Any cyclist with any mileage behind them remembers close calls with motorists. When I think back to the close calls I’ve had over the years, there are a few that quickly come to mind and make me cringe, and two more from last summer were officially added to the list.
Most recently, I was stopped at a stoplight with several cars. I saw the light for me turn green, and the cars to my left (going in the same direction as me) began to move. I started to clip-in and roll. Then, I heard horns. A car was coming from my left to my right, through the intersection, blowing its red light by a good 4-5 seconds. Not even close.
The cars going in the same direction as me had all slammed on their brakes. Had it not been for someone’s horn, there is a good chance I would have been in the intersection when the inattentive driver blew through the intersection. The car was probably doing 25 mph, so it undoubtedly would have been an injury accident or worse.
It got me thinking about the things a cyclist can do to avoid accidents., especially when on a road bike. 3-4 “rules” to follow that cover a large percentage of the known bike-car accidents. This all assumes that you are already doing the basics, of course: Wearing a helmet, following traffic laws, riding on safe roads, and trying to be visible.
Rule #1: Don’t be aggressive at intersections
45% of collisions between bikes and cars happen at intersections.
There are several websites that show diagrams of common bike accidents, backed up by statistics on bike-car collisions. When you look at the 10-12 most common accident types, one thing is obvious: Intersections are bad. Treat them as if they are danger zones, even if the laws say that you can fly through them. When the cars have stop signs or red lights, assume they can’t see you.
When a motorist is coming to an intersection, and signaling that they are going to turn left across your straight path, assume they will cut you off.
Statistics tell us that car-bike collisions commonly happen at intersections, especially in urban areas. The chances of a collision are no doubt higher if the cyclist is cranking as hard as they can, staring at his or her timer or triathlon watch, trying to set a new PR on their favorite segment of their regular ride.
One of the best things a cyclist can do is to treat each major intersection as a bit of a breather or break. Slow down, perhaps even come to a full stop and unclip. Take a drink of your water, and then survey the situation. Pick a calm moment to proceed through a busy intersection.
When a light turns from red to green, give it a few seconds to be sure every last red-light runner has had a chance to clear out.
Intersections are nasty. Drivers are often under pressure to make a light, or to thread the needle between a couple moving vehicles, making you a sitting duck. Chill out, don’t about your average speed, and slow down. Treat each intersection as if you will need to slam on the brakes in any given second.
Rule #2: Don’t ride at night or in the evening rush
The data is clear — a highly disproportionate number of accidents happen during the hours of 4pm to 9pm. This correlates with two things: The evening rush hour, and sunset. According to the NHTSA, most fatal bike accidents occur in a tight three-hour window of the day: between 6pm and 9pm.
If you are a bike commuter, you might not be able to avoid the afternoon rush hour. In that case, try to find trails, bike lanes, or safe shoulders to spend more of your commute on. The combination of more cars on the road, and many of those drivers being in a hurry to get somewhere, create an amplified hazard situation for you.
If you are not a bike commuter, then figure out ways to just stay off the roads later in the day. If you must do your workout at 8pm, when it is dusk or even dark, consider using an indoor trainer or, at a minimum, ride on trails (with a headlamp) instead of on the shoulder or road.
And don’t forget that when you start your ride, it will be later in the day when you finish it. That nice 30-miler that you want to sneak in at 7pm might not end until 8:45pm, when it is officially dark and way less safe to be on the road!
Rule #3: Use Cycling Safety Lights
Daytime running lights for bikes have gained in popularity in recent years. While there is some debate in the cycling community on if these lights are necessary and even legal, they seem to have a safety benefit. Anecdotally, as a driver, I tend to notice those bright, flashing lights well before I would have noticed a cyclist on the shoulder.
While I would like to see more studies on the topic (maybe Complete Tri will commission one!), there have been some studies showing promising results. A Danish study found that the bright, flashing running lights reduced daytime car-bike accidents by 20% to 30% or more. That is a significant finding.
A Clemson University study also found that a flashing tail light was much more visible than an always-on tail light from 200 meters away.
We did an entire piece on cycling safety lights here, including a list of our favorites.
What is the debate in the cycling community? Some believe that the lights make it harder for cars to judge your speed and distance, sending a scrambled, confusing motion signal to the driver of a car. There is some merit to that, as a flashing light can throw off an abrupt, strobe-like image.
There is also an annoyance factor, especially on trails. You are riding along in peace and nature, and for 45 seconds you have a look at 1,600 lumens coming at you from another cyclist.
Still, for road riders, we think the lights are a good idea. Perhaps turn them off when on the trails.
Rule #4: Brighten up the footwear
This is an interesting finding, but one that makes more sense the more I think about it.
Cyclists wearing florescent colors on their legs or feet were visible from 3 times as far away as cyclists wearing a florescent jersey. That is according to the fascinating research coming out of Rick Tyrrell’s team at Clemson University.
What they are saying is that while you can have the loud, bright, neon jersey, or the bright helmet, or the in-your-face neon shorts, or the reflective cycling gloves, the fact is the most visible garment that you can wear is your footwear or legwear. Why? Because your feet are in constant motion.
The pedaling motion creates a natural, visible attention grabber. All you need is something in that motion that be just a little more likely to catch the eye of a passing motorist — that slight change can make all the difference. An ankle light is a great option, but for some cyclists a more realistic option might be florescent yellow leggings. Changing the color of your socks is a small price to pay for making yourself 3x more visible!
For some products to consider, we like:
- Garneau Conti Socks with the bright florