Safety should be your number one priority when bike commuting. If you’re going to ride around all timid thinking you’ll be run over, then you will be. It is up to you to be ASSERTIVE and take your place on the road. What follows is a quick overview of the basics.
Plan your route as well as alternative ones
A well planned route avoids heavy traffic on major streets and parallels your normal commute. Google Maps, especially in street view can help guide your planning, but always use your best judgement and scope out the route ahead of time if you can.
One day, construction might shut down the road you usually take. Do you know an alternative route?
Listen to your body and mind first
If you don’t want to bike commute that day then don’t. You may be too tired, or just not in the mood. If there is bad weather (thunderstorms, icy conditions), then wait until the weather clears up.
Wear a helmet
You want to protect your head in case of an accident. They do not have to be expensive and many give your head enough ventilation. Your local bike shop should carry a wide selection of helmets that you can choose from.
I wear an urban type helmet since it completely encases my head. It’s colorful and I know it grabs the attention of motorists when I’m riding around.
Another advantage to wearing a helmet is that you can place reflective tape on it and mount lights on the helmet for safety at night.
I don’t really see any downsides to a helmet. You can ride without one, but why take the risk?
Obey traffic lights and stop signs
Running red lights and blowing through stop signs is dangerous and makes you look bad. I do advocate for slowing down and coasting through stop signs if there is not much traffic since it is hard to build up your momentum again after coming to a complete stop. Just be sure the cars around you understand you are doing this and proceed with caution.
By behaving like a vehicle, you gain the respect of motorists and pedestrians. This means obeying traffic signals, staying off the sidewalk and signaling to make your intentions known. So ride with the flow of traffic, not against it. Ride in a straight line, but do not ride so close to the curb you become invisible. Riding near the curb also makes you more vulnerable to getting flat tires due to road debris and potholes.
Don’t ride on the sideWALK. You’re not going to get anywhere since you will be going so slow and going over bumpy curbs on every block. A car may pull out of a driveway without looking, or a driver turning at an intersection may not have enough time to react to a bicycle suddenly crossing its path. Riding on sidewalks sets you up for being run over and it’s something young kids do. You’re grown up now and know better.
The only exception is where there is a sidewalk next to a road with a high (40+ mph) speed limit, where there is hardly any pedestrian traffic and a minimal chance that cars could pull out of driveways from businesses or houses. I would personally find another route if possible, but if you are stuck in suburban hell, then this may be difficult to do.
Signaling your intentions is key when you are negotiating traffic. This is your chance to communicate to other drivers that I am HERE and I want to go THERE.
If you have bad balance or are scared of signaling with your left or right arm, practice in an alley or a parking lot before you go out on the road. Signaling your intentions eventually becomes natural.
Riding predictably gives drivers the chance to see you and respond to you better.
Rely on your senses
LISTEN and LOOK to be aware of your surroundings. Be mentally sharp and pay attention to everything.
Make eye contact with drivers and make sure they have seen you. They may be looking “past you” or just be staring out into space daydreaming. Signal to them with your hand that you are turning or going straight. It’s better to be sure you’ve really made eye contact than to proceed and be hit.
Gauge how fast traffic is going. Be able to look behind your left shoulder to check for cars coming behind you and about to pass you. I don’t use mirrors since I feel that it gives you a false sense of security and does not give you the full view of what is actually going on behind you.
Also be aware of distracted drivers and distance yourself from their path if you can.
The easiest way to do this is to wear bright colored clothing, preferably with some reflective striping on them.
You’ll also want to invest in some front and rear lights for when you ride in the dark or when the weather turns bad.
You’ve probably seen some cyclists with varying degrees of flashing lights. There are some lights which I find obnoxious since they are too bright or have a seizure-inducing flashing pattern. Typically, any light which has the same amount of brightness as a car headlight and tail light will do. I started off with a cheap 25 dollar tactical light I duct taped to my head. I also bought a rear blinky at the local bike shop. What was important was that these were bright enough and had a distinct pattern of flashing light.
Take a look at how people park their cars in parking lots. You’ll see people parked over the lines and too close to other cars. Their sense of spacing is totally off. So imagine when you are sharing the road with them. You want to be able to catch their attention so that you can give them fair warning you are on the road.
At busy intersections, I stand up on my pedals so that people can see me better. This way, everybody sees me making my move.
Riding in bad weather
I check weather forecasts at weather.gov, weather.com and weatherspark.com for my city and region. I also watch the morning news to confirm that no unexpected weather changes occurred while I was sleeping.
Avoid bad weather if you can, but as stated above, the most important thing is to be visible. Take it slow and be aware of the vehicles around you. Safety glasses are great for riding in the rain as they protect your eyes from droplets and help you see better since you can easily wipe off the water from the lenses. Think of them as windshields.