Cycling Street Smarts, left-hand drive version



We've all seen cyclists who are timid and fearful in traffic, who prefer to ride only on cycle paths.

On the other hand, we've seen cyclists who seem to blend into the traffic flow smoothly and effortlessly. You always know where they are headed and what to do around them, whether you're on a bicycle, in a car or on foot. They make cycling look easy - but aren't they taking a risk? Isn't it safer to avoid the traffic as much as possible?


With very few exceptions, the safest way to ride is as part of the traffic, going with the flow of the normal traffic pattern. Cyclists who ride this way get where they're going faster and, according to scientific crash studies, have about five times fewer crashes than cyclists who make up their own rules (J. Forester; Effective Cycling. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1994).

Generally, the more you follow the normal traffic pattern, the safer and more predictable you become. The rules of the road set up a pattern for every situation, telling which driver has the right of way. may go and which one must wait. With very few exceptions, cyclists have the same rights – and responsibilities – as motorists. Sometimes you have to wait for other drivers - for example, at a stop sign - but sometimes they have to wait for you.

In this way, the rules of the road protect you by making it clear what you're going to do next.

If you ride in violation of the traffic laws, you greatly increase your risk of a crash. You also may give up your rights to compensation for your injuries . If you get into a crash this way, the courts will almost always find that it was your fault!


Normally, slower traffic keeps to the left, and faster traffic passes on the right. Since your bicycle is usually slower than other traffic, you usually ride near the left edge of the road. But how far to the left?

Generally, the usable width of the road begins where you can ride without increased danger of falls, jolts or sudden deflations. A road may have a gravel shoulder, its edge may be covered with sand or trash or the surface may be broken. Don't ride there. Closer to the centre, there's a better surface, which is swept clean of sand and debris by the passing cars. The usable road width begins here.

Most cycling crashes are simple falls or are caused by hazards in front of you. Train your eyes to scan the scene ahead, and be wary of blind spots. Keep your eyes moving - you have to look up at the traffic and also down at the road for potholes and cracks. You may sometimes need to slow down in order to spot hazards in time.

Ride far enough into the lane to avoid the risk from blind spots. If you ride too close to parked cars on your left you can't see around them into side streets and driveways. A pedestrian, car or bicycle could come out from between the parked cars. Drivers in side streets might nose their cars out in front of you to look left and right. And the door of a parked car could open in front of you.

Avoid the danger zone close to parked cars. (8 kB gif)

By riding a safe distance from roadside hazards, you increase your safety. When you ride correctly, the motorist in the driveway (a) sees you; the motorist overtaking you (b) will not take the easy way out and skim by your elbow; and the car door (c) is no threat.

The danger zone has many hazards (8 kB gif)

Where there are parked cars, the usable width of the street begins about 4 feet out from them - or from a wall, hedge or other obstruction. As you approach a blind junction or driveway, you should be even farther from the edge of the road - imagine a car hood poking out. Don't ride in the danger zone! Only if you are riding very slowly - less than 8 km per hour - can you safely ride within reach of the car doors; even then you must be attentive to opening doors and your reduced visibility to cross traffic. Keep even farther from angle-parked vehicles, which can back out into your path.

Sure, many people - even some cycling "experts" - will tell you, "Always keep as far to the left as possible," and, "Look out for opening car doors." But at speeds above 8 km per hour, you can't stop in time to avoid a car door. Then your only choices are to hit the door or to swerve out into the street - maybe into the path of a passing car. Avoid this problem by riding outside the reach of car doors.

Don't weave between parked cars (5 kB gif)

Don't weave between parked cars, where you become invisible to overtaking drivers and must repeatedly reenter the traffic flow.

Don't weave in and out between parked cars. If you weave to the left, a parked car will hide you from drivers approaching from behind you. Then you have to pop back out into the path of overtaking traffic when you reach the next parked car. Put yourself in the place of a driver a couple of hundred feet behind you. Could this driver see you?

It's much safer to ride in a predictable, straight line, where everyone can see you. Motorists don't mind slowing down for a predictable, visible cyclist nearly as much as they mind a cyclist who swerves out in front of them.


If the road has a paved shoulder or an extra-wide left lane, don't ride all the way over at the left edge. Instead, keep riding in a straight line 3 or 4 feet to the left of the cars. Stay at a steady distance from the right side of the left lane.

If you stay all the way over at the left edge in an extra-wide lane, you give up your excape route to the left, and you're also much more likely to be cut off by a left-turning car. When this happens, it's harder for you to avoid a crash. By the time you see the car, it will be blocking your path. If you're closer to the car, you can turn with it and avoid a crash.

In a wide lane, ride 3 or 4 feet to the right of cars. (5 kB gif)

In a wide lane, you are safer if you stay 3 to 4 feet to the left of the cars. You can turn to avoid a crash if a motorist makes a left turn from your right side.

If you hug the edge, a turning car is a greater hazard. (5 kB gif)

If you hug the kerb, the car is across your path before you see it.

There are two important exceptions to this rule: When you are just past a sharp hillcrest, motorists behind you cannot see you, so it is best to keep to the left until you have picked up some speed. In several U.S. states and perhaps elsewhere, it's legal for cyclists to ride on some high-speed limited-access highways. Here, you can ride at the left side of the shoulder, avoiding the wind blast from big trucks. Except at the rare slip lanes, limited-access highways have no cross traffic, so there's no problem with turning cars or pedestrians.


In a wide lane, there's room for cars to pass you. But in a narrow lane, motorists have to move partly or entirely into the next lane to pass you. Narrow lanes are common on city streets and on back roads in the country. On a narrow two-lane, two-way rural road, stay alert to strings of oncoming vehicles in the opposite lane, in case one pulls into your lane to pass. You can ride nearer the edge of this type of road if cars are coming from only one direction at a time. Then cars from the rear can pass you without having to move as far into the other lane.

Be alert to oncoming traffic (5 kB gif)

On a two-lane highway, be alert to drivers ahead of you pulling out to pass, especially if the lanes are narrow.

But if motorists are coming from both directions, you have to take control of the situation. You can't take chances that the drivers behind you will try to pass you despite oncoming traffic.

When a vehicle is approaching from the front, glance to the rear, and if there's traffic there too, take the first opportunity to merge safely to the middle of the left lane. Also merge to the middle of a narrow left lane at a blind curve where there might be oncoming traffic. On a right curve, this technique makes you visible earlier to the drivers behind you.

The driver behind you will have to slow and follow you. It helps to make a "slow" signal (right arm extended downward) to indicate that you're aware of the car behind you and that it's unsafe to pass. Don't let an impatient driver cause a crash.

On a multilane road with narrow lanes, ride in the middle of the right lane. (6 kB gif)

On a multi-lane road with narrow lane,  ride in the middle of the left lane. 

If you hug the edge, you may be squeezed out. (8 kB gif)

If you hug the edge, you are likely to get squeezed out. 

Understand that the law is on your side. The law gives you the right to use the road, the same as a motorist, and requires other traffic slow down for you sometimes. A driver approaching from the rear is always required to slow and follow if it's not possible to pass safely.

It may seem dangerous to make a motorist slow for you, but it's not. The usual reason that cyclists feel unsafe on narrow roads is that they do not take control of the situation when drivers behind them don’t have room to pass safely. If you ride all the way to the left, you’re inviting motorists to pass you when it is unsafe and, too often, they will. If you show clearly that it’s not safe for drivers to pass you, they’re unlikely to try.

Remember, the drivers behind you don't have room to pass you safely anyway. If you ride all the way over at the left, you're inviting them to pass you where the road is too narrow and, too often, they will. If you show clearly that it's not safe for drivers to pass you, they're unlikely to try.

But be courteous. When it becomes safe for the car behind you to pass you, move to the left and give the driver a friendly wave. If you block traffic for more than a short time, common courtesy suggests, and the law normally requires, that you pull to the side and let the traffic by when you can safely do so.

On a road with two or more narrow lanes in your direction - like many city streets - you should ride in the middle of the left lane at all times. You need to send the message to drivers to move to the passing lane to pass you. If you ride all the way to the left, two cars may pass you at the same time, side by side, giving you too little clearance for safety.


A well-designed cycle lane should encourage you to ride in the correct position on the road when you go slower than the cars. It should also encourage you to move right, out of the cycle lane, before a junction if you are going straight or turning right. Don't be lulled into riding in the danger zone close to parked cars; you often need to ride along a cycle lane's right edge. Remember that motorists will cross the cycle lane to park and pull in and out of driveways. Pass on the right whenever possible. Passing on the left may not be illegal, but it is often unwise. If local laws permit passing on the left, do so only very slowly and where a car could not possibly turn left. You may be in a motorist's blind spot; a car door could open, or a pedestrian could be jaywalking between the cars. Never pass a long truck or bus on the left. Remember: don't hesitate to leave the cycle lane when necessary for your safety - all the guidelines about lane position in this book apply whether or not there is a cycle lane. If the law requires staying in a cycle lane, be especially careful of the hazards. There is no such law in the U.K., and Ireland is repealing its law.


