Defensive Cycling is the Secret to Staying Safe on the Road

You might ride your bike primarily for exercise, or to save a little money on gas as you get to work.

Whatever your reasons, if you’re relatively new to bike commuting you’re probably a bit nervous about riding in vehicle traffic.

Closeup of a red stop light on a bike route with traffic in the background

Closeup of a red stop light on a bike route with traffic in the background With approximately 850 cyclists killed by motor vehicles in the U.S. each year, it’s understandable. However, you don’t have to become a statistic as long as you understand defensive cycling. A few cycling safety tips can make it much less intimidating to ride among all those cars, trucks and buses.

If you plan to ride your bike on a regular basis, particularly on the open road, you’ll need to know how to keep yourself safe as you navigate the flow of traffic. Here we present some road safety tips for commuters—a few key points to keep in mind when it comes to riding defensively.

What is defensive cycling?

Defensive cycling is cycling with a high level of situational awareness, so you’re prepared for surprises that may come in the form of hazards on the road, inclement weather, or mistakes made by drivers and pedestrians. Practising defensive cycling can help you avoid accidents.

Even though this usually pertains to motor vehicles, there are numerous other threats. Some of the biggest problems cyclists have to worry about include:

  • Pedestrians crossing the street
  • Construction zones
  • Hazards on the road
  • Weather and precipitation
  • Motor vehicles

Obviously, without any sort of protective shell, a cyclist is going to lose a collision with a motor vehicle almost every time. Even if the accident is the fault of the driver, simple physics dictates that the cyclist will be more likely to suffer serious injuries. But as long as you remain aware of where cars are located, what they are doing, and how they are reacting to certain situations, it’s possible to avoid accidents.

Every cyclist should practise defensive cycling.

How impacts between bicycles and motor vehicles happen

In order to avoid accidents with motor vehicles, it helps to understand how they happen. These are the most common types of accidents you should know about:

The Right Cross

The Right Cross happens when a car pulls out of a side street or a parking lot to your right. As the car pulls out, you’ll see it in your peripheral vision on the right side. The hood of the car may collide with the right side of your bike. Or, depending on the timing, you might ride into the left side of the car and strike either the driver’s or the passenger’s door.

Diagram of cycling accident known as the Right Cross

There are ways to help prevent this accident. First, consider getting a headlight. Wave to the car in an effort to get the attention of the driver. It’s also helpful to slow down or, if safe, veer slightly left in an effort to avoid the car altogether.

Getting doored

Getting doored on a bike is when you make an impact with a car door that has suddenly opened in front of you. You’ll be pedaling down the street with a line of cars parked parallel to the curb on your right. A driver opens his or her door into your path before you have time to stop.

Diagram showing how a cyclist gets doored

In order to avoid this collision, it is better to ride farther to the left. Even though you don’t want to be any further into the middle of the road then you have to be, it’s a good idea to stay far enough away from parked cars so that if a door opens, you can clear it.

Colliding with a turning car

Another common type of cycling accident involves a vehicle in the oncoming lane turning left into your path, sometimes called a Left Cross. This can also happen when you’re driving, but drivers are generally on the lookout for other vehicles. They are less attentive to the possibility that a bike might be approaching the intersection.

If the driver has been waiting anxiously for oncoming cars to clear in order to make their left turn, they might accelerate quickly through an opening and not notice a cyclist who had been obscured by those cars.

Diagram showing how left-turning vehicles collide with cyclists

To avoid this type of collision, it helps to invest in a headlight, particularly if you will be riding at night, at dusk, or in dreary weather.

It’s also important to slow down as you approach intersections so you can stop if you encounter a turning vehicle.

If you are in the habit of riding on the sidewalk to stay away from cars, you are better off on the road. First, sidewalk riding is against the law in many places. But it can also be more dangerous. Crossing intersections in crosswalks makes you more vulnerable to left-hand turners because they don’t expect to see a cyclist there. You are also vulnerable to motor vehicles pulling out of driveways and parking lots.

