On Mitigating Risk and Lessons from the Road

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.