Bicycling Street Smarts



Let's face it - some traffic situations go beyond the normal rules. When the traffic system begins to break down because of overcrowding, poor planning and disrespect for the law, you may have to "bushwhack" your way through the mess.

You can emerge safe and maintain the respect of other road users if you're careful. Here are some situations where you have to take the initiative.


Always stop and wait for red lights. You not only ensure your safety, but you also increase respect for cyclists as law-abiding road users.

But some traffic lights don't turn green until they receive a signal from a metal detector buried in the pavement. Some of these detectors do not respond to bicycles.

You can recognize the detector by a square or octagonal pattern of thin lines in the pavement, where slots were cut for the detecting wires. The detector is most sensitive if you ride along one of the wires. (Sometimes, the slots for the wires are not visible, as the street has been repaved since they were installed).

If your bicycle doesn't trip the detector, you have to wait for a car to do it, or else you have to go through the red light. Going through the red isn't against the law, because the light is defective. If you ever have a crash or get a traffic ticket because a traffic light won't turn green, it's the fault of whoever installed the detector.

Detectors that work for bicycles are available at little or no additional cost. Design guidelines exist for these detectors. If you want to promote better conditions for bicycling, alert your government officials about road conditions of any type that are unsafe for bicycling. Let them know that they are responsible to make the roadways as safe as possible for all types of vehicles, and that accommodation of bicycles is important to you. Getting involved at the local level can be very effective.


Traffic jams don't have to stop you - that's one of the biggest advantages of bicycling in the city. But in the tight quarters of a tie-up, take extra care. Stopped cars in a traffic jam present the same hazards as parked cars: blindspots, suddenly opened doors, and unpredictable starts and turns.

If there is an open passing lane, use it rather than threading between cars. If the street is completely plugged, pick your way forward slowly with your hands on the brake levers. Remember, any car door could open!

If you're in a traffic jam, you can be fairly sure that the cars will not move, since they have nowhere to go. But if there's an open driveway or parking space into which a car could turn, you have to assume that it will. Look to see whether the car's front wheels are turned. Move away from the side of the car as you pass, and try to get the driver's attention as you approach the front of the car.

When cars are stopped, but not completely bumper to bumper, be very wary of cars from other lanes cutting across in the gaps. Stop and look before you move out into a gap. Be especially careful if the vehicle you're passing, like many vans, doesn't have a hood you can see over.

Don't pass a long truck or bus in a traffic jam unless there's a full, open lane next to it. If you ride close to the side of such a vehicle it may begin to merge toward you, leaving you no way to escape.

As you approach an intersection, change lanes to the same position as you would in normal traffic. Before you cross in front of a car to change lanes, make eye contact with the driver even if the car is stopped. When you reach an intersection, wait behind the first car at the traffic light. Don't move up next to the first car. Drivers don't always use their turn signals, so you don't know for sure which way the car will turn when the light turns green.

These traffic-jam tactics are reasonably safe, but in some places it is not legal for a bicyclist to pass on the right or ride between lanes of traffic. On the other hand, it's usually legal for you, or any driver, cautiously to disobey normal traffic rules when the road is obstructed.


Many people consider sidewalks a safe place to ride because cars don't travel on them. Unfortunately, sidewalks aren't safe. Stay off them, except where you have no choice.

Trees, hedges, parked cars, buildings and doorways create blindspots along a sidewalk, which is too narrow to allow you to swerve out of the way if someone appears. A pedestrian on the sidewalk can sidestep suddenly, or a small child can run out from behind an adult. Never pass a pedestrian until you have his or her attention.

And cars do use sidewalks - at every driveway and cross street. Since there are no clear rules for travel on a sidewalk, your only choice is to ride very slowly and look in all directions before crossing a driveway or street.

A bike path can sometimes provide a useful shortcut, and it can be pleasant and scenic. Use it with caution. Even if you are supposed to have the right of way, the path may be too narrow for safe maneuvering. Pedestrians are unpredictable, and intersections are often hazardous. A bike path can get crowded with inline skaters, dog walkers and careless, inexperienced bicyclists. Most bike paths are no place for a fast ride or high-speed commuting trip.


On your bicycle, you can see over most cars. You'll become used to this advantage. Don't let it fool you, though. You can't see over a large SUV, van, truck or bus. Moving blindspots lurk behind these tall vehicles.

Suppose that you're riding on a two-way, four-lane street. You've merged to the inside lane, because you want to turn left. You signal your left turn and continue to move forward. You see only one other vehicle on the street: a van, coming toward you in the opposite passing lane. It stops to let you turn left. Can you make your turn safely?

The moving blindspot (5.5 kB gif)

The moving blindspot: Motorist (a) has stopped as a favor to the bicyclist who is turning left. The bicyclist and motorist (b) have both seen the entire road at one time or another, but they have never seen each other.

No! Since you are moving forward, a blindspot behind the van is moving toward you. A car could be passing the van in the outside lane, and you would never see that car. If you were to cross in front of the van, you could be met with a terrible surprise.


People will often tell you to "ride as if you were invisible." That advice only makes sense where you're actually hidden by a blindspot. To ride all the time as if you were invisible, you would have to pull off the road whenever a car approaches from behind. You would also have to stop and wait until traffic clears before crossing any intersection.

