As a cyclist, you live for those moments where you can cross an unexplored road on your bike and get lost in the nature all around you. To achieve those moments, you often have to navigate busy streets and congested highways full of motorists. How do you stay safe when riding in traffic?
For cycling safety each time you ride your bike in traffic, you must follow these rules:
- Avoid riding at night or in the dark without bike front and tail lights or reflectors
- Always let cars and trucks have the right of way
- The same goes for pedestrians
- Don’t speed up or put yourself in a situation where you’re not in control of your bike
- Don’t go against the traffic flow
- When you see a red light or a stop sign, you have to stop just like everybody else
- Make sure your clothing makes you very visible, gravitating towards bright colors
- Never go bike riding without a helmet
In this guide, we will explain each of the above rules in much more depth as well as some pertaining to highway cycling. We’ll also get into the laws on road cycling so you can be sure you’re always in the right. We’ll even talk about defensive cycling and what to do should you find you get hit by a motorist or vice-versa.
Let’s get started.
Safety Rules to Follow for Road Cycling
These are admittedly the very basic bike riding rules, but you want to master them before you ever begin riding on major roads with cars. Know that first and foremost, these rules exist for your safety. When you put a cyclist head-to-head with a speeding vehicle, the vehicle will win every time. The driver has thousands of pounds of metal encasing them while you have your bike.
You want to do your best to avoid accidents, which means, for starters, following all these rules. Sure, some are a little inconvenient, but again, they’re for your safety.
Let’s go over the rules to know.
Always Use a Reflector or Bike Front and Tail Lights if Riding in the Dark
Few cyclists want to end up in a situation where they’re riding in the dark or in low-light conditions. You can barely see what’s two feet in front of you, making it difficult to perceive threats and obstacles. Others can’t see you either, which means you’re a prime target for getting hit by a car should you venture out into main roads.
That’s why, at the very least, you need a reflector. This should attach to your bike, but you might want to wear reflective materials as well. Whether it’s a reflective jacket or a strip of reflective material you can put on your helmet, you need something that indicates that yes, you’re here.
Bike reflectors have a smooth outer surface that passes light through. The light then travels through to the reflector’s rear, where a series of beads or prisms exist. These are angled in such a way that reflection occurs.
Reflectors are only as good as their light source. For instance, if a motorist has their headlights on high, then yes, the light should bounce back from your reflector. However, if the motorist turns their headlights on low or doesn’t have them on for some reason, then your reflectors don’t work.
That’s why more and more cyclists have opted for bike front and tail lights. These mounting lights attach to the front or back of your bicycle (or even both) and act like a motor vehicle’s front and tail lights would.
The bike’s lights, often LEDs, come in hues like white or red. Some can produce light at 600 lumens and others up to 900 lumens, making these lights quite bright. There’s no reflecting system here, so even in pitch black darkness, you could rely on these rear and front LED lights to get you home safe.
Cars and Pedestrians Have the Right of Way, Period
The right of way means a motorist is allowed to go while others don’t necessarily do so. For instance, let’s say you’re in a car on a two-lane street. You’re in the right lane and the light is red, but you’re allowed to turn on red. To your right, a car is coming out of a gas station and wants to get into one of the two lanes. The right of way lets you go first.
Roads and highways are meant for vehicles. On your bike, you always, always have to give another car or truck the right of way. It doesn’t matter if they wouldn’t necessarily have the right of way if you both were driving. When cycling, you let vehicles do what they have to so they can keep on their way.
This is also true of pedestrians. If you’re waiting at a crosswalk for the light to turn, the pedestrians would be allowed to go first, then you. If the light changes before you can get across, then you’d have to continue waiting.
Maintain an Even, Reliable Speed That Leaves You in Control
If you’re behind the wheel of a vehicle, it’s expected that you drive at a speed where you maintain total control. That’s doubly true if you’re cycling on a busy road. You have to control and manage your bicycle no matter what you do. That goes for speeding up, slowing down, stopping, turning, the whole nine.
While you want to ride at a speed that allows you to pass through busy roads relatively quickly, avoid speeding. You never know when you might have to suddenly stop. If you’re rushing along, then you might find it’s difficult to roll to a stop in time. That could lead to you falling from your bike, flying off the handlebars, or crashing into another vehicle or person. You want to avoid all those situations if you can.
Work with Traffic; Don’t Fight It
On that note then, when you see traffic on your bike, acclimate. Don’t be like a car that got into a one-way lane and is going the opposite direction. You will almost certainly get hit for your efforts.
You want to merge over to the bike lane on a main road, but don’t rush it. Flow in the same direction of traffic and at relatively the same speed. If you stay calm and work with traffic, then you can get over to your lane in no time.
Obey Red Lights and Stop Signs
You ride in a different lane than cars and trucks drive in. They have a giant vehicle and you don’t. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that you’re supposed to follow the same rules as the other vehicles on the road, but you definitely should.
Remember what we just said about flowing with traffic? This is another example of that. When a car comes up to a red light, what will happen? Unless they’re able to turn on that light, then they’ll stop until the light turns green again. You might be in your bike lane, but you have to come to a stop for red lights, too.
