangerous stretch.
• Follow established routes: The above rule will be entirely inapplicable if you tour along pre-established cycling routes, like those mapped-out by the Adventure Cycling Association. My project is such that I’m actually trying to stay off of well-established routes, using Google Maps instead to help find cycling-safe roads. Google does an overall good job, but I certainly got myself into a number of sticky and dangerous situations because of less than ideal road conditions- even getting pulled over by a cop one afternoon and told to be extra careful.
•Texting and cycling is dangerous, too: You will weave and swerve and eventually wreck or get hit. Take it seriously.
• Practice with new gear: This one is obvious, but important. Falling over into traffic is a real danger if you’re not used to your bike, or your now heavily-loaded and slightly wider bike. I’d say this rule is especially applicable to those who decide to use so-called clipless (which are really clip-in) pedals and shoes (like mine) which can be tough to get out of in the event of a quick stop or an accident. I have fallen a few times for this very reason.
• If you do bite it, get up!: Again, obvious but important. As soon as you fall down, your first thought should be to spring up and quickly get out of the road if you are at all able. If you are too injured to move, the next-best thing is to get your cycling parter over there ASAP to redirect traffic around you. Sitting in the middle of the road and sobbing over a skinned knee is incredibly dangerous. I wrecked entering onto a bridge in GA, and had to jump-up about 8 inches onto the bridge ‘curb’ – pulling the Surly with me—in order to get out of the way of oncoming cars. You can gauge your injuries once you’re safe.
• Try to be respectful of drivers, and follow the spirit of the law: This is related to the 'don't flip-off' rule, because that rule can be more globally understood as 'don't tick-off' drivers, who may become apathetic about cyclist safety as a result or (and it's a sad but true reality) openly hostile and aggressive to cyclists, like that driver in Brazil.
We all know that folks on bikes have a legal right to ride along (most) roads and that drivers should respect that and give us space. Sometimes, though, I find that cyclists don't really know, and maybe don't really care about, the law of the area where they are riding. If most areas have laws similar to the places I've lived, those laws could be basically summarized as 'you can bike on the road but you have to allow cars to pass when feasible.'
I really think that highly important for cyclist safety is the way that we interact with drivers and perceive our place on the road in relation to traffic. Just the other day I saw two cyclists riding down a busy street side by side in the middle of the day and blocking all of the traffic behind them. I could imagine how I'd feel if I were stuck behind those cyclists on the way to work.
I often hear cyclists say things like "cars don't pay attention...cars need to respect us and give us space" or things of that nature. One of our tragic flaws as humans is our unconscious and caustic tendency to dehumanize the 'other'. In this case it's reflected in our word choices because, of course, cars don't do anything. There is a human being in there making all of the decisions. And they're probably late for work, anxious to get home to see their family, hungry, tired, or whatever. I think it does cyclists well to remember this when we're riding in traffic. Sure, we have every right to ride the road, but there is often a way to do it that takes into account drivers, too. Respect on the road goes both ways, and it's just a human reality that drivers are more likely to be patient and conscious of your safety, and the safety of the next cyclist they see, when they see you being considerate of their time and desire to get where they're going, too.
I’m sure I will continue to learn more as the CWU project extends down America's backroads. I’d greatly appreciate any advice, anecdotes or lessons from the road that you could share with me and other readers to help us maximize fun while minimizing risks when riding.
Finally, I’m sure I speak for all of the CWU readership when I wish a speedy recovery to all of those injured in Brazil.