Complete Guide to Cycling Safety

More and more people are riding bikes, which means that cycling safety is more important than ever. Knowing the rules of the road, plus best practices for safety, and your responsibilities and rights as a cyclist will help you stay safe and reduce the risk of accidents and injury.

Know the Rules of the Road

One way to stay safe when cycling is to know and understand the rules of the road. This can be where things get tricky, as specific bike laws vary from state to state. For example, some areas allow what's called an "Idaho Stop," meaning that a cyclist can treat a stop sign as a yield sign and a red light like a stop sign. Other states expect cyclists to come to a complete stop at stop signs and to wait until a red light turns green before proceeding.

While some laws are different from state to state, generally speaking, bicycles are expected to follow that same rules as cars when on the street. In case you're unsure what standard traffic rules are, here's a quick refresher:

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    Ride on the right. In the US, you need to ride your bike on the right side of the road.  
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    Take the lane when needed. If a lane is wide enough that a car and bike can ride together, with several feet of space between the two, cyclists should ride on the right side of passing cars. But if the lane is narrow and there isn't space for a vehicle to pass alongside you with at least three feet (or more in some states) between you, a cyclist is allowed to "take the lane."
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    Obey traffic signals. Unless you're in one of the handful of states that allow for Idaho stops, you need to entirely stop your bike at stop signs and wait for green lights.
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    Pass on the left. Legally, you're supposed to pass any vehicles on the left, even if you think you can easily squeeze by them on the right side of the road.
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    Don't ride on the sidewalk. Unless you're a child or are in areas that allow sidewalk riding (like DC or Boston), you're supposed to ride on the street.
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    Know and use hand signals. Bike hand signals are easy enough to learn and give other cyclists and car drivers an idea of where you're headed on the road.

Best Practices for Bike Safety

In many cases, cycling safety comes down to common sense. If you're not trying to endanger yourself and others, you're going to be more likely to enjoy a safe ride. Following these best practices, along with following all traffic laws in your area, will help you avoid getting hit or hurt on your bike. We'll get into detail below, but here's a quick video guide if you're more of a visual person.

Dress the Part

Wear a helmet when you ride a bike, even if your state only requires helmets for children under a certain age. Along with wearing a helmet, try to wear brightly colored or reflective clothing whenever you ride, to make yourself more visible. If you're going to be out and about in dark clothing, at the very least, toss on a bright yellow or reflective vest before you hit the road.

You also want to dress up your bike so that it's as visible as possible. Most states have laws requiring bikes to have reflectors and lights, but you'd be surprised how many cyclists don't have them. When riding at night, have a front headlight and a red rear light. Reflectors on your wheels and pedals are a must as well.

Be a Defensive Driver

If you went to driver's ed to learn to drive a motor vehicle, you probably learned all about defensive driving. Defensive driving isn't just a best practice for people who are behind the wheel of a car. It's also appropriate for cyclists.

Part of being a defensive cyclist is anticipating what's about to happen, whether it's a driver about to swing open the door of his or her car (without looking) or a car that's about to make a turn without signaling.

Here's a great, related video on how to properly filter into traffic.

Be a Predictable Cyclist

Some traffic accidents happen because bikes seem to come out of nowhere or because a cyclist zoomed into traffic or weaved in and out of cars. Don't be that cyclist.

Instead, keep your bike going in a straight line so that cars can pass you without worrying that they will hit you. Use your hand signals when turning or stopping, so that others on the road have an idea of your next move.

Don't Bike Under the Influence

Don't drink and bike. It's as simple as that. If you think that drinking doesn't affect your ability to ride a bike, think again. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, just over 20 percent of cyclists killed in traffic accidents in 2014 had blood alcohol concentrations over 0.08, which is over the legal limit.

Check Your Bike Before Your Ride

Making sure your bike is in good shape will help you enjoy a safer ride. Always give your bicycle a thorough inspection before you head out. Check the tires to make sure they have enough air, check that the brakes are working and that your brake pads aren't worn out.  It's also a good idea to check your gears and chain before a ride.

Be Polite to Other Cyclists

Don't be a jerk to other cyclists on the road. Remember, you can get hurt if you have a collision with another bike. If you're about to pass another cyclist, be sure to yell out "on your left!" so that he or she knows you're there and doesn't swerve to the left suddenly. If you're going to draft off a fellow cyclist, announce your presence first.