Usually, motor vehicles travel faster than bicycles, but not always. A row of cars may have slowed in a traffic jam. Or you may be riding down a hill where you can keep up with the motorists.

If you're going as fast as the cars, pull into line with them. When riding down a hill at high speed, you need more room to steer and brake. Besides, it's dangerous to ride along next to the left side of a car. The driver could turn left or edge closer to the kerb without ever seeing you. The safest position in traffic doesn't depend on whether you're riding a bicycle or driving a car. It depends on how fast you're going and where you're headed.

When going as fast as cars, pull into line with them (4 kB gif)

When going as fast as the cars, you're much safer if you ride in the middle of the traffic lane where the driver behind you can see you.

If you hug the edge, a driver might merge right without ever seeing you. (3.7 kB gif)

The driver next to you has not seen you and could turn or merge left. 

As long as you keep up with the car in front of you, stay in line with it. If you begin to fall behind, pull to the left. But if you're traveling faster than the car, pass on the right, just as if you were driving a car yourself. Drivers expect to be passed on the right, so they look back to the right before they pull out.

Before you pass, look back for traffic to make sure that you can pull safely into the passing lane. Keep your distance from the side of the car you're passing. Don't sneak along next to it. Put yourself where the driver will look for you. If you're passing a long truck or bus, give it even more clearance - 5 or 6 feet - since it could move farther before you could get out of its way. When you're finished passing, move back into the left lane.

Sometimes the car, bus or truck you're passing will pick up speed while you're still next to it. Then just keep the same position in the lane, and brake lightly if necessary to fall back. When you've fallen behind, look back to the left for traffic, then merge back to your normal position in the left lane.

Don't ride on the left! (4 kB gif)
On a cycle path next to a road, a cyclist may not be noticed by a motorist, especially when the path is on the right side. A motorist entering to turn left looks mostly to the right and may not see you.

On a street with multiple left-turn lanes or heavy, slow traffic, you may move right more than one lane to pass slower traffic.


In some countries, bikeways are placed alongside the roads like pavements, or on the pavement; in the worst cases, they are for two-way traffic. It is dangerous enough to use this kind of bikeway when riding in the direction of traffic in the nearest lane, as turning motorists may not see you approaching from behind. It is even more dangerous to ride opposite the direction of traffic. A motorist entering from a side street normally does not constantly look left, not expecting fast traffic from that direction. The driver expects and must pay attention only to slow pedestrian traffic. Avoid such paths, if you can.

A multi-use, cycle-pedestrian path can be pleasant and scenic, but many paths are no place for a high-speed training or fast commuting ride. Intersections may be frequent, and there can be confusion as to who must yield right of way. A path may be narrow, have blind corners, and be crowded with unpredictable inline skaters, dog walkers and inexperienced bicyclists.

Ride at a reasonable speed; more slowly when it is crowded. Take extra care at intersections, and move off the path if you stop riding. When overtaking, give an audible signal and leave plenty of space if you can – the closer you must pass, the more slowly you must go. Remember that pedestrians can change direction suddenly. A path does not automatically make you safe – you still must be alert for many potential hazards!


Many cyclists believe they are safer and more comfortable riding further to the left than this booklet recommends. They fear being passed uncomfortably close by a motorist, or feel intimidated by impatient drivers. Riding too far to the left is very dangerous for several reasons. It puts the cyclist in the danger zone of poor sight lines and opening car doors; it invites motorists to pass too closely; and it takes away the cyclist's escape route to the left in the event of the unexpected. The correct lane positions described in this booklet are the safest and most efficient. Do not be intimidated. Take responsibility for your own safety, even if other traffic must occasionally slow and follow you.

Your correct position on the road follows a sensible set of rules, the same as for a car driver: keep to the left if you're going slowly, but pull to the right to pass. The way you carry out these rules is a little different - as explained here - since your bicycle is narrow and usually slow. An understanding of road positioning makes the difference between the rider who weaves and wanders and the one who blends smoothly and safely into the traffic flow.