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
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
(www.metrokc.gov/HEALTH/boh/code/) states in section BOH 9.10.010(A),
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.
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
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
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.
bit of general advice is this:
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
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
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