By practicing the first two layers of crash prevention, Control Your Bike and Obey the Law, you can reduce your risk of a wreck by over 90%. You can further reduce your risk of a wreck and make your bicycling experience more enjoyable by practicing the third layer of crash prevention, Discourage Drivers’ Mistakes. It’s like defensive driving for cyclists. The tools you use are lane positioning, awareness, and scanning and signaling.
When I am in line behind a car at a stop light and there is a car facing us on the other side, I watch it like a hawk, especially if it is signaling a left turn. A common scenario is that after the car in front of the bicyclist goes, the left-turner on the other side thinks there is a gap—but it isn’t a gap; it is a bicyclist. I know that could happen and so I’m prepared. I’m highly visible in the middle of my lane. If the driver doesn’t see me despite my visibility, I am prepared to slam on my brakes.
Common car-bike collisions are a right-hook or a left-hook. Taking the lane, or riding close to the center of the lane instead of hugging the right edge, makes you more visible, helps motorists more accurately judge your speed, and gives you more room to react.
Choosing your lane position is one of the most complex things we teach in Traffic Skills 101. A bicycle can share a wide lane if you can comfortably ride side-by-side with a larger vehicle. Larger, faster vehicles can safely pass without changing lanes. But in narrower lanes, cars squeeze by too fast and too close, dangerously buzzing the cyclist. If you take the lane, cars must use the left lane to pass when oncoming traffic to clear, which is much safer. Take the lane any time the lane is too narrow to share safely or when you are riding at the same speed as traffic (such as in the downtown area).
Most of the time, the safest option in town* is to take the lane. This seems counter-intuitive, but taking the lane discourages motorists from buzzing you and increases your visibility. The most common phrase spoken by a motorist after a bike-car collision is, “I never saw him/her.” You can prevent invisibility by using lights at night, wearing bright, reflective clothing, and taking the lane. Ride where motorists are watching—not on the wrong side of the road, not on sidewalks, and not on the edge of the road.
Know what to watch out for: cross traffic which might fail to yield, cars backing out of driveways or pulling out of parking lots, and left- and right-turners who might not see you. Being aware of possible hazards is important for both controlling your bike and discouraging drivers’ mistakes.
Finally, communicate with motorists around you and negotiate your place on the road by scanning and signaling. One night heading home on Baltimore, I wanted to get into the left turn lane. I scanned and signaled, waiting for an approaching car that might pass me first. The car slowed to let me change lanes. When I saw the Jimmy John’s sign on the car, I called the store to compliment the driver for making that lane change easy for me!
Scan behind you, signal your turn or merge, and when it is clear, or a motorist slows down to let you in, complete the maneuver. Most of the time you can wait for a gap in traffic to make your turn or your lane change. A mirror helps with scanning, but check your blind spot before making your move.
Taking the lane, being aware, and scanning and signaling discourage drivers’ mistakes.
*A well designed bike lane requires a road that could have a wide lane. However, bike lanes are prone to filling with debris. Don’t blindly follow the painted line. Use your judgment as to what is safe.