You never forget how to ride a bike. But if you're like many adults, you might need a refresher course in bike safety. Perhaps you're pulling that ten-speed out of storage for the first time in years. Perhaps a recent wreck or close call has made you suddenly aware of the hazards of the road. Or maybe you're teaching your kid how 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 cycling can help you avoid a serious injury or worse. A study of cyclists who collided with cars found that severe injury and death become much more likely when cyclists fail to follow basic principles of safety.
Get your bike road-ready
The most important piece of safety gear for any cyclist is the bike itself. If your bike doesn't fit you or doesn't work properly, you could be a two-wheeled accident waiting to happen.
For best control, you should be sure that your bike is the right size. When you're straddling it, the tube for a road bike should be about two inches below your bottom, five inches if you're riding a mountain bike. Make sure the seat is at the right height, too. When you're on the bike, your knee should be slightly bent when the pedal is at its lowest position.
Next, make sure that your bike is road ready. Before every ride, check to see if the tires have enough air. The tire should be firm if you give it a good push. Press on the brakes to make sure they actually stop the tires. Turn the bike upside down and give those tires a spin. They should spin straight and true without rubbing against the brakes. If you have quick-release wheels, make sure they're attached properly. The last thing you want when riding is an unplanned quick release. If you have any doubts, take your bike into a shop for a professional tune-up.
If you ever ride at during night or low light, make sure your bike is visible. You're required by law to have red lights or reflectors on the back of your bike and a white light in the front. Use a flashing rear light at night. Some reflective clothing is a good idea, too.
Wear a snug-fitting helmet
Every cyclist knows that helmets are a must for safety. (They don't always put that knowledge into action, though.) According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, a helmet will prevent a head injury in a serious wreck nine times out of ten.
But simply slapping something on your head isn't enough. For real protection, you need a securely attached 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 its in place, the front of the helmet should be one or two finger-widths above your eyebrows. When picking out a helmet, be sure to look for the label of the Consumer Product Safety Administration.
Follow the rules of the road
As soon as your bike leaves your driveway, its a vehicle just like any other vehicle, and you're the driver. OK, its lighter and smaller than most vehicles, but it still has to follow the rules of the road.
Wherever you ride, you should travel in the same direction as traffic. Many cyclists overlook this basic rule, but it's important for at least two reasons. First, other drivers wont be looking for bicycles or anything else moving the wrong way down a street, especially when they're making a turn. Riding with traffic is simply the best way to be seen. Also, riding with traffic lets you see stop signs and traffic signals, which of course you should follow.
Always remember that you are just one vehicle among many. You'll often have to give the right of way to cars and pedestrians. When possible, ride on the side of the road to give cars room to pass. Where legal, the sidewalk can be a reasonable place to ride. Just be sure to give pedestrians plenty of space and watch for cars entering and leaving driveways.
If it's been awhile since you've been on a bike, you might want to practice some basic skills before you ride anywhere with a lot of traffic. You should be able to look behind you while pedaling without wobbling or swerving. Remind yourself of the crucial difference between the rear brake and the front brake. If you're really whizzing down the road, hitting the front brake first practically guarantees an end-over-end crash. Hit the rear brake first and start slowing down before gradually using the front brake.
Ultimately, there's a lot more to bicycle safety than memorizing rules. When you're on your bike, you need to use your head for more than just a place to keep your helmet. Pay attention to the traffic around you. The world is full of bad drivers, and even good drivers can occasionally fail to see a cyclist. Here are some other tips from seasoned cyclists:
- Wear some 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.
- Don't pass on the right.
- If a car is already waiting at a red light, stop and wait behind it rather than beside it (this is often the driver's blind spot).
- To avoid cars pulling out of side streets and driveways, honk your bike horn or hit the bell if you see one approaching or waiting. If you can't make eye contact, slow down and prepare to stop if you need to.
- Ride far enough to the left to avoid crashing into a car door if it opens unexpectedly.
- Don't wear an iPod in traffic. You need to 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 grade 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 bicycle safety for adults.
National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. Easy steps to properly fit a bicycle helmet.
Kim JK et al. Bicycle injury severity in bicycle-motor vehicle accidents. Accident: Analysis and Prevention. 2007. 39(2): 238-251.