Bike safety matters.
Yesterday I was driving downtown to buy groceries with two of my kids. I was driving slowly and I put the signal on to make a right turn into the gas station. All of a sudden I heard someone scream.
It was a cyclist in the bike lane. She had been in my blind spot and I didn’t see her as I was turning.
“So sorry,” I cried out the open window.
“FUCK YOU LADY!” the cyclist screamed.
That experience left me really shaken.
We use our car as little as possible.
We bike and walk as much as we can.
All my kids, even our three-year-old daughter, bicycle commute to school.
To be sworn at by a cyclist—one of my tribe—was really upsetting. But even more upsetting was the idea that I almost hit her.
Hit By a Car While Biking
This past May I got hit by a car while I was on my bicycle, by an 85-year-old driver who forgot to look as she drove through an intersection. I spent the day in the ER. I lost three days of work. My back and neck may be permanently damaged. And I’ve had recurring nightmares and insomnia because of it. My bicycle—my main mode of transportation—was totaled.
But worse than any of that was the realization that I was lucky.
I could so easily have been killed, as my friend’s 16-year-old son was years ago when he was bicycling.
I’ve obsessed about the moment I was hit and wondered if there was anything I could have done to avoid it. I was riding at a modest speed in the bike lane, alert. Also, I was wearing my helmet and not talking or texting on a cell phone.
I remember thinking very distinctly, “Let the bike take the impact, get away from that car.”
Somehow I did. The bike got wedged into the car and I managed to scramble off and away from it.
Eyewitnesses say I fell to the ground. But I don’t remember that. I don’t know why. As far as I know, I didn’t have a concussion, as far as I know. But I have no memory of being on the ground or of what happened right after the impact. Maybe it was the adrenaline.
I am pretty sure there was nothing I could have done to be safer or to avoid that crash. The car that hit me literally drove right into me. I was doing things right. But cyclists aren’t always as safe as they can be.
Bottom line: We can’t compete with cars. We have to be extra safety cautious because we bicyclists are in the more vulnerable position. Bike safety is more important for us than for car drivers.
We’ve talked a lot with our kids about bike safety.
Here are our family’s bike safety rules:
1. Try to ride in the bike lane, not on the sidewalk.
Drivers don’t look down the sidewalk for bikes. They pull right into the sidewalk when coming out of driveways. However, if you live in a place where there are no bike lanes or where drivers are very aggressive, it may be safer to ride on the sidewalk.
2. When cars are parked on the right side of the street, watch out for opening doors.
My mom got battered by a driver opening his door right into her as she was biking to work one day, from Newton Centre to downtown Boston. Try to ride a few feet away from the cars. Just imagine that all the cars’ doors are open, and ride so you won’t hit them—that way they can’t hit you.
3. Where cars are crossing your path at intersections or driveways, yield the right of way to them.
Before you cross any place where a car can drive, slow down and get ready to stop if you have to. Look all ways: not just right and left, but in front and behind for cars turning into the crossing.
4. When you’re in a bike lane, never pass a car on the right.
Drivers don’t look for you before they turn right, and may cut you off or turn right into you. When stopped at a light or stop sign, and there is a car next to you, don’t start into the intersection before you know if the car is turning right.
5. Always pick the safest streets, even if it’s not the shortest route.
On a street with no parked cars and no bike lane, ride to the side but leave at least a couple feet of room between you and the curb. If you don’t feel safe on a street like that, just take your bike down the sidewalk to a better street. If the lane isn’t wide enough for a car to pass you, but there are other lanes, you can ride right down the middle of the right lane. Oregon law lets bikers use one whole lane when they need to—but most drivers don’t know that, so do this as seldom and briefly as possible. On Main St. in Ashland, for example, to stay away from the parked cars’ opening doors, you have to ride in the middle of the lane. Or avoid Main Street, or walk your bike.
6. Make eye contact.
When a driver is waiting to turn in front of you, look at their face and see if they are looking at you. If they’re looking the other way, don’t cross in front of them. When they see you, signal clearly with your hand where you are going (don’t just nod, which could mean “Go ahead!”).
