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Road Bike Safety 101: How to Get There, Get Fit, and Not Get Hit

Is a Schwinn the new Chevy? More people than ever are ditching gas-guzzling vehicles and cruising around on lean, green two-wheelers. Here are some tips, tricks, and, yes, laws to stay safe on the road.
Road Bike Safety 101: How to Get There, Get Fit, and Not Get Hit
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Illustration: Shannon Orcutt

These days, it seems like more bikes are out on the roads than gathering dust in the garage. Maybe it’s because we’re worried about climate change, or maybe we’re just preoccupied with our waistlines. But no matter the person, there are plenty of reasons to trade the car in for a bike.

Between 2000 and 2009, the number of regular bike commuters grew 70 percent across the entire United States. In some areas like the Northeast, the increase in everyday cyclists was as high as 127 percent. Those statistics include plenty of diversity — studies show that biking and walking are appealing to children and teenagers as well as working adults. With more bicycles on the road, numerous cities have implemented new infrastructure to make cruising on two wheels safer and easier. Freshly-paved bike paths, freshly-painted bike lanes, handy-dandy traffic signals, and bike share programs are cropping up all over the country.

Before joining the party on that rusty old one-speed, make sure you know the rules of the road. Biking can be just as safe than driving — in fact, some studies claim it’s the safest transportation for young adults — when everyone follows the law and uses plenty of common sense. Below is a cheat sheet on how to avoid accidents (and tickets) on the road. Happy cycling!

Rules of the Road

  • Bike on the road in the same direction as traffic (only bikers under age 12 are legally allowed to ride on sidewalks). Even though they lack a motor, bicycles are considered road vehicles just like cars and trucks. 
  • Stop at red lights and stop signs, and obey other traffic signs (i.e. one-way street, yield, etc.), just like you would in a car.
  • Use marked bike paths or lanes when they’re available.
  • When traveling with children, be extra safe. In some areas (New York, for example), babies under one year old cannot be carried on a bike. Kids must sit in a correctly attached child carrier (i.e., no sitting on the handlebars or perching on the back wheel!). All children must wear a helmet at all times — in some states that means all persons under age 18.
  • In many areas, biking on highways, expressways, interstate routes, and thruways is illegal (although this may be changing soon thanks to new highway systems for bikes in Maine, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Alaska).

Safety Gear

While each state has its own rules and regulations, most areas require cyclists to sport the following safety equipment:

Good Habits for Busy Streets

To make every cycling experience positive (and safe), follow safe biking practices. Most of these habits are geared towards keeping the cyclist visible to drivers and pedestrians in order to prevent accidents.

  • Put down the phone. We shouldn’t even need to say this, but talking on the phone, texting, or checking Instagram while biking are major no-nos. Also refrain from listening to headphones because they can make it more difficult to hear approaching cars and pedestrians.
  • Ride in a straight line. This one’s self-explanatory, but riding in a predictable fashion makes it easier for cars to go around (and not into) you.
  • Stay on the right side of the lane, in a single-file line with other cyclists (not two or three abreast). If the street is too narrow for cars to pass, cyclists are allowed to ride in the middle of the lane to increase visibility. Keep an eye out for parked cars (or rather, doors from parked cars opening into the street). Avoid the dreaded door-into-cyclist snafu by staying a little bit closer to the center of the street if there are parked cars. Also, move towards the left side of the lane when turning left.
  • Stay out of drivers’ blind spots, especially at traffic lights or stop signs.  
  • Always keep at least one hand on the handlebars. Save the “look, Ma, no hands!” tricks for the driveway at home.
  • Signal well and make eye contact with drivers before making a turn or slowing down. All biking signals are done with the left arm, so keep the right hand on the handlebars for stability. If you’re not confident about your signaling skills, spend some time practicing turns in a quiet area where there is little traffic before hitting the busier roads (or nab a set of these sweet signal light armbands).
    • To turn left, extend the left arm straight out from your side, parallel to the ground.
    • To turn right, extend the left arm out straight from the shoulder with the elbow bent and the left hand pointing straight up. The arm should form an “L” shape.
    • To slow down, extend the left arm out straight from the shoulder with the elbow bent and the left hand pointing straight down. It’s the opposite of the right-hand turn.
  • Don’t drink and bike (duh).
  • Stay visible. Wear bright colors for daytime riding and reflective materials for night.
  • Consider sporting a mirror to keep track of cars behind you.
  • Travel with a mini tool kit. If your trek is more than 10 minutes or down a lonely stretch of road, you’ll thank us. Take the time to learn how to do a few quick repairs in advance of any big rides so you don’t get stranded!
  • Check local municipal and state traffic laws before hitting the road. Major cities and certain states have different regulations, so study up before rolling out.
  • Have fun! Biking is all about enjoying the great outdoors, so don't forget to smile while you signal. 

The Best (and Worst) Cities to Bike

If you’re looking for a new ‘hood, consider moving to one of the top ten cities for biking. What makes a metropolis particularly bike-friendly? It comes down to a few factors: easy terrain, cycle-loving laws, and a population of drivers who respect their motorless neighbors and share the road. According to data from Forbes and Bicycling Magazine, the following cities are the best for two-wheeled adventuring and commuting (listed in no particular order):

  1. Portland, OR
  2. Minneapolis, MN
  3. San Francisco, CA
  4. Seattle, WA
  5. Tucson, AZ
  6. Sacramento, CA
  7. Washington, D.C.
  8. Denver, CO
  9. Mesa, AZ
  10. Madison, WI
  11. Austin, TX
  12. Chicago, IL
  13. Eugene, OR
  14. Philadelphia, PA
  15. Boston, MA

And what about the other side of the scale? The following cities (listed in no particular order) were deemed the worst for cyclists due to air pollution, sprawled-out city design, and a dearth of bike lanes and non-highway roads that make bicycling a breeze. Here’s hoping these less cycle-friendly cities will up their game in the next few years!

  1. Dallas, TX
  2. Houston, TX
  3. Atlanta, GA
  4. Memphis, TN
  5. Jacksonville, FL 
  6. Birmingham, AL

Do you bike to work (or elsewhere) regularly? What’s your favorite tip for a safe and happy ride? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene

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