Special Report: Cycling

Cycle Safely

Collisions usually happen because one person does something unexpected and the other does not notice it in time to respond appropriately.

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 16, 2006

CHML reports that a cyclist collided with a tanker truck and suffered a broken pelvis and ankle, severe cuts on his arm and a ruptured bladder. He's listed in critical condition.

The cyclist was riding on the sidewalk when a vehicle pulled out of a parking lot, presumably blocking his route. He swerved onto the road and hit the tanker.

Collisions happen because one person does something unexpected and the other does not notice it in time to respond appropriately. When collisions happen between bicycles and motor vehicles, things tend to go very badly for the cyclists.

Many people believe that it is too dangerous to ride a bike on city streets and reserve their bikes for recreation, if at all. When they do ride on the street, they often ride on sidewalks in order to feel "safer". This is deeply unfortunate, because riding on the sidewalk is often far more dangerous than riding on the street.

This is because motorists do not expect anyone on the sidewalk to be moving faster than, say, a brisk jog. When a cyclist comes up the sidewalk at 20 km/h, the opportunity for collisions at intersections, driveways, and off-street parking ramps is very high.

In fact, most bicycle/vehicle crashes occur at intersections. Close behind are outswinging doors on parked vehicles or vehicles overtaking bicycles too closely.

Most of these crashes are preventable, but this requires that cyclists behave in predictable ways. Today, through inexperience, expedience, or disdain for traffic law, some cyclists ride erratically through the city, taking shortcuts on sidewalks, zipping out into traffic to avoid obstacles, riding the wrong way down one-way streets, and so on.

If you're a cyclist and are getting ready to jump down my throat - wait! I'm a cyclist, too. I ride my bike to work every day, summer and winter, and sometimes, sometimes, I cut corners and take risks. Most people on the road - motorists and cyclists alike - occasionally do the same.

I'm not suggesting that most or even many cyclists do this regularly. However, cyclists do not have the luxury of a thousand kilograms of steel around them, so it's important to make safe cycling a regular habit. What bicycles lack in protection, they compensate with manoeuvrability and excellent visibility in every direction. Safe cycling leverages these advantages.

Further, as a cyclist you cannot control the way motorists decide to drive (short of taking down licence numbers and reporting infractions to the police), but you can control the way you decide to ride. You cannot prevent a motorist from doing something surprising; all you can do is a) make sure you're prepared when it happens, and b) that you are not the one doing the surprising.

From research into bicycle collisions and injuries, plus corroborating personal experience, I recommend the following guidelines for safe cycling:

  1. Avoid high-speed avenues like Main St. The speed differential between cars and bikes is much lower on side streets with narrower lanes, opposing lanes of traffic, and parked cars. If you're travelling the same speed as cars and they don't have room to pass you, they're not going to try.

  2. Take the middle of the lane. If you hug the curb, then cars will try to pass you without changing lanes, increasing the risk of collisions. Taking up the lane also reduces the risk of winning the dreaded Door Prize on streets with curbside parking.

  3. Don't try to pass cars on the right. Many collisions occur as a car turns right and a bicycle tries to pass through from the right.

  4. Don't ride on the sidewalk. In a 2003 Toronto study, 30 percent of bicycle accidents occured when cyclists were on the sidewalk. Less than 30 percent of cyclists ride on the sidewalk, so sidewalk-riders are over-represented in accident statistics.

  5. Follow the rules of the road. Pretend you're a small, slow-moving car and behave accordingly. That means: don't blow through stop signs or street lights, don't take shortcuts across parking lots or down sidewalks, and don't ride the wrong way down one-way streets.

  6. Leverage your advantages. Cars are big, heavy, and encased in steel cages. Bikes, by contrast, are light, highly manoeuvrable, and have excellent visibility in every direction. Be aware of what's happening around you, and navigate pro-actively to avoid potential conflicts with motorists.

  7. Be noticeable. That means your bike should have a headlight and tail-light, a bell, and lots of reflectors. Wear a fluorescent vest.

  8. Keep your bike mechanically fit. If you need to brake, you want to be sure your brakes will perform for you.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By A Robot (anonymous) | Posted June 18, 2006 at 13:48:16

I find Main to be one of the easier streets to bike on if you stick to the far left lane. Most motorists avoid that lane because it feels so awkward.

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By fairnoun (anonymous) | Posted June 03, 2008 at 22:23:02

Pleased about the article and suggestions, I would suggest to check that....
....the street, the country and the distance to travel would promote second thoughts about what is recommended, for example:
The outnumber sidewalk accidents could be related to acrobat jumpers besides excesive speed driving, domestic animals, doors and kids presence. Pretending a cyclist should behave like a little car decrease the manoeuvrable bike feature. What about is a person, with a tool named bike, who should take proper speed and distance while moving.

I agree and would prefer to study and work more about going on good speed on proper road, good anticipation and keeping over-lenght safe distance, which could do more than well on almost any situation.

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By fairnoun (anonymous) | Posted June 03, 2008 at 22:27:07

Cyclist moving shape is an unexpected object in our "transit-driving brain" software, and it helps delayed and mistaken reactions on car drivers.

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