ROAD BIKING SAFETYWITH CARS

Each year, over 800 cyclists are killed in crashes with motor vehicles in the United States. Per capita, Florida is the most dangerous state as a whole, with the National Highway and Transport Safety Administration (NHTSA) reporting 6.7 cyclist traffic deaths per million residents.

That number is more than 10 times greater than the number of cyclist traffic deaths in West Virginia, Nebraska, and Alabama. California had the highest total number of cyclist fatalities at 147 in a single year.

Most dangerous cities for cyclists

As can perhaps be expected, cities are more dangerous for cyclists than rural areas. An NHTSA study found that Jacksonville, Portland, and Indiapolis constituted the three cities with the highest likelihood of cyclist fatalities (see chart, below).

AMERICA’S MOST DANGEROUS CITIES FOR CYCLISTS

Cyclist fatality rate per million people in the U.S.

  • JacksonvilleFlorida

  • PortlandOregon

  • IndianapolisIndiana

  • DetroitMichigan

  • DenverColorado

  • TucsonArizona

  • Los AngelesCalifornia

  • PhoenixArizona

  • San AntonioTexas

  • LouisvilleKentucky

cyclists deaths by age

In 2007, the average age of cyclists killed in motor vehicle accidents was 40, but over the last 10 years that number has risen to 46. The most likely age group to die in a cycling accident with a vehicle are cyclists aged 50 to 59. The chart below shows the fatality rates of cyclists killed in motor vehicle accidents based on age.

CYCLISTS KILLED IN TRAFFIC CRASHES AND FATALITY RATES BY AGE

Fatality Rate

  • Children (< 14)

  • 15-19

  • 20-24

  • 25-29

  • 30-34

  • 35-39

  • 40-44

  • 45-49

  • 50-54

  • 55-59

  • 60-64

  • People >65+

  • 0.97

  • 1.99

  • 2.06

  • 2.05

  • 2.30

  • 2.07

  • 2.59

  • 3.20

  • 4.62

  • 4.60

  • 4.72

  • 2.64

 
  • TOTAL

  • Killed840

  • Fatality Rate2.60

This guide will show how you can take sensible steps to increase your safety while on the road, so you can enjoy a cheap and healthy mode of transport with minimal risk.

Safety equipment

It’s unlikely that you would drive in a car without airbags, or without wearing your seatbelt (and even less likely that you would do both simultaneously). Yet many cyclists take similar risks when cycling. Ensuring that you and your bike are fitted out with safety equipment is not complex, yet could literally be a matter of life and death.

Furthermore, by showing that you are a responsible road user, you are more likely to engender respect amongst drivers. This respect will, in turn, mean that other road users will give you space, drive more cautiously around you, and generally increase your safety.

Headlamp

A bike headlamp, unlike that on a car, is not necessarily designed to provide you with visibility as you travel. It is designed primarily to help you be seen by cars and pedestrians in front of you.

A flashing headlamp is the best option, as it is more noticeable, particularly in low light (i.e. at dusk – when not all drivers have their own lights on).

Similarly, flashing lights on the back of the bicycle – mounted underneath the saddle – will help drivers behind you to see you. The lights should follow the pattern of car lights, with white lights on the front and red lights on the back.

Helmet

In many states and cities of the United States, helmets are actually a compulsory safety device for all cyclists. However, in those places where helmets are voluntary (or helmet laws aren’t always enforced), you should always wear a helmet when cycling.

In New York City in 2015, 97% of cycling fatalities were not wearing helmets whereas only 13% of those injured were wearing helmets.

High visibility clothing

Most accidents involving either adults or children take place in low light. Children (aged 14 and under) are four times more likely to be injured at dawn, dusk, or night than during the daytime.

High visibility clothing, particularly jackets, are able to reflect the headlights of cars and allow riders to be seen far easier.

Mirror

Buying a mirror for your bicycle will help you to see approaching hazards. Because of the disparity of speeds between cars and bikes, there’s always the capacity for danger to come from behind. A mirror gives a cyclist the ability to easily see behind them without forcing them to turn their head (which can be dangerous when moving at speed).

Types of crashes and how to avoid them

One of the best advantages that a cyclist can have is anticipation. Experienced cyclists know the potentially dangerous maneuvers and can be extra cautious in certain spots. Considering the dangerous spots will help you to be safer when you’re on the road. This goes for drivers as well who will not only better protect themselves and others by anticipating high-risk scenarios, they could also lower their insurance rates by being a safe driver. Below is a list of the most common types of collisions between cyclists and cars, trucks, and other large vehicles.

T-bone

The most common collision that takes place between cyclists and cars is the ‘T-bone,’ where a cyclist and car hit one another at 90 degrees. This means that a car pulls out of a side road into the side of a cyclist, or a car pulls out and a cyclist collides with the side of the car.

A key feature of these crashes is that the car driver either doesn’t see the cyclist or fails to anticipate how fast the bike is traveling.

Experienced cyclists will make sure they are visible, slow down, and give themselves space when they see a car exiting a side street.

Door swipe

A well-known hazard for cyclists is the ‘door swipe,’ caused when a driver suddenly opens their door when parked on the side of a street. The open door enters the cyclist’s path and the cyclist often doesn’t have time to swerve.

To prevent being door swiped, leave adequate space between yourself and the parked cars when cycling. This will help you to avoid car doors, as well as having additional benefits such as preventing cars from overtaking you too quickly.