How Helmets Keep You Safe

Wearing a bike helmet when you ride not only lowers your risk of dying in a crash. It also reduces your risk for a severe head injury. The Guardian reported that a study from Australia found that wearing a helmet decreased risk for a serious head injury by 70 percent and the chance for a fatal head injury by 65 percent.  

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Highway Loss Data Institute (IIHSHLDI), less than 17 percent of all cyclists who died in a crash were wearing helmets. The IIHSHLDI also noted that helmet laws make people four times more likely to wear one, but that only 21 states and DC have a helmet law. The helmet laws that do exist concern young people, not every cyclist.

How to Wear a Helmet

Wearing a helmet incorrectly is almost as bad, if not as bad, as not wearing one at all. There are a few rules to follow to make sure your helmet is a good fit.

First, you want to make sure the helmet fits on your head. It should be snug but not so tight that you get a headache when you wear it. If you shake your head "no" and the helmet wiggles or turns, it's a bit too loose. Many helmets have pads and straps that let you adjust the fit around your skull.

The helmet should also cover your forehead, but not hang so slow that it obstructs your vision. You also don't want it to tip so far forward that it leaves the back of your head exposed. If the helmet fits well, it will sit level on the head.

The strap of the helmet that runs down the sides of your head and under your chin needs to be fitted, but not so tight that it chokes you. Ideally, you'll not be able to fit more than a finger between your chin and the chin strap.  Most helmets have adjustable straps so you can correct the tightness as needed.

Over time, the straps might loosen, so it's a good idea to check your helmet for fit each time you ride.

Rise of Bike Lanes

Bike lanes, particularly bike lanes that are separated from motorways, can also help to make cycling safer. In Europe, where bike lanes are plentiful, the number of people killed or seriously injured while riding a bike was significantly lower than in the US, where bike lanes are less frequent, according to TreeHugger.

But as US cities begin to add more and more protected bike lanes, there's been a drop in the number of cyclist deaths and injuries. For example, between 2008 and 2015, the bikeway network in Philadelphia, PA grew by 17 percent. During the same time, the number of fatalities and severe injuries per 100,000 trips fell by 49 percent.

A similar thing happened in New York City, where the bikeway network grew by 381 percent between 2000 and 2015. The number of bike trips increased by 207 percent while the number of deaths and severe injuries fell by 72 percent. Popular YouTuber Casey Neistat helped bring bike lane obstructions to the mayor's attention in one of his most popular videos ever (after getting a ticket for not riding in a bike lane) and prompting city-wide changes.

Teach Your Children About Bicycle Safety

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    Make sure the bike fits your child. Kids grow fast, which can be frustrating when it comes to buying them clothes, shoes, and even bikes. While it's probably okay to buy your child a jacket to "grow into" or even a pair of jeans to grow into, you want to get the size of the bike right from the start.
    Riding a bike that's too big can put your child at risk for injury, as can riding a bike that's too small. When your child straddles the bike, sits on the saddle and puts his or her hands on the handlebars, the balls of his or her feet should just touch the ground.
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    Pick a bike with coaster (foot) brakes. Coaster brakes, which stop the bike when the child pedals backward, are easier for children to use than handlebar brakes.
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    Pay attention to your child's clothing. Loose trouser hems or long shirts can get stuck in the chain or wheels of your kid's bike, so it's a good idea to make sure he or she wears fitted clothes when riding.
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    Don't let your child ride with headphones. Your child won't be able to hear what's going on around him or her if he or she has headphones on.
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    Teach him or her the rules of the road. Although it's legal in most areas for kids under age 12 or 13 to ride on the sidewalk, it's still a good idea to teach your child about road safety from a young age. Teach him or her to stop at stop signs and red lights, to be extra careful when riding near driveways or intersections, and to yield to pedestrians.
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    Ride with your children. Kids often learn best by doing. Be a good example to them by showing them how to ride safely. Wear a helmet, keep alert for other vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians, and follow all other rules of the road.

You never forget how to ride a bike, even if you go for years and years without hopping on two wheels. Showing your kids the basics of bike safety from an early age can help them learn to enjoy a lifelong hobby, in the safest way possible.