One of the best ways to stay safe on your bike is to follow the rules that everyone else — cyclist, pedestrian, and driver alike — expects you to be following. When you behave predictably, you help everyone around you to understand what you’re doing and be able to give you the distance and safe space that you need. Accidents happen when people are surprised and reacting quickly with little information.
A lot of basic bicycle etiquette is simple stuff that you might just pick up if you cycle often enough around other riders who follow the rules, but some of it isn’t as obvious. In case you need a refresher course, or want to school yourself in basic bicycle etiquette before the next time you hit the road, here are some of the key rules you need to know.
Cars have turn signals; bikes have hand signals. By signaling to the cars and other cyclists around you what you intend to do, you can make sure that people will give you the space you need to do things like turn and stop, without getting run over!
Remember that everyone else on the road is focused on what they are doing and where they are going, so they aren’t likely to pick up on subtle cues from you about your movements. You need to use big, obvious signals that will let people know well in advance what you plan to do.
There are three major hands signals every cyclist should know:
- right turn
- left turn
Here is a diagram of what each one looks like:
In general, you’ll notice these signals happen with the left hand, since that is usually the hand that is on the side of the cars you share the road with so that your signals are as visible as possible to them.
You should always begin to make your hand signals well in advance of any action you plan to take, so that people have time to notice and react. Use your hand signals any time you are taking an action, even if you don’t think it’s necessary — never assume that a car or fellow cyclist has noticed you or that your action won’t in some way affect them. You can’t predict what other people are thinking or doing, so it is always safer to be very clear about your expectations and movements.
Direction of movement
When you’re on your bike, you should always be riding in the same direction as traffic. This means that if you’re on the shoulder or right-side of the road, the cars on the road should be coming up behind you on the left (not towards you).
Just like with the hand signals, this rule is all about being predictable and fitting in with your surroundings. By being part of the flow of traffic, you are ensuring that you move along safely with everyone else’s expectations on the road.
Although some people believe that pedestrians and cyclists are more visible if they face traffic, studies have shown that this causes far more collisions than simply following along with the flow of traffic. When you’re moving opposite from the flow of traffic, you risk surprising or confusing someone who isn’t expecting to see you — all of which can mean accidents and collisions.
Stay in bike lanes or on the road
As a cyclist, you are allowed to ride on the road — even if you live in an unfriendly-to-bicycles city, taking your place on the right-hand side of the road or in the flow of car traffic is your right.
If you live in a city with bicycle lanes, it is best to stay in your bicycle lane unless it would hinder your ability to get where you need to go. Some experienced cyclists choose to ride on the road even in the presence of bike lanes, especially if the bike lane is mixed-use and they have the share the space with pedestrians, rollerbladers, strollers, etc. While it is usually safest to stay in the bicycle lane, in general you are not required to do so. (Check your local cycling laws before your next ride.)
If you have the choice between riding on the street or on the sidewalk, you should always choose the street. In many cases, cycling on the sidewalk may actually be illegal, depending on your city, since your fast speed on your bike puts pedestrians at risk. Plus, riding on the sidewalk forces you to deal with curbs and driveways that can be dangerous to you. If you have to go on the sidewalk or use a crosswalk, you should choose to walk your bike.
In general, riding on the street is the preferred place for cyclists; however, you should choose the option that will keep you safest and be the safest for the people around you too.
Obey all traffic signs
When you’re on your bike, you have to stop at stop signs. You can’t make a left turn from a right lane. You must obey all the rules that are expected of drivers in their cars, even though you are on a bike. Again, this is all about meeting the expectations of the other people on the road and making sure your actions are predictable.
If you need to make a left-hand turn, for example, you should merge from the right side of the road (or whatever lane you are in) into an appropriate left-hand turn lane, rather than weaving across the road or cycling in a crosswalk. Once in the left-turn lane, obey any traffic lights or stop signs as you prepare to make your turn, and, if there are other cars or bikes present, wait your turn before moving.
Even though you are much more nimble when you’re on a bike and can squeak through situations that wouldn’t normally work in a car, obeying the laws that everyone else obeys is truly the best way to stay safe when you’re on your bike.
Stay alert and make eye contact
Just one last tip to keep you safe on your bike: look at the people around you. Whenever possible, make eye contact with any cyclists, drivers, or pedestrians who might be impacted by the actions that you take.
Sometimes you’ll be in a tricky situation where you have to make a maneuver that causes you to cross into a lane of traffic or make a sudden turn. These situations are often where accidents happen, because when people don’t act predictably, the people around them have to react on the fly. They are not always avoidable; however, you can often keep these situations from getting dangerous by making eye contact and signaling to the people around you.
The more you can do to let the people around you know that you are about to do something — and making clear, direct eye contact with them is really important for this — the more prepared they will be to react appropriately and safely.
Etiquette isn’t just about being nice — it’s about staying safe
We all want to be good citizens of the road when we’re on our bikes, but even more than that, we want to stay safe and get to where we are going on time.
By knowing and following the rules of the road, you will help everyone make it to their destination safely and happily.
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