Safety First: Tips and Techniques for Riding in Traffic

by Kent Peterson, Commuting Program Director, Bicycle Alliance of Washington

Note: This is an approximation of the content of seminar that took place on May 4th, 2006. The actual seminar was a more interactive discussion.

Today I'm going to be talking about safety. And since this is America in the twenty-first century, I'm going to start with a disclaimer. The views expressed here are mine and may or may not reflect the views of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington, King County Metro, the City of Seattle or a whole bunch of other fine folks or organizations. Reasonable people have differing opinions on the relative safety of various actions and I intend today to present my thoughts on some of these matters and also provide you with some pointers to additional sources of information. Ultimately each of us must use our own judgment in deciding our own safest courses of action. I know for certain that I don't have all the answers but I've been commuting by bicycle since 1977 (longer if you count biking back and forth to school) and I'm still alive so if we're lucky maybe a bit of what I have to say will be useful to you.

OK, with that out of the way, let me spend just a couple of minutes talking about bike helmets.

Now you may or may not know that bike helmets are a huge hot-button issue for some folks. I've got friends who are huge fans of helmets and can cite x number of studies about lives saved by helmets. I've got other friends who are just as strongly opposed to helmet laws and they can cite studies showing the downsides of helmet use and helmet laws. I can guarantee you that this very instant there are people on the Internet who are very busy arguing about helmets right now. Most of these arguments do little to change people's minds and in the interest of brevity (and because I like to think that I'm not a total fool) I'm not going to dive into the battles of the helmet wars. I am, however, going to say a few things about helmets.

First off, the bicycle helmet is not some kind of magical protective device. A helmet may lessen your injuries in some types of accidents but a helmet alone does not make you "safe." In fact, it can be argued (and people do, trust me on this), that the illusion of safety can make people more reckless. If a Hummer H2 going 55 miles per hour collides with a bicyclist going 15 miles per hour an extra inch of foam around the head of said bicyclist is not going to make much of a difference in the overall transfer of energy. Force equals mass times acceleration. I remember that from physics class.

I remember that and a lot of other things because my brain is still basically intact. A couple of times in the past my intact brain has bounced a few inches above the pavement while a thin layer of plastic and slightly thicker layer of foam collapsed in the fraction of a second after a sudden and unanticipated transfer of momentum. I was wearing a helmet on those occasions.

I personally favor helmet use. I wear a helmet when I ride my bike.

I also aware of other opinions and I personally am not in favor of mandatory helmet laws. But as I said this is my personal view and while Thomas Paine and I may feel "that government is best which governs least," the King Board of Health Code ( states in section BOH 9.10.010(A), “Any person operating or riding on a bicycle not powered by motor on a public roadway, bicycle path or on any right-of-way or publicly owned facilities located in King County including Seattle, shall wear a protective helmet designed for bicycle safety.”

So that's the law of the land. And that pretty much ends what I'm going to say about helmets. I do think the one unfortunate thing about the situation with helmets is that for too many people the helmet becomes the main focal point in bicycle safety. The helmet is only plastic and foam. Safety is about riding safely, being aware of your surroundings and what else is happening on the road. And that is the main thing I am going to talk about today.

There is an absolutely terrific site on the Internet called "Bicycle Safety: How Not to Get Hit by Cars". The address of this site is:

It was created by a fellow named Michael Bluejay. I have some printed copies of the information on this site as handouts but if you don't get a copy I strongly urge you to go to the Michael's website and see what he has to say.

Michael looks at ten common types of collisions and provides practical advice to help you avoid such problems. He describes these collisions as;

#1 The Right Cross

#2 The Door Prize

#3 The Red Light of Death

#4 The Right Hook

#5 The Right Hook, Pt. 2

#6 The Left Cross

#7 The Rear End

#8 The Rear End, Pt. 2

#9 The Crosswalk Slam

#10 The Wrong-Way Wallop

I'm not going to take the time right now to go into each of these collisions in detail, Michael does a great job of that on his site. What I am going to do is talk about the general nature of the threats we face as bicyclists and a outline couple of general operating principles that I try to live by.

If you look at Michael's list of collisions, one thing you will notice is that they pretty much all involve an element of the unexpected. That cliché of "expect the unexpected" (which is an oxymoron when you think about it) does have a strong element of truth. We as cyclists can help the situation by anticipating what cars may do (studying Michael's list is a very good place to start) but the other half of the story is what I call

The Principle of Least Astonishment

The principle of least astonishment is sometimes translated as "ride predictably" but I don't think that quite covers it. I advise riding in such a way that you minimize surprise. Sometimes that means avoiding placing yourself in spots where drivers don't expect you. The advice for avoiding "The Wrong-Way Wallop" basically boils down to "don't ride the against traffic because nobody is looking that way." But sometimes the way to avoid the nasty surprise is to be further out in the lane of traffic than some driver might "predict". The driver might not "predict" that you are there but if you are where they are looking, you increase your chances of being seen. A bright yellow, well lit rider in the main lane of traffic is going to have fewer problems than a rider hugging the curb and weaving in an out to avoid car doors.