Instead, ride to make sure you're visible. Wear bright-colored clothes day and night, and use lights and reflectors at night. Ride in the correct lane position where you can be seen. Also, test to make sure that drivers have seen you. This is the safest way to ride.


How do you test that a driver has seen you? Here's an example. Suppose that you are on a main street, riding toward an intersection. A car is approaching from the right in the cross street, where there's a stop sign. How do you handle this situation?

As you approach the intersection, look into the car window and make eye contact with the driver to ascertain that the driver has seen you. Watch for the car to slow down more than it would if you weren't there.

If you look into the driver's window and the driver isn't looking at you, then be very cautious. Even if the car is stopped at the stop sign, a driver who doesn't know you're there has no reason to stay stopped. Slow down, and call out to get the driver's attention. Proceed only when you're sure that the driver is waiting for you.


Avoiding a driver who inches out from a stop sign (4 kB gif)

To call the bluff on a driver inching out from a stop sign, check behind you for traffic, then keep pedaling as you move farther into your lane.

Avoiding a driver who makes a left turn in front of you (4 kB gif)

To call the bluff on a driver threatening to turn left from ahead of you, move into your lane to make yourself more visible, then right to prepare your escape if necessary.

  Some drivers try to cut across in front of you. They inch out from a driveway or stop sign and treat you as if you have no right to the road.

These drivers seem more dangerous than they actually are. Most drivers who play these tricks are only trying to bluff you. They inch forward with one foot on the gas pedal and the other on the brake pedal, waiting to see whether you'll stop.

Giving in to this bullying will slow you down and leave your self-esteem in shambles. Stand up for your rights. Don't let rude drivers spoil your trip. Outbluff them. Here's how.

With a little experience, and after learning the emergency braking techniques in this booklet, you'll have a good idea of your bike's stopping distance in any situation.

You outbluff a driver by making it clear that you don't intend to stop. Continue to move forward - and keep pedaling, since your turning pedals are a clear signal to the driver. Meanwhile, figure out when you'll have to hit the brakes, in case the driver pulls out in front of you anyway.

In 999 cases out of 1000, the driver will stop and wait for you before you have to brake. Move on past the car. In the odd case that the driver doesn't stop, you'll be prepared to brake in time.

The real danger at intersections is from drivers who run stop signs or red lights without even slowing down, or who stop and then start again without looking. But these drivers are rare; crashes tend to deplete their numbers.


If a motorist inadvertently or maliciously causes you to feel threatened or attempts to harm you, make note of the license plate number and, if possible, a description of the driver. In some places you can report the incident to the Department of Motor Vehicles. If the offender is a commercial driver, inform the driver's employer. You may be able to report the driver's employer to the Department of Motor Vehicles or the licensing agencies that regulate trucking. You may also be able to press criminal charges for assault if you believe the driver attempted to hit you or threw something at you, or assault and battery if you were struck by the car or some other object.


After any fall or crash, seek appropriate medical attention, and before your next ride, have a qualified mechanic check that your bicycle is in safe working order.

Most bicycle crashes don't involve other people, and can be prevented by good bicycle handling techniques. These crashes typically result from the bicyclist's losing control on a bad surface or hitting a fixed object (see Moritz, William, Adult Bicyclists in the United States - Characteristics and Riding Experience, Transportation Research Board, 1998). But if you are in a crash involving another person, first get appropriate medical attention for all parties. Gather as much information at the scene as possible including the other parties' names, addresses and insurance information. Keep in mind that you may not discover an injury, or damage to your bike, until later. Seek the advice of an attorney, especially if there is any dispute as to who was at fault. Be wary - many people including police officers and insurance officials do not understand bicyclists' rights to the road and this may cause them to have a bias against you. For this reason, do not apologize or say anything that could be interpreted as an admission of fault and do not say that you are not hurt - you may not realize that you are injured until later. If the investigating officer takes a driver's version of what happened and it differs from yours, politely insist that the police officer also record your version.


The main way bicyclists annoy motorists is by performing unpredictable maneuvers this booklet warns against.

Fearful instruction - "always keep away from traffic" - is passed down to children by parents who don't know much about bicycling - the blind leading the blind. From about 1930 to 1965, few adults rode bicycles in North America, and that was long enough for incorrect ideas about bicycling to become deeply rooted.

Certainly, children shouldn't be allowed to ride bicycles in heavy traffic, any more than they should be allowed to drive cars. But that doesn't mean that adult bicyclists should have to ride like children.

There will always be people in cars who yell, "Get off the road." Don't let them bother you. Position yourself to encourage drivers to maneuver around you correctly. If most bicyclists in your community use incorrect maneuvers, drivers will have some trouble understanding your correct maneuvers. You need to make especially clear signals. With experience, drivers will discover that they have an easier time with bicyclists who use correct maneuvers.

The number of adult bicyclists is increasing, and in the long run, more drivers will come to understand that it makes sense to share the road. Bicycles use less road space than cars; every person who chooses to ride a bicycle rather than drive is reducing traffic problems.


Your awareness of tough situations will help you anticipate and avoid problems and deal with problems that are unavoidable. Be courteous and respectful to other road users to avoid friction, but firmly assert your legal right to ride in the manner that is safe. Always be prepared to use your emergency maneuvers.