You never forget how to ride a bike. But if you’re like many adults, you might need a refresher course in bike safety. Maybe you’re pulling that ten-speed out of storage for the first time in years. Maybe a recent wreck or a close call has suddenly made you aware of the dangers of the road. Or maybe you’re teaching your child to ride a bike and suddenly want to set a good example. Whatever your motivation, taking a moment to learn (or relearn) the rules of safe biking can help you avoid serious injury or worse. A study of cyclists who collided with cars found that serious injuries and death become much more likely when cyclists fail to follow basic safety principles.
Prepare your bike for the road
The most important piece of safety gear for any cyclist is the bike itself. If your bike doesn’t fit you or isn’t working properly, you could be in a two-wheeled accident.
For better control, you need to make sure your bike is the right size. When riding it, the tube of a road bike should be about two inches below your butt, five inches if you’re mountain biking. Also, make sure the seat is the right height. When on the bike, your knee should be slightly bent when the pedal is in its lowest position.
Next, make sure your bike is ready for the road. Before each trip, check whether the tires are sufficiently inflated. The tire should feel firm if you give it a good push. Apply the brakes to make sure they stop the tires. Flip the bike over and spin those tires. They should turn straight and true without rubbing against the brakes. If you have quick release wheels, make sure they are properly attached. The last thing you want when riding is an unplanned quick release. If in doubt, take your bike to a shop for a professional tune-up.
If you ride at night or in low light conditions, make sure your bike is visible. You are required by law to have red lights or reflectors on the back of your bike and a white light on the front. Use a flashing tail light at night. Some reflective clothing is also a good idea.
Wear a properly fitted helmet
Every cyclist knows that the helmet is essential for safety. (However, they don’t always put that knowledge into practice.) According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, a helmet will prevent a head injury in a serious wreck nine out of ten times.
But just hitting something on the head isn’t enough. For true protection, you need a securely fastened helmet that actually fits your head. The helmet should be comfortable but snug; if it rocks when you move your head, it’s too loose. The helmet should be level, not tilted up or down. When in place, the front of the helmet should be a finger or two above your eyebrows. When choosing a helmet, be sure to look for the Consumer Product Safety Administration label.
Respect the rules of the road
As soon as your bike leaves your driveway, it’s a vehicle just like any other vehicle, and you’re the driver. OK, it’s lighter and smaller than most vehicles, but it still has to follow the rules of the road.
Wherever you are going, you should travel in the same direction as traffic. Many cyclists overlook this basic rule, but it is important for at least two reasons. First of all, other drivers won’t look for bikes or anything else moving the wrong way on a street, especially when turning. Riding with traffic is simply the best way to be seen. Also, riding with traffic allows you to see stop signs and traffic lights, which of course you must follow.
Always remember that you are only one vehicle among many others. You will often have to yield to cars and pedestrians. If possible, drive to the side of the road to let cars pass. Where it is legal, the sidewalk may be a reasonable place to ride. Just be sure to leave plenty of space for pedestrians and watch out for cars entering and exiting driveways.
If it’s been a while since you’ve ridden a bike, you might want to practice some basic skills before heading out to a busy place. You should be able to look behind you while pedaling without wobbling or swerving. Remember the crucial difference between rear brake and front brake. If you’re really speeding down the road, stepping on the front brake first virtually guarantees a crash through and through. Squeeze the rear brake first and begin to slow down before gradually using the front brake.
Ultimately, bike safety is about more than memorizing rules. When you’re on your bike, you need to use your head for more than just a place to store your helmet. Pay attention to the traffic around you. The world is full of bad drivers, and even good drivers can sometimes miss a cyclist. Here are some other tips from seasoned cyclists:
- Wear reflective clothing even during the day. You may feel a little silly, but it’s easier for drivers to notice you.
- Use a mirror and never move left without looking behind you first.
- Do not pass on the right.
- If a car is already waiting at a red light, stop and wait behind rather than beside it (this is often the driver’s blind spot).
- To keep cars out of side streets and driveways, honk your bike horn or press the bell if you see one approaching or waiting. If you can’t make eye contact, slow down and be prepared to stop if necessary.
- Drive far enough to the left to avoid hitting a car door if it opens unexpectedly.
- Don’t carry an iPod in traffic. You should be able to hear the cars around you. Watch the road for glass or other hazards.
And here’s something they didn’t tell you at your elementary school bike safety lecture: If you’re too drunk to drive, you’re too drunk to ride.
The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration has produced this video on bicycle safety for adults:
National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. Seven smart routes to bike safety for adults.
National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. Easy steps to properly fit a bicycle helmet.
Kim JK et al. Severity of cycling injuries in bicycle-motor vehicle accidents. Accident: analysis and prevention. 2007. 39(2): 238-251.