Riding a bike to work is great exercise, a green commute, and a chance to enjoy the outdoors. Biking can also reconnect us to the sights, smells, and sounds of a slower paced world. Yet biking means sharing the road with other vehicles and pedestrians, so if you’re ready to try out a two-wheeled commute, keep these safety tips in mind to help ensure that your ride ends only in a smile and lots of calories burned.
Wear a Helmet
A properly fitted helmet can save your life. Be sure to buy a helmet that adjusts to fit your head. Experienced bicycle store salespeople can offer you advice on this, or you can review the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute’s buyer’s guide. Once purchased, adjust/replace the inside pads (most models come with a range of sizes) so that the helmet fits snuggly against your scalp and sits level on your head. Next, adjust the rear side straps, then the front side straps to create a “Y” under each ear where the straps come together. After the side straps are adjusted, tighten the chin strap until it’s comfortably snug. To test the fit, shake your head firmly but carefully in all directions, then push the front edge of your helmet up followed by the back edge. Your helmet should not move more than an inch from level—if it does, adjust your side straps some more.
Obey Traffic Rules
Once astride your bike, remember that the law considers you a vehicle operator. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), bikes are required to follow the same rules as cars, including riding in the same direction as traffic, and obeying all road signs, traffic signals, and lane markings. You can be issued a ticket for failing to stop at a stop sign or running a red light.
In most areas, bikes are required by law to have both a white front light and a rear reflector or flashing red light after dark. Decent LED bike lights are available for $5 to $20. Wear fluorescent or brightly colored clothing at night, preferably with reflective markings. Adding a reflective vest over your jacket or reflective Velcro straps for pant legs or arms will also increase your visibility and your safety.
Always use hand signals to let cars know when you’re about to make a turn. A rear-view mirror can help you monitor traffic when changing lanes.
Even if you have the right of way, a vehicle at an intersection may not see you. Being hit by a car is a distinct risk of bicycle use, but you can reduce those chances by increasing your visibility to those around you and obeying traffic laws. Keep your eyes and ears open. If you listen to music, keep it low enough that you can still hear ambient noise.
If there is no bike lane, generally ride to the right side of the traffic lane. Remember to signal traffic before moving to the center of the lane. Keep an eye on parked cars for the sudden opening of a door. When making a left-hand turn, signal and move to the center of two-way streets or to the far left of one-way streets.
Ride Responsibly The number of bicycle commuters has risen steadily in the past few years, increasing the pressure on cities to provide more bike lanes and educate riders, vehicle operators, and pedestrians about their responsibilities to share the road. Bicyclists must yield to pedestrians, stop behind crosswalks and at stop signs, and obey speed limits. Riders who run stop signs or red lights risk not just their own safety, but that of other riders, drivers, and bystanders. In San Francisco, bicyclists running red lights caused pedestrian deaths in 2011 and 2012, respectively, prompting a renewed education effort from the 12,000-member San Francisco Bicycle Coalition to remind riders of their duty to obey the same traffic rules as cars. Visit BicycleSafe to see how to safely handle 10 common car-bicycle traffic situations, complete with illustrations. Bike Safe California also has a great safety checklist.
It’s a great time to try out two-wheeled commuting! Sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists, May is National Bike Month with a designated Bike to Work Day and Week, and many areas hold their own annual Bike to Work Day.
If you’re commuting for the first time, make sure you map out your route before you leave home. The road may look very different on two wheels than what you’re used to when walking, on the bus, or driving. Be mindful of hills, one-way streets, and construction. Most large cities have bicycle coalitions that provide great resources for new and veteran riders about safety, events, and biking routes. Find out where bike lanes are present, and check your city’s public works website to find out about construction that may affect your ride. Google Maps now has a beta bicycle route–mapping function to help plan your route. Apps such as MapMyRide allow you to track and save routes that you travel and even share them with friends. Remember that you’ll need a sturdy cable and lock to secure your bike and any easily removable parts (such as quick-release seats or wheels) when you reach your destination.
Using common sense, obeying traffic laws, maintaining reasonable speeds, and practicing defensive riding will go a long way to keeping you safe on the road.
Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco–based teacher and yoga instructor.
(originally published 05-08-2012)