This is very hard to do in places where cars are allowed to have tinted windows. Better to err on the side of caution than to get hit by a car.
7. Use lights on your bike for bike safety.
Reflectors are not enough, though you should wear them. If you are cycling at night, wear a reflective vest or other clothing as well. No matter when you are bicycling, the more lights the better! Check them before you leave, and always carry extra batteries.
8. Always wear your helmet.
A lot of parents insist their children wear helmets but will not wear them themselves. This gives children the wrong message. Helmet wearing needs to be a non-negotiable family rule. For everyone.
9. Expect and anticipate driver mistakes.
Drivers make lots of mistakes, and they often just don’t see bicyclists, especially children. Sometimes when you are riding, drivers will actually make a mistake and not do what you expect. It is not an if, it’s a when; so you need to be ready for it. Always ride so that when a driver makes a mistake or doesn’t see you, they can’t hit you.
10. Ride slowly.
Bicycling slowly is the best way to stay safe. You have more time to see what’s happening, and if something unexpected happens, you have time to stop. Plus, you get a lot less tired: with the energy it takes to walk a mile, you can bike 15 miles at the speed of a speedwalker! So take it easy and enjoy the scenery. Save the thrill riding for bike paths and off-road courses, not for bike commuting.
My husband is convinced that the young woman on her bicycle swore at me because she was scared. She knew she was in the wrong. He says that’s why she got so angry.
The truth is she was flying down the hill at a dangerous intersection where cars turn right; and she must have seen me slow down but decided to go anyway.
Since she was in my blind spot, I didn’t see her, I didn’t brake to let her pass. Seems like it was my fault but I’m not sure how I could’ve done things differently.
Bike safety is important. Cyclists and drivers need to work together so everyone stays safe.
Published: July 19, 2013
Updated: September 7, 2022
Lots of good suggestions. My daughter bikes to work. I realize Cambridge, MA is a city that treats cyclists well, but I still worry about her. I’m sure she doesn’t ride slowly either, because she works downtown and has to cross the whole city. I will print this out for her. Thanks.
right -bottom line, bikes cannot compete with cars. cars are lethal weapons. we have blind spots as drivers. it is scary, scary even if bikers do everything right. but they don’t. and sometimes, sorry, there is arrogance and righteousness and holier-than-thou biker mentality. so you are kind in thinking well of the biker who cursed you out. but who knows. bike safely all. and drive safely too.
There aren’t a lot of bike riders in our area and we don’t have bike lanes, so if they are there, they ride just on the edge of the lane. I would probably never think to look behind me before turning right unless I had passed the cyclist. This is a really good reminder for everyone.
Jane Boursaw says
I’ve had some nasty interactions with bikers, too – they can be an unruly bunch! Thanks for the bike safety reminders.
Jessica A Bruno says
Thanx for writing this kind of entry. Just wish others would catch on and etc. Because to me this the safest mode of transporation, spl (spelling), energy, and etc. I mean just look where (Metro New York on New Jersey side of it USA) I’m. I for one I’m way behind fed up with all this and want a change. Hopefully where I’m instead of moving somewhere else. Even through moving sounds appealing to me, but then it doesn’t and etc.
At the same time I’m belated sorry regarding the accident that you had in May. In which I see both sides of the argument about older people driving.
The thing that perplexes me when I see parents and kids riding bikes together is that half the time the parents are without helmets. So, the child can be safer with helmet, but if the parent falls and is not wearing helmet and has a head injury, then how safe is that child, really?
I recently wrote a post about this same topic. It’s so important to know the rules of the road for cyclists; we have to look out for ourselves, since drivers, unfortunately, don’t often look out for us or expect us to appear alongside of them.
ruth pennebaker says
As a pedestrian, I identify completely with this. You have to be constantly on the defensive since the stakes are so high.
These are really good tips. It seems so much more dangerous to be a bike rider these days than it was when I was young. Glad everything turned out okay for you.
For every car driver who is considerate of cyclists, there are dozens more that are not. As a cyclist, I’m an advocate of cyclists taking responsibility for their own safety. It’s simply no good blaming someone else after an accident because in some accidents, its too late. When I ride, I expect drivers to do daft things, and too often they do!