Bikes vs Cars:  how we can all just get along?

By Blair Hornbuckle

More of us in the USA would happily drive our bikes, in addition to — or instead of — cars, once we are less afraid of traffic, and more skilled when dealing with it.

I vastly prefer using my bike over driving a car (though I do both). I feel stronger, happier, and healthier when I bike. I also feel safer on my bike than when driving a car. Crash data show that my own perceptions are correct: cyclists are safer than both motorists and pedestrians.

The facts proves that cycling is safe even when done poorly.

Much instruction about riding a bike consists simply of, “Okay, honey, here’s how you balance. Now don’t get hit by a car!”

Cycling safety is not funded or taught in schools because our car culture considers bicycles to be toys, and riding bikes to be child's play.

There’s a little more to it than that, of course.

 Six simple skills and habits keep cyclists vastly safer and feeling confident when riding as part of traffic.

Roads have always been for people, not just for cars & trucks. It’s very recent that cars outnumbered other modes of transportation.

Cyclists and motorists can peacefully co-exist!

The biggest challenge is that untrained cyclists and motorists alike are often confused about what to do when meeting on the road. Unexpected movement is what causes collisions between cyclists and motorists. And cyclists cause their own falls and crashes some 60% of the time.

With a few hours of easy-to-learn skills and habits, even novice cyclists can feel extremely secure while driving their bikes as a regular part of the flow of traffic.

Cyclists don’t need special, expensive biking infrastructure. So-called “improvements” like bike lanes, trails, paths, and boxes give the illusion of safety.

What they create in reality is even more confusion, especially at intersections. And they create dangerous situations for cyclists who blindly follow paint on the road, without doing their own thinking. Not wise!

Cycling on sidewalks is dangerous because motorists look for moving vehicles in the road. Motorists are conditioned to (at best) glance at sidewalks for pedestrians — not cyclists who are zipping along. And cyclists moving fast can be dangerous to pedestrians, both on paths and sidewalks.

Here are six skills/habits that help cyclists ride safely, as traffic, with confidence and freedom:

1) Plan your route for neighborhood streets, where possible. Use busier connecting streets as necessary, once you’ve adequately practiced these six skills. Use your own judgment, and take responsibility for your safety. Of course, you will avoid riding at a time or place you feel unsafe. And, your perception of what feels safe will rapidly expand as your skills expand.

At the front of the traffic queue during rush hour
The view from the front of the queue on the ride home (with our nine-year-old daughter) during rush hour. Newly repaved Westfall Road in Rochester, NY — without unnecessary bike lane markings. We’re using the whole right lane, and motorists easily pass us in the left lane.

2) Follow the rules of the road. These are long-established norms that work well -- as long as everybody plays by the same rules.

Do NOT ride against traffic, or on sidewalks, or at night without lights, or on highways. DO ride as traffic.

“Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” (John Forester, Effective Cycling)

Cyclists earn and deserve respect from motorists when we follow the rules of the road.

3) Learn proper lane positioning. The proper position is in the center, or a little left of center (the left wheel track of cars), of your correct lane.

Cyclists who ride far to the right (FTR) put themselves at risk by being less visible to motorists. Cyclists riding FTR blend in with visual distractions on the edge of the road. Motorists may not see see you, and try to squeeze through when passing, or make sudden evasive maneuvers when they come upon you suddenly. This puts you at risk.

Cyclists riding far to the right, along the gutter or curb, are visible from behind only 150 feet away. Cyclists riding in the center or left center of the lane are visible from 1,500 feet away (a quarter mile). Motorists overtaking a properly positioned cyclist will see you well in advance, make a full lane change, and pass you without delay.

Millions of motorists drive millions of miles successfully avoiding that which is directly in front of them.

4) Learn to communicate with motorists. Control your lane with proper lane positioning, plus a hand signal to hold motorists back until it’s safe for them to pass.

This is especially important at blind curves, or with cars parallel parked along the roadway. Your first hand signal lets them know you are aware they are behind you. They feel less anxious about dealing with you as soon as they see you are in control of your movement, and in communication with them.

When you, the cyclist, deem it safe to do so, move safely to the right, and then wave the motorist around. Be sure to avoid the door lane, where parked cars may be opening their doors.

Learn and practice this “Control & Release” strategy taught by Keri Caffrey, Mighk Wilson, and others at Cycling Savvy, a 3-part cycling safety skills training (classroom, parking lot session, and bike tour of the city). This excellent cycling safety instruction is available in many states in the USA. Control and Release is just one of many important skills and strategies you will learn. Keri and her team have created many excellent teaching videos and animations their excellent site:

5) Be extremely predictable to motorists, and drive defensively.

By acting as a driver of a vehicle, and always following the rules of the road, motorists will know your path of movement and successfully avoid a collision.

Ride in a straight line. Signal your stops and turns. Stop at signals and stop signs (practice a “balance stop” so you can continue immediately). Signal your lane changes AFTER looking over your shoulder to confirm the way is clear. Yield to whomever arrives first at the intersection. Yield to pedestrians.

Drive defensively. Pay attention to everything that’s happening. Keep a buffer zone of space between you and other vehicles, just in case.

Make eye contact with motorists turning left in front of you. Be prepared to stop quickly or evade if necessary.

When stopped at a signal, wait in line with the rest of traffic. NEVER pass motorists on the right — even in a bike lane!

Doing so puts you in their blind spot, and makes you vulnerable to being “right hooked,” run over when a motorist turns right in front of you, when you were continuing straight through. This is deadly to cyclists. Be prepared to slow and turn right quickly if you have to. Proper lane positioning prevents this problem, and many others too!

6) Practice civility. Engage motorists at intersections with eye contact and waves. Appreciate them when they notice you. If there’s a window rolled down, ask a motorist for the time of day (thanks Lyle!), or just say hello! Give them a friendly wave after you’ve controlled and released your lane of traffic.

Most motorists are civil, and willing to share the road. Some are not. If you’re honked at or yelled at, a friendly wave — with all five fingers — that acknowledges them, is usually a safe bet. Some frequent cyclists say it’s not worth waving to uncivil motorists, as they’re likely to mis-interpret your friendly wave. In many years of riding, I’ve never personally had my friendly wave misunderstood. Use your own good judgment about engaging motorists.

Your biggest concerns are these:
These are the basic guidelines I follow when riding. They work extremely well for me, and thousands of adult riders around the country who commute many miles to work, or ride for recreation and exercise.

Many millions of adult riders could benefit from discovering these new skills and habits, giving them confidence and courage to ride more often, to more places, even more safely than cycling is already.

Blair, May, and cousins on their first open road ride

Cycling with Children

Children too can learn these cycling skills, often much more quickly than adult riders, who tend to hold more tightly to decades of habits which no longer serve them.

Why teach your child this kind of transportation independence? Because it gives them the opportunity to go places, engage the world, and discover the important contributions they will make.

With young children you obviously start on foot, as pedestrians. Teach them to look both ways. Teach them what red, yellow, and green means.

Practice short, clear, verbal commands. It’s okay to use a more authoritarian leadership style than you may be used to. Traffic safety for kids is not about options and consensus. They want and need your clear leadership.

Ask them questions about the Rules of the Road while they are auto or bike passengers.

When she/he is ready, pull your child behind you on a trailer bike. They will learn all the adult riding skills without the risk of poor judgment. They’ll learn to hold the handlebars, balance, pedal, observe traffic, signal, and get comfortable with speed. Because you are steering and braking, they can’t wander into dangerous lane positions, or run into obstacles.

The bicycle is the perfect first-hand way to learn the rules of the road, because cyclists are moving at the speed of human perception. We’re going slowly enough that we can take in information, see what needs to be seen, and quickly correct our course.

This is extremely valuable all through life, and especially so when the child grows up and possibly decides to operate a motor vehicle.

Skilled drivers of bicycles make for more skilled motorcycle and automobile drivers, who remain vigilant of more vulnerable road users their entire adult lives.

Children who navigate their neighborhoods on foot and by bike feel safer and more connected to their community, and have a detailed grasp of where they are. Children who are motor vehicle passengers don’t know where they are going.

I have trained children as young as 6 (on a trailer bike) or 8 (on their own two wheels) to successfully ride their bikes as drivers of vehicles.

Children are learning sponges. What they can’t do is master judgment skills ahead of their own brain development.

For this reason, ride with youngsters in “wingman position,” two abreast, with the youngster on your right. In this position you both can see and hear each other. (You’re also twice as visible to motorists.)

Give child riders short, simple, clear, audible commands. Build up to handling increasingly trafficked roads. Don’t give your child more than they can comfortably handle. You are responsible for their safety, and for demonstrating the correct way to handle the bike, and traffic.

Have fun, and remember that cycling is safe even when done poorly. Take this opportunity, right now, to find a Cycling Savvy class in your town. Or attend one in another town, and learn how you can bring this important training back to your community.

For more information:

I welcome comments by e-mail from experienced, skillful cyclists
who can add to the positive message of this article.

What works well for you?

What are your suggestions for riding safely and
confidently as part of traffic?

Blair Hornbuckle
Rochester, NY
blair at ridesafe(dot)bike

Copyright 2013 by Blair Hornbuckle. All rights reserved. You may link to this article.