Using the principle of least astonishment as a guideline can lead some interesting and sometimes counter-intuitive conclusions. For example, a lot of people assume bike paths or lanes are safer than riding on the road. If your path really is isolated and your interactions on the path are with other riders, walkers, roller-bladers, dog-walkers, etc. then you probably won't get killed on the path. But path/road intersections may have poorer sight lines than road/road intersections and some paths and lanes are just plain poorly designed. An example in this area is the bike lane on the west side of Lake Sammamish. It only exists on the west side of the road and northbound cyclists are directed to ride against traffic and use this lane. But many, many drivers at intersections where cross roads intersect this road are unaware of the bike lane and the possibility of wrong way traffic. Even southbound cycle traffic has to contend with numerous blind driveway crossings. My experience and the principle of least astonishment leads me to avoid using this lane.

Similarly Michael's advice to "avoid busy streets" doesn't mean you are surrendering or giving up your rights to the road but if you want to minimize the number of "surprise" encounters one very good way of doing that is selecting a route that minimizes exposure to danger spots. This is one of those "well, duh!" bits of advice that is often overlooked. The route you take when driving to work might not be the most sensible route when you bike to work.

Avoiding astonishment involves doing what you can to make yourself visible. Bright colors, lights at night, bells or horns all can be tools you use to increase your odds of being noticed. But no matter what you do, at some point someone won't see you. Trust me on this. I've written an essay on this subject and it can be read at:

This leads me to my next general technique:

Ride As If You Are Invisible

For gosh sakes don't try to be invisible, do everything you can to be noticed. But everyday people space out and at some point somebody is going to fail to see you.

A big part of the "ride as if you are invisible" strategy is avoiding being in danger spots. It doesn't matter if a person in a parked car opens the door without looking if you are clear of the door zone. If you are riding in the door zone you are counting on someone to see you. It's better to trust your behavior than to count on the vigilance of others. They may not always be up to the task.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

This is one of my hot button issues. One of the great things about the bicycle as a mode of transport is that you are out in the world. Don't isolate yourself from your surroundings, pay attention to them. I don't ride with earphones and I strongly advise others to do the same. Your ears give you good survival cues if you aren't filling them with MP3s. A friend of mine wisely noted that if a vital part of your biking equipment is something you use to take your mind of what you are doing, maybe it's time to rethink what you are doing.

I also use and recommend a rear view mirror. There are mirrors that attach to your bike and ones that attach to your helmet. Some folks don't like mirrors and find they distract them from paying attention to what's in front of them, but I find a mirror to be very useful. But the main thing is to keep your eyes, ears and mind on the world around you.

My final bit of general advice is this:

Impatience is the enemy

It's easy to think of car drivers as the enemy but they are not. They are people like us, people trying to get someplace. Driver's aren't the enemy but over time I've come to the conclusion that the real enemy is impatience. Probably the single best thing I've learned in years of bike commuting is to slow down. I really try not to cram my life so full of things that I'm tempted to sprint for that yellow light. Pushing too fast can make you stupid. Slowing down, specifically budgeting in an extra time buffer for your trips is not just a good way of reducing stress, it's one of the best things you can do to increase your safety. This is true for drivers as well as cyclists, of course, but we have far more control over our own actions than the actions of others.

And speaking of the actions of others, I'm almost out of time here but I want to talk a bit about

The Problem of the Well-meaning Samaritan

 (note: at this point several of the more experienced cyclists in the room began nodding their heads in agreement, while some of the newer riders looked puzzled. As the discussion progressed the experienced riders shared their stories and the new folks' expressions turned from "huh?" to "aha!")

The "Well-meaning Samaritan" is the term I use to refer to those drivers who think they are doing you a favor when in fact they are encouraging you to break the law or at least break the principle of least astonishment. A classic example of this is the situation where I'm waiting at a stop sign to cross a road. A Samaritan with the right of way will think they are doing me a favor by stopping, giving up their right of way and trying to wave me through. But often the Samaritan hasn't checked out all the other cars around them and those other drivers aren't expecting a break in the normal flow. The Samaritan, by being "nice" has just increased the danger for everybody. Maybe I get clipped, maybe the Samaritan gets rear ended or maybe it just pisses some other driver off. In any case, it's not doing anyone any favors.

Another less dangerous but very annoying example of misplaced good intentions is at traffic lights. Many lights have proximity sensors in the road and often times a bicycle doesn't have sufficient mass or metal to trigger the sensor. Now I have friends who will argue that a sensor that doesn't detect a bicycle is defective and point out that the law allows you to treat a defective sensor as a 4-way stop. I try to avoid such lights or trigger them via the pedestrian button but often I will use the mass of a nearby car to trigger the sensor. I'll be waiting patiently at a light, see a car pulling up behind me in my review mirror and I'll think "good, this car will trigger the sensor." But the car driver won't want to crowd me, so they hang back. This does neither of us any good. If I treat the red light as a four-way stop and go through it, I look like a scofflaw, one of those riders who blows through lights. But if the driver hangs back, away from the sensor, none of us are going anywhere. I wind up doing a lot of pantomime, trying to convince cars that it's OK to roll up behind me. Please, if you are driving, don't worry about pulling up close behind a cyclist. We know you are there and this may be one of the times when your presence helps us out.

OK, we've pretty much used up our time today. I hope all this talk doesn't make you think of cycling as some super-risky activity. There are a couple of sites on the net that discuss the relative risks of cycling vs driving and you can see those at:


Ironically, the one of those pages was written by Ken Kifer, who was riding his bike when he was killed by a drunk driver. But, as the late Warren Zevon observed, "life will kill you." I still believe that I am safer riding my bike than I would be if I drove everywhere. No activity is perfectly safe and we all have to assess risks and make our own best choices. I hope you found some of the information presented here to be of value.