Aaron’s 5 Laws Of Bicycling Survival
I’m sure you may have noticed as you made your way to work, either by car, bus, bike, or even on foot, there are a lot more bikes on the road these days. Statistics back your observations up. Bicycle commuting is up pretty much everywhere, some up by triple digits percents!
But even with all this growth in cycling, many people I talk to are scared to ride a bike to work. The idea of straddling a couple tubes of metal (or carbon) balancing on two wheels and then dodge dangers for 2, 5, 12, 20 miles on the edge of a road built for cars during the road’s busiest times of days is an insane concept for some reason.
Here in NYC, where bike commuting is skyrocketing and where bike paths and Citibike stations are popping up all the time, you’d think it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but nary a day goes by where someone doesn’t point out how crazy I am for riding here.
“Aren’t you scared?”
Not really. I mean, sure, I’ve had a few scary moments here and there, but that’s true of pretty much everything I’ve done including, but not limited to, walking, driving, hiking, working, traveling, whatever. Everything we do has scary moments, that’s just life. But the act of riding a bike amongst the cars and pedestrians and potholes and glass and garbage water in this lovely shithole that is New York City isn’t a scary thing for me. But that’s me. While there are a lot more bikes on the roads here, more every year, we are still in the minority.
Why? Because to some degree the Nervous Nellys are actually, you know, kinda right. Riding a bike can be dangerous. Urban or rural or in the burbs, even if you do everything right, follow all the laws, there are these large metal objects on 4 or more wheels everywhere you look, flying past you, designed to keep their occupants (and not us) safe, who think you are in their space, on their roads, and who, with the wrong turn of a wheel or push of a pedal, are potentially very deadly.
This study confirms what many of us already know… while yes, there are plenty bad cyclists out there and sure, some of these bad cyclists are the cause of crashes, the overwhelming main cause of bike crashes are drivers. So how do we, as cyclists, ride safely? How do we build confidence to commandeer our little slice of the lane?
We all know some of the basics, right? Don’t salmon and don’t shoal — we’ll let Bikesnob rant about those two. Wear a helmet when you can to protect your noggin from smacks on the road if you wipe out. Ride with empathy for your fellow cyclists. Don’t be a jerkass. That stuff is important, but those are more like etiquette and basic safety types of things to make you a little safer and a little less of a horrible human on a bike.
What I’m talking about is survival… What you should do to not die.
Okay, yes, that’s a bit inflammatory, and yes, cycling is pretty damn safe (I don’t want to scare people off more), but after nearly four decades of riding bikes, I’ve developed a few rules — scratch that — LAWS that I follow that have helped me immensely in so many situations and have consistently helped me “arrive alive”. Periodically I’ve shared these on the various internet social networks, but after the comments and feedback on my piece about fast cyclists, I felt it was time to put these in stone. Well… e-stone anyways, but still, you get the idea… okay, here we go.
This seems pretty self-evident, but my take is possibly a little controversial in regards to red lights and stop signs. Personally, I don’t care if you run a red light or stop sign. In fact, when commuting, there are many times when getting away from the traffic that is at a light and itching to go is the safest thing to do. “Idaho stops” for red lights and stop signs should be the law, in my opinion, BUT (and it’s a big but) you have to give those with the right-of-way the right-of-way first. You come up to a 4-way stop sign and a car is already stopped, they get to go first because it’s their turn. Traffic is clear, but pedestrians are crossing the street, they have the right-of-way, put your damn foot down and wait. A lot of cars in cross traffic, don’t noodle your way through it, wait for it to clear then go. Nothing will piss people off or endanger you more than taking away someone else’s right-of-way. Don’t do it. After it’s clear, IDGAF, knock your socks off and go!
2nd Law: You Are Invisible To Cars
Always ride as if cars (and pedestrians even) don’t know you exist, you will be one step ahead of them and all the ignorant shit they do. Never assume they see you. The best example is getting left or right hooked. Too often, cars are going along their merry way with you pretty much right there alongside of them, one happy little family, going with the flow of traffic when suddenly BLAMO! out of the blue, they turn, cutting you off and, many times, hitting you. Why? Because, even though you rode with them for a few blocks, you were invisible. You did not exist in their tiny universe. All they looked for was other cars and maybe pedestrians. This is not some blame the victim stuff, this is more akin to defensive driving. If you assume they don’t see you, it changes your awareness and you’ll ride more prepared.
3rd Law: Read The “Body Language” Of Cars
Okay, this one takes some practice, but is a great thing to learn. Look at the wheels of parked cars, are they turned ready to pull out? Is the car driving slightly ahead of you veering right because they are about to make a left turn? Does a car look “uncertain” like they don’t know where they are going? Is that car not paying attention and constantly slow-to-go when the light turns green? Is that car kind of crooked and look like it wants to pull into the bike lane to try to see what’s going on with the backed up traffic ahead? Are you in a gap in a car lane and the car one lane over is looking itchy that their lane is going kind of slow? If you have ever been a driver, you know exactly what these scenarios are and what drivers do. As a cyclist, keep an eye on nearby cars, watch their wheels sometimes they are a quicker indicator than seeing the whole car move, understand their “body language”, remember the 1st & 2nd Laws, and anticipate their next move.
4th Law: Do What You Got To Do To Be Safe
Very often when riding, things happen and can put you in potentially unsafe situations, even after following Laws 1–3. So Law #4 is simple, do what you got to do to keep yourself safe. Something blocking the bike lane? Upgrade to the car lane if you have to! Signal if you can, point to the obstruction if you want to (I do this with a healthy whattayagonnado shrug, lol), whatever, but take the path that is clear & safe. Garbage truck and antsy drivers blocking the street, hop up on the sidewalk and scootch around it (but don’t forget Law #1 when you are on the sidewalk). Cars all jumbled up at a stop light as you pull up? Get around them and in front of them so a) you aren’t crunched in when they start moving, b) to make your presence known (see Law #2), and c) to be able to see the other traffic and pedestrian situations from Law #1. When it’s clear, get away from that mess. Be seen, be confident, but not cocky, and ride your ride.
5th Law: Do Not Engage
Even after doing Laws 1–4, every once in awhile you’ll still piss off a driver. Sometimes it’s because your “sudden” presence scares them (see Law #2), fight-or-flight kicks in, and they chose fight. Sometimes it’s because you are “flagrantly” (a popular word with drivers) “flouting” (another one) the law. Sometimes it’s simply for the fact that you exist in “their space”. An angry driver is a dangerous driver. They are in a safe-for-them-but-dangerous-for-us car. If someone yells or honks or whatever, ignore them completely (don’t even give them the pleasure of glancing at them) and ride your ride with confidence. Pretty much every time, they‘ll move on or get stuck and traffic while you continue on (that one is pretty sweet).
If they don’t quit messing with you, still do not engage. As BikePortland put it, instead “use that energy to collect as much evidence as possible. Get a good look at the driver, write down their license plate number and note the year, make and model of the vehicle.” In a city like NYC you can quickly turn off somewhere or pop into a public place. In less than dense places, try to go to a public place or even to someone’s house. Always ride with a phone for calling for help and for photos & video in case they go a little nutter!
Not so bad, right? With these 5 simple laws, practiced every day, ridden as smartly as you can, building that confidence, fast rider or slow, you will be fine. Yes, there will be tough days that test every nerve in your body, but they will dwarf the number amazing rides, experiences, things you’ll see, and general improved health you’ll have (not to mention the whole one-less-car environmental impact).
Be safe out there! Now… go ride!!!