The cyclist is riding the wrong way

As a cyclist, you have to follow the same traffic rules that govern motor vehicles. Some cyclists like to pedal down the left side of the street because they feel it will be easier for cars on the road to spot them. In reality, this makes you incredibly vulnerable to a car making a right-hand turn onto the street. They will turn directly into the path of an oncoming cyclist, leading to a major collision.

diagram showing possible collision when a cyclist rides on the wrong side of the road

To avoid this, always ride with the flow of traffic. If you ride against the flow of traffic, not only are you prone to accidents but you might also be ticketed.

The Right Hook

Finally, a Right Hook takes place when you’re pedaling down the street and a car traveling in the same direction as you decides to make a right-hand turn in front of you. In this situation, you will likely make an impact with the passenger door of the car.

diagram showing cycling accident known as the Right Hook

To avoid this collision, certainly avoid riding on the sidewalk, as this makes you almost invisible to drivers. It’s also prudent to watch for turn signals on the cars, or cars on your left slowing down as they approach an intersection. Even if they haven’t signaled, that could indicate an intention to turn.

These are just a few of the most common accidents cyclists have on the road. A serious accident can take place at any time. The good news is that we have several more tips you can follow to remain safe as you pedal among cars.

Bicycle safety tips for defensive cycling

There are several practices that all bicycle riders should follow to reduce the chances of being involved in a motor vehicle accident. Here are a few of the most important:

Be visible

All cyclists should take steps to make themselves more visible on the road. It’s much harder for a driver to spot a bicycle than another motor vehicle. Wear a helmets and brightly colored or even reflective clothing, and use a bike light whenever possible. All this will make you easier to spot.

In addition, always look before you move, and use cycling hand signals. When you don’t have an actual turn signal, it’s hard for motor vehicle drivers to know where you’re going. These maneuvers will make it easier for drivers to spot you and reduce the chance of an accident.

Do not hug the curb

Many cyclists try to be courteous to motor vehicles by sticking as close to the side of the road as possible. Even though that does give drivers more room to pass, it also makes you harder to spot. Try to be at least three or four feet (one metre) away from the edge of the road. If you’re not blending in with the curb or the sidewalk, it will be easier for turning motor vehicles to spot you.

Avoid riding at night (if possible)

Lone cyclist riding in traffic on a rainy night
Darkness and poor weather can make it really hard for drivers to see cyclists.

If you have enough flexibility in your travel plans, stick to the daylight hours. As soon as the sun goes down, it becomes considerably harder for drivers to spot people on bikes. If you have to go out on you bicycle at night, wear reflective clothing and use a headlight and taillight.

Be aware of parallel parked cars

Woman stepping out of a parked Tesla
The driver stepping out of a Tesla—a cyclist’s worst enemy!

Cars that are parallel parked present dangers. Because most windows are tinted these days, it can be hard to spot people about to get out of their cars. A car door could open at any time. Even pedaling three feet farther to the left of parallel parked cars can give you enough space to avoid riding into an open car door.

Plan your route ahead of time

If you have some experience riding on a regular basis, then you already know that some areas are friendlier to cyclists than others. If you have flexibility in your route, try to stick to roads that are friendlier to cyclists. Most cities have cycling route maps that will show you streets and roads that they have tried to make bike-friendly. Some even have specific bike lanes that greatly reduce your chances of an accident.

See our post on how to create a cycling route using Google Maps.

Do not ride while distracted

You shouldn’t drive a car while distracted, and you shouldn’t ride a bike while distracted either. Cell phones, music and daydreaming are all bad ideas while riding a bike. You need to be aware of your surroundings, because they can change without notice. By anticipating potential dangers ahead of time, it’s possible to avoid accidents.

These are a few of the top strategies cyclists use to avoid motor vehicles on the road. As we’ve said, regardless of whose fault it is, a bicycle rider is going to lose a fight with a motor vehicle every time. It’s always better to take steps to avoid these accidents in the first place.

Bicycle safety is critical

You can share the road safely with motor vehicles, other cyclists and pedestrians. When everyone works together to stay safe, the chances of suffering an accident or sustaining serious injury is markedly reduced.

This means that all cyclists should embrace defensive cycling. Knowing how accidents happen, and how to avoid them, is a proactive step that will help you remain safe.