As you probably already know, if a light turns red for a lane of cars, it’s so another lane can pass. By riding out blindly in a red light, thinking it’s a good chance to get away from the cars around you, you’ll find you’re right in the thick of it with another traffic group. More importantly, riding like this is incredibly unsafe.
You’re not impervious to stop signs, either. Roll to a stop when you see one of these signs, check both left and right, and then proceed if it’s safe. Again, blindly charging ahead into traffic could result in an avoidable accident.
Wear Bright Clothing So Motorists Can See You
Most motorists are paying attention to the other vehicles around them. Sometimes, you’re sort of an afterthought (no offense, of course). To make yourself stand out more, you want to be as visible as possible. Perhaps this means slapping reflector stickers on your clothing. You could wear reflective patches and tape as well.
Other cyclists opt for vivid, bright color in highlighter hues you can’t miss. Sure, this kind of clothing is garish to an extent, but it could also save your life. It’s hard to miss a cyclist wearing neon green or hot pink. That’s not so much the case if you have clothing on in muted colors or—even worse—black.
Don’t Ever Forget Your Helmet
According to Helmets.org, in 2016, 424 cyclists died because they didn’t wear a helmet. Of those who did use helmets when they cycled, only 137 died that same year. While helmets can’t protect more than your head, they do safeguard you from traumatic brain injuries and other severe head trauma from a crash. That could be the difference between life and death.
Helmets are not just for kids using training wheels on their bikes. Adults can and should wear a helmet every time they ride. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hot sticky day or you’re trying to keep your hair looking nice. Please never ride your bike without a helmet.
Tips and Rules for Cycling on Highways
To get to your destination, you have to cross a highway. There are multiple lanes of cars rushing this way and that. Some of them use turn signals to announce they’re switching lanes or getting off at an exit, but not all will.
You’re going to have to be especially careful when doing any highway riding on your bike. In fact, we’d recommend trying to limit doing so as much as possible. That said, should you ever find yourself cycling on a highway, you’re going to want to recall these rules.
Don’t Get Too Close to Vehicles That Are Passing
As we just mentioned, vehicles go very quickly on the highway, upwards of 65 miles per hour (MPH), sometimes as high as 70 or even 80 MPH. Is that necessarily legal? Often not, but that doesn’t stop motorists from doing it anyway.
Each time a car changes lanes or passes another vehicle, they create a wind force. This has been known to tug cyclists near the vehicle. That can be very scary because you feel like you’ve lost control of your bike.
It’s important to remain calm and steady if you feel that tug from vehicles that have passed near you. Try to veer away from the vehicle you’re heading towards, and do so safely. You want to dip your body down, as this can ease some of the wind resistance created by the passing vehicle. Hold on tight to your handlebars and ride towards the right lane.
In the future, try to stay a good distance away from cars and trucks, especially when doing highway cycling. While there are often no bike lanes on a highway, you still do not want to be in the thick of things.
Listen and Look for Cars
You have to almost have your head on a swivel when cycling on a highway. There’s so much going on around you at all times that it can get overwhelming. Cyclists often favor eyeglass-mounted mirrors or helmet-mounted mirrors for this very purpose. This gives them an extra glimpse into what’s happening in the lanes near them without having to get whiplash from looking every which way.
Keep your eyes open too for sounds of fast-approaching vehicles. Check to confirm if a car or truck has gotten close and then move away using the instructions we shared in the above paragraphs.
Always Veer Right
As we said before, there are no bike lanes on highways, but there is the road shoulder off to the right. You want to use this if you can, but do be aware that some vehicles will try to stop here from time to time.
When riding on the shoulder, you also want to look out for motorists who are exiting a lane. They can get very close to your bike as they turn off the highway, so hang back and stay out of their way.
What Are the Laws for Road Cycling?
As we said earlier in this guide, the above rules are just cycling basics. They’re all good things to know if you want to ride on busy roads and even highways safely. You also should do yourself a favor and get acquainted with the road cycling laws near you.
Each state has its own set of laws for cyclists to follow. Here is a list of each state law courtesy of the League of American Bicyclists. They say they made the list back in 2012, so you might want to visit your state’s website just to make sure the law info you know is current.
We can’t possibly go over every law for each state here, as that’s tons of information. The laws often surround such topics as right of way, cycling when under the influence, where you can and can’t ride your bike, passing, and helmet use.
Obviously, you’re never supposed to ride your bike if you’re under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, a rule that’s uniform across every state in the US. What the punishment would be does vary.
Lots of states have helmet laws in place as well. For example, in New Jersey, if you’re younger than 17 years old, then you have to use a helmet. That goes even if you’re a passenger. In California, if you’re younger than 18, then the state mandates cyclists to wear helmets. While it’s true that there aren’t enforceable helmet laws for every state, that doesn’t change the fact that you should still wear your helmet.
What Is Defensive Cycling?
We also want to take some time to discuss defensive cycling. If you’re familiar with defensive driving, then understanding defensive cycling shouldn’t take much for you. To cycle in a defensive manner means you’re prioritizing your safety while remaining aware of your surroundings.
