The Key To Bike Safety? Ride Like You’re Invisible


Watch for bikesOne of the things people often ask me when they hear that I’m a daily bike commuter is: Isn’t it dangerous? The short answer is, no, it’s really not.

There is a longer answer, of course. The longer answer starts with something like: if you stick to the bike routes, are generally aware of your surroundings, and obey the rules of the road, you’ll be fine.

Sticking to the bike routes is important for a few reasons. One is that the bike routes tend to be “improved” for bikes, with sometimes preferential treatment at intersections, whether it’s a bike button or preferential stop sign placement. Plus, the routes are reasonably well signed, and presumably motorists expect to see cyclists on the bike routes. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the amount of motor vehicle traffic tends to be greatly reduced on the bike routes. Of course, there are a lot of things wrong with bike routes, too, and sometimes it’s not practical to use them.

Being aware of your surroundings sounds self-evident, but based on what I see on the roads every day, and what I see in my own children as they are learning to bike on the roads, it’s not as obvious as I think it should be. The first rule is look where you’re going. Not down at your feet. Not at your phone. Not at your chain. If you need to look at any of these things, pull over to the side of the road.

Next, and less obviously, be aware of what’s behind you. Know if you’re about to be overtaken, and by what. Cars, trucks, and larger vehicles are the focus here, so that you can be prepared for something squeezing/blowing by you. Wearing headphones in both ears while riding doesn’t help your cause here in the least.

Lastly, be aware of what’s coming from the sides. Driveways, crosswalks (marked and unmarked), pedestrians jaywalking (particularly from between parked cars), and motorists exiting vehicles are all things to watch out for. These side hazards are the worst, and the most unpredictable. It’s pretty unlikely anyone’s going to hit you head on or from behind. Getting hit by a car backing out of a driveway, a vehicle blowing through an intersection, or being doored are high on my list of things to watch out for while riding.

Obeying the rules of the road is another one of those things that seems like it should be self-evident, but cyclists in Vancouver are particularly bad at this. The one that gets a lot of people upset is the stop at stop signs and red lights rule. There is a significant percentage of the cycling population that just doesn’t care, and regularly blow through stop signs and red lights. In fact, there’s a significant percentage of motorists that behave the same way, including our Premier. The other thing I regularly see is driving on the wrong side of the road. This includes going the wrong way through traffic circles, and riding several-abreast such that you’re actually riding in the oncoming lane.

More and more, I find I’m riding like I’m invisible. I don’t assume anyone can see me. I don’t go out in front of traffic that seems like it might have seen me when crossing intersections, I wait for an obvious sign (by the way, a wave from the inside of a car in the rain or dark cannot be seen from a bike. How about flashing your lights instead?). I take responsibility for my own safety, rather than relying on others. Maybe it’s getting older, maybe it’s growing paranoia, but in 16 years of daily commuting in Vancouver I’ve never had anything other than a minor collision.

It was the newspaper article that mentioned the Premier recklessly ran a red light early one morning with her 11 yr old son and a reporter in the vehicle, and according to the son does so regularly, that prompted this post.

From the Vancouver Sun:

“Let’s see you go through this red light,” Hamish challenged as they pulled up that morning, at 5:15 a.m., to an abandoned Vancouver intersection.

“I might. Don’t test me,” Clark replies.

“Yeah. Go ahead.”

“Should I?”

“There’s no one.”

“Would you go through? You shouldn’t because that would be breaking the law,” she says.

And with that the car has already sailed underneath the stale red stoplight and through the empty intersection.

“You always do that,” says Hamish.

As someone who occasionally has to ride to work early in the morning, it reinforced that you can’t assume that anyone else on the road will behave rationally. The laws exist for everyone, but not everyone feels they apply equally. And Kitsilano is the Premier’s riding.

Do you have any tips for safe riding on the streets of Vancouver?

Last modified: April 30, 2013

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