Right-turn

When stopped at traffic lights, cyclists usually tuck in to the right-hand side of the road. However, this can present a hazard as they may be in the blind spot of a vehicle turning right. A significant number of fatalities are caused when a large vehicle turns right, and the cyclist traveling straight is caught under the wheels (particularly with larger vehicles).

Experienced cyclists will always move to the front of the stationary traffic when stopped at a red light. You can allow cars to overtake you as the lights turn green, although they will have taken note of your position. You should always be vigilant for blind spots on vehicles. As a general rule, if you can’t make eye contact with the driver, they can’t make eye contact with you (i.e. they can’t see you).

Rear end

As mentioned earlier, a big factor in collisions between bikes and cars is the disparity in speed. In low light, when bikes aren’t always highly visible, drivers may ‘catch up’ to bikes and make contact before the driver realizes the bike is there.

Rear-facing lights and high visibility clothing are the best means to prevent a car from hitting you from behind. A mirror will also help you to see cars as they approach, and take evasive action if necessary.

Basic safety tips

Although experience is crucial and anticipating accidents will lead you to change your behavior, there are also safety tips that are essential information for all cyclists.

Following these tips will not just limit the danger of collisions with vehicles, but will keep a cyclist safer in general.

Hand signals

Letting other road users know your intentions is more than just a courtesy, it can actually keep you safer. If you’re intending to change lanes or turn left or right, you can use hand signals to let other road users know. This will help them make adjustments to their line or speed that will give you enough room.

The worst thing you can do as a cyclist is to take a driver by surprise. Changing your speed or direction without advanced warning constitutes a surprise. After all, when driving, you wouldn’t brake without brake lights, nor would you turn left or right without using your blinker.

The signals above show the most common maneuvers. Use these well in advance of changing your direction or speed of travel and you’ll greatly decrease your chances of being involved in a collision. Practice these on a quiet road so that you’re comfortable doing them without losing balance.

Watch out for large vehicles

Large vehicles represent a disproportionately high danger to cyclists. Not only do they have larger blind spots, but they are far less maneuverable, and are far more used to ‘getting their way’ from cars on the road.

Being extra cautious around large vehicles will help to prevent very serious accidents. In particular, cyclists should be careful of being in large vehicles’ blind spots, which are sizeable and can extend around both sides of the vehicle.

At traffic lights, make a concerted effort to get ahead of large vehicles. In general, being as visible as possible, even if giving the driver a wave at an intersection will help them to remember that you are there.

Obey the rules of the road

Cyclists are often criticized by other road users for not always obeying the rules of the road. Certainly, it is often faster to skip through a red light or stop sign, particularly if the streets are empty, or to ride on the sidewalk.

However, actions like this don’t just generate the ire of cars, they can be actively dangerous. So much of road safety depends on behaving predictably. Cars need to anticipate cyclists and vice versa.

If a cyclist does not obey the rules of the road, they are less likely to behave predictably. This endangers cyclists, vehicle drivers (who may have to swerve) as well as pedestrians.

Defensive cycling

As well as following the basic safety tips, there are more advanced steps that you can take when cycling to make sure that you remain safe on the road. In fact, in the same way as there are defensive driving tactics, there is also defensive cycling tactics that you can take.

These are effective ways in which you as the cyclist can make decisions on the road that make drivers feel your presence. This is particularly important with teen drivers on the road, as they tend to be more distracted and less likely to notice a cyclist.

Give yourself space

As mentioned above as a means of avoiding being ‘door swiped,’ giving yourself enough space on the road will ensure that you are noted by other road users. Novice cyclists, or those who feel nervous on the roads, will naturally hug the curb.

This encourages cars to pass, often at speed, and often too close. Instead, give yourself adequate room (at least an arm’s length – or three feet – from any parked cars) and then road users will have to wait until it is safe to pass.

Of course, if a bike lane is available, you should take that, although if you have to drive in the street, giving yourself room will keep you safer.

Eye contact

Making eye contact with drivers is one of the most underrated ways of staying safe on the road. Making eye contact at intersections, as drivers pass you, and as you go to maneuver will ensure that the driver has to take notice of your presence.

In some cases, the need for eye contact will also force you to move into safer positions, such as outside of blind spots, causing you to adopt a better road position.

Pedestrians

Along with being alert for other road users such as cars and trucks, you should also be vigilant in looking out for pedestrians. Pedestrians often don’t take note of bikes in the same way as they do with cars, meaning they are likely to step out in front of a bike (perhaps because they are less likely to hear or see it). Remember: Pedestrians, like cyclists, are contributing to a culture of walkability that helps make streets safer and cities less congested.

Again, anticipation is key, and the use of your voice to alert the pedestrian to your position will often prevent a collision. Being conscious of the sidewalk is as important as being aware of the road around you.

Ultimately, it is impossible to totally eliminate risk from cycling, as it is impossible to predict everything that will happen while you are on the road. However, it is possible to minimize danger, firstly by ensuring that your equipment is as safe as possible. Secondly, you can also anticipate and study common areas of danger and therefore take steps to avoid them.

Finally, you can also be a safer cyclist through the decisions that you make while you are on the road. All three of these in combination will make it more likely that you’ll share the road, rather than competing with cars for it. This is a crucial distinction when it comes to staying safe.

Sources and Further Reading

  • https://bicyclesafe.com/
  • https://helmets.org/stats.htm
  • https://www.edinburghbicycle.com/info/what-is-defensive-cycling/
  • https://park.louisiana.edu/bike-information/road-rules
  • https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812507

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