Many of the rules we’ve outlined in this guide so far would count as defensive cycling. Here are some other ways to begin riding your bike in a more defensive manner going forward:
- Be ready for anything and everything. It’s like we’ve said before. Sometimes motorists will make sudden turns without using their signal or they’ll stop for seemingly no reason. Others will change lanes with no indication. While you can’t predict what a motorist will do, being ready for anything will help you react accordingly.
- Keep an eye on pedestrians. Sometimes they don’t see you, so they’ll walk right in front of you. You can use your bell as a warning sign if you have one. Otherwise, just remember what we talked about earlier in this guide and always give pedestrians the right of way.
- Avoid highway cycling and traffic-heavy cycling if possible. This will allow for the safest experience.
- Ride smart in a parking lot or residential street. You don’t want to get too close to a parked vehicle. It might not be in motion, but you can clip a mirror if you’re near. Envision an open car door and keep your distance to the width of that door.
- Make sure you have reflectors, lights, and/or bright clothing on so motorist and pedestrians can always see you.
- Don’t pass cars, even when it’s tempting. For instance, a car moving slowly might seem easy to zip right by, but doing so isn’t within your best interest. You never know when that car could speed up, turn, or do something else with you close to them or even in front of them. That spells danger for you.
- Use hand signals if you’re stopped near a motorist and they can see you. This tells them what you want to do. Hopefully, they’ll allow you to.
- Once again, when you see stop signs, lights, and other signals, follow them just like any other motorist on the road.
- Yes, just to reiterate, never go without your bike helmet.
What to Do in an Accident
You could be the safest cyclist in the world, but if a car didn’t see you, they could still hit you. Sometimes you can get away in the nick of time, but not always. If you do end up in a crash, how do you handle it?
Here are some steps to guide you.
Step 1: Contact the Police
You might do this, the motorist can, or a bystander might, but someone has to alert the cops of the accident.
Step 2: Be Patient Until the Police Get There
The police will prioritize an accident and rush to the site within minutes. The motorist may try to talk to you in the meantime. They may even attempt to negotiate with you. We recommend you don’t do this. Let the police make an official file of the accident and go from there.
Step 3: Tell the Cops What Happened
The motorist will recount their version of events and you will do the same. The police may be able to assign blame just by looking at the state of your bike and the motorist’s vehicle. If not, your explanation and that of the motorist’s should put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Step 4: Get Medical Attention
The adrenaline of the accident can cause you not to feel pain for hours, sometimes even several days. It’s only then that you realize you have whiplash or another serious injury. It’s best to always get medical attention when offered. An evaluation by a doctor or nurse can reveal injuries you didn’t even know you had.
Step 5: Consider a Legal Proceeding
If you were seriously injured by the motorist to the point where your quality of life suffers or you can’t work anymore, then you might want to take legal action. Having as much evidence as possible, including photos of the accident wreckage and official police reports, will help you. Make sure you keep your hospital records and bills as well.
More Tips for Safe Road Cycling
To wrap up, we figured we’d share a handful of more useful tips to follow each time you cycle on a relatively busy road with other motorists.
Let Large Groups of Cars Go
It’s one thing to safely navigate around a car or two on the road. Once you see a cluster of vehicles, such as four or five of them at once, you want to get away. Stop at the side of the road and let the vehicles get a good distance away. Then, merge back onto the road as applicable and continue your ride.
Don’t Slow Down at Intersections
If you’re feeling fatigued, you might want to reconsider riding through an intersection. These crowded, confusing road situations can be tough to get through as a motorist, let alone as a cyclist. The best advice we can offer is to rush through them, putting the pedal to the mettle and going as quick as you can.
Avoid Swerving in Stressful Situations
Yes, there’s a parked car to your right and a motorist to your left, but swerving is not the way to go. You can weave through obstacles if you’re good at doing so, but that’s not the same as swerving. When you swerve, you come across as unconfident and you also put yourself at risk of falling off your bike. Keep to a straight path.
Get in the Middle When Traffic Slows Down
Few things will get motorists itching to move more than a traffic standstill. You may suddenly see cars and trucks darting out of lanes for the exit, which makes riding to the right unsafe. Instead, in such a situation, migrate towards the middle. As traffic pick up, head back to the right.
Limit Sidewalk Cycling
You’re not supposed to ride on sidewalks on your bike. You never know when a pedestrian might pop out. If you’re achieving a decent speed, then it might be too late for you to stop in time. Plus, if a motorist is trying to exit or enter a driveway, they could crash into you.
Stay Away from the Curb
Riding right up against the curb is not smart. You’re bound to hit the curb with your tire, scraping it against the hard concrete. This can pop your tire, which means you can’t ride back home. Also, if you hit a curb, you could fly from your bike or otherwise end up seriously injured.
As a cyclist, it pays to know the rules and laws for safe riding. Even if you have to navigate traffic on a main road or a highway, you’ll be able to get through it. Know that you have as much right to be on the road as anyone else. Be smart, safe, and conscientious and you’ll do just fine. Good luck!