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!”
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
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
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
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.
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.
- Do motorists see me?
- Am I riding predictably and following the Rules of the Road?
- Am I communicating clearly?
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.
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
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
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
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 at ridesafe(dot)bike
Copyright 2013 by Blair Hornbuckle. All rights reserved. You may link to this article.