In an ideal world, all road users would be courteous, and everyone would be paying attention all of the time. (There would also be free cake stops.) We know this isn’t the case, so cyclists often have to take special precautions.
Almost ironically, the way to make yourself safer while cycling on the road is by being in the way. ‘Defensive cycling’ helps you do that by preventing other road users from taking advantage of your relatively small size and slow speed.
Here’s a couple of pointers to start (for UK cyclists):
Stay away from The Edge
If you’re slightly nervous about cycling on the road, the tendency is to cycle as far over to the left as you can so that you take up as little space as possible. This encourages some motorists to take little notice of your rightful space on the road, and instead they drive dangerously close.
Instead, cycle two to three feet away from the edge of the road so that you command space like other vehicles do; motorists are forced to actively overtake you as if they were overtaking another car (which they should be doing anyway according to the Highway Code).
Don’t be afraid to take up space, particularly on a bend or on a narrow street. This stops impatient motorists from trying to squeeze past you.
Another advantage of taking an assertive position on the road is that a motorist pulling out from the upcoming junction on your left hand side has a much better chance of seeing you approaching if you’re not hugging the curb.
Make eye contact with other road users
A strange thing seems to happen when people get on the roads: They start seeing other people as the vehicles they’re driving, and stop thinking about them as fellow humans. Similarly, drivers often don’t ‘see’ cyclists, even though they can physically see them.
Making eye contact with drivers not only makes them notice you instead of seeing through you, it may also remind them of your shared humanity.
Stand on the pedals
Motorists are (usually) normal people that don’t set out to actively harm cyclists, so you can encourage motorists to be careful by making yourself appear more vulnerable than you are.
When you hear a car approaching from behind, stand on your pedals. This means you’re not only easier to notice as you take up more space, but it also makes you look like you’re about to do something unpredictable. As such, motorists give you a wider berth.
Wiggle your handlebars
A quick wiggle of your handlebars makes your bicycle waver slightly without making you lose any control. But it does give the illusion that you’re not as in-control as you could be, and so motorists are more careful in giving you the space you deserve.
Pro road safety tips from Simon, regular cycling commuter:
Watch out for car doors and pedestrians
It can be difficult to give parked cars enough space to avoid an opened door, but this should be done where possible. You should also be aware when cycling that a car door can be opened in a split second; look and listen.
The same goes for avoiding pedestrians. A favourite of many pedestrians is to step out onto the road before looking (we’ve all done it.) You can pre-empt this by being aware of pedestrians who are striding towards the pavement edge with their backs turned. Having a bell on your bike is handy.
Don’t pick fights with things that are bigger than you
Be wary of being on the inside of a large vehicle like a bus or a truck. Even a slight leftward bend in the road can mean that your road space quickly runs out. Proceed with caution.
It can be difficult to indicate on a bicycle if you’re not used to it, because you have to fully control your bike with just one hand. However, indicating saves lives, so it’s worth practising. If you’re about to stop and dismount, also indicate on the left to let other road users know what you’re doing.
Don’t be a douchebag
You’re not entitled to run through red lights and cycle on the pavement just because you’re physically able to. Whenever the topic of bicycles and road safety comes up, motorists are quick to interject with anecdotes of rampant cyclists running through red lights, crushing entire flocks of innocent ducklings under their careless wheels before disappearing laughing into the night on their (un-lit) bicycles.
Don’t fuel the fire.
It would be great if we had the cycling infrastructure of places like Denmark and the Netherlands, but we can assume that’s not going to happen within the next week. Until then, cycle safe!
For a definitive guide on safe cycling we recommend the book Cyclecraft by John Franklin.