Bike Safety: Who Cares?

Bad doggy--where's your helmet?!
Photo: Ronn Aldaman 

If you ride a bicycle on occasion, or prefer not to run over bicyclists while driving, there are a few safety tips to keep in mind.

The good news: many of these suggestions, even the obvious ones, may help you avoid an accident! The bad news: even if you employ every safety suggestion ever offered, you could still get smooshed or wind up smooshing someone. Put bikes and automobiles together, and all too often you end up with injuries and even fatalities.

So who cares? Well, some folks do more than others. For example, research suggests the extent to which you care about bike safety seems inversely correlated with penis ownership.

But while gals may care more about safety in the abstract, we're also perfectly capable of dangerous dimwittery on the roadways. Plus, if you're like me, you may THINK you know what's safe and be missing a few pointers.

So whatever your gender, you may want to ponder, add to, or argue vehemently against the advice in this bicycle safety FAQ.

Q: Crabby, what are your qualifications for addressing bike safety, are you an expert?

A: Glad you asked! I am indeed an expert: in falling off my bike. This winter I managed to break my arm when traveling at about 1/2 mile an hour on a perfectly smooth roadway when something unanticipated crossed in front of me. This makes me extremely cognizant of the notion that you can't be too freakin' careful when riding a bike, especially if you're a bit on the clumsy side, which I am.

Q: Should you wear a helmet?

A: Eh, that depends. After all, helmets are dorky, they mess up your hair, and many of the cool kids eschew them. About the only time you should bother with a helmet are those days you'd prefer not to die of head injuries in an accident. Safety statistics, shcmafety statistics. (Although hard numbers on helmets and safety seem strangely elusive and even controversial; many of the sources citing statistics neglect to say where they came from, and some of the most cited studies have their critics, many of whom are anti-helmet-law activists. Whatever. Even just anecdotal evidence from doctors and nurses I've run into scares me enough that I never ride my bike without one.)

Q: Where should you ride your bicycle?

A: Preferably not on a freeway, through a busy department store, into a lake, off a cliff, or in the path of a runaway train.

More specifically stay as far away as you can get from clueless motorists, slippery surfaces, tire-trapping grates, broken glass, attack dogs, and land mines. Or, for that matter, land mimes.

Clowns too. Steer the hell away from mimes and clowns.

The problem? Sometimes in order to get to beautiful, spacious, smoothly paved bike trails and lanes, you may have to navigate through streets with cars on them. Or perhaps your destination is more practical, like your place of employment, and there are no handy bike trails to take.  In this case, it is best to do some investigating ahead of time so you don't inadvertently end up on the interstate getting rudely side-swiped by wandering Winnebago's or 18-wheelers hauling Hostess Twinkies.

Q: So how do you find bike trails and low-traffic bike-friendly streets?

A: Well, you can scout things out ahead of time in your car. You can pop into your local bike shop, where folks are generally helpful even if you're not buying anything. Or you can go online!  Many areas have cyclist clubs and forums, or local government agencies with bike route information.  Also, one resource I used heavily in San Diego was Google Earth. If your area is well-mapped, you can use this scope out potential routes, and actually SEE possible dangers and annoyances ahead of time.

Sadly, depending on where you live, often there are no routes without dangers and annoyances. In that case, your best bet is to move to Amsterdam.

Q: Wait, before I move to Amsterdam, I'm still wondering what the deal was about safety and penises!

A: Right! So over at Julie's Health Club, a very sensible health blog that I didn't know about because it's been hiding at the Chicago Tribune, I discovered there's a gender difference when it comes to biking and bike safety.  Men take twice as many bike trips as women do in the U.S.  Not coincidentally, studies show that women tend to be more risk averse, less reckless, and more concerned about bike safety than men are. According to Jan Garrard, an Australian researcher, women are more likely to use off-road paths than roads. “The real and perceived risks of cycling are enhanced among women, and this ranges from concerns about serious injuries to the everyday hassles often associated with cycling.”

Q: If you do have to share the road with cars, what should you keep in mind?

A: Generally, it is safest to assume that the motorists you see are all drunk, blind, experiencing medical emergencies, and yet simultaneously texting their friends to inquire about weekend plans.  In short, drivers may not see you even if you are RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF THEM.

So be as visible as possible! At night, don't ride without lights and reflective clothing. During the day, choose a colorful outfit so motorists are more likely to see you and pay attention.

OK, maybe not this outfit.
Photo: San Diego Shooter

Q: What if there are no bike lanes, can I ride on the sidewalk?

A:  Putting aside the fact that it's generally illegal, it's rare that it's any safer on the sidewalk.  Riding on sidewalks (or on the wrong side of the road), is actually more dangerous even though it may seem less creepy than having fast-moving cars coming up from behind you and whizzing by at close range. Not only is there the pedestrian issue, but also cars coming in and out of driveways or streets don't think to look on the sidewalk for bikes.

Q: Should I stay as far to the right as possible?

A: While it's generally a good plan to ride on the right shoulder of the road, there are times where it's safer to move a bit further left to avoid being "doored."  In addition, sometimes you may need to move even further to the middle and "take the lane." These and other situations are explained in detail with diagrams and dramatic headings like "The Red Light of Death," at a site called "Bicycle Safe." As someone who has on occasion passed cars on the right, stood in the wrong place while waiting for a traffic light to change, and yes, ridden on sidewalks, I found the warnings helpful if a bit sobering.

Q: What are some other safety tips for cyclists?

A: Don't be a butthead! This is harder than it sounds, because even cyclists who consider themselves careful sometimes get in a hurry and get a bit reckless or go too fast. We also tend to feel a bit self-righteous about our mode of transportation and take stop signs as "suggestions." I still think this is fine when you can see clearly that no one is coming from any direction, but too often cyclists act like their teeny tiny carbon footprint gives them the "right" to ignore all traffic laws and entitles them to cut in front of cars that have the right of way. Not only is it rude, it could get you killed.

Q: What other safety equipment do you recommend?

A: Personally, I use a rear-view mirror--I've got a tiny one that clips onto my sunglasses; when I finally get it positioned right (rare), it really does help to know what's going on behind me. Another idea is a horn or bell. It took me forever to buy one, probably because when I'm out walking on a path and some bike comes up behind me going "Brrinng! Briingg! Brrriiiiinggg" I immediately think: You Asshole. That's because I instinctively translate the sound of a bell ringing as: "get out of my way, stupid pedestrian, or I'll run you over!" However, when on a bike, I know that it just means, "Hi, I'm coming up behind you, please don't suddenly lurch right in front of me, ok?" And unfortunately calling out "on your left," however calmly, often causes pedestrians to hear "left," panic, and then leap leftwards right into your path. A bell, sounded well in advance, seems to get better results even if it does cause a bit of pedestrian harumphing.

Q: What should drivers keep in mind to avoid running into cyclists?

A: Remember to look for them, especially when making turns or opening doors. Also, assume that some of them will be the Butthead sort of bicyclists, who may ride recklessly and ignore traffic laws. Even if the bike is at fault, you do not want to hit one.

Here's a safety tip (again, from Julie's Health Club) to avoid "dooring" bikes. When opening the driver side door, always use your right hand. "This will force you to twist your body and look back, allowing you to see if any cyclists or walkers are coming by." (However, it seems like if you can remember to do this, you could also remember to take a look around, but hey, every little bit of caution helps!)

And finally, for those who like their bicycle saftey info straight-up, without any swearwords or mention of penises, here's a safety video with additional tips.

Anyone have any better suggestions, scary stories, grievances, or unrelated tales of weekend revelry? It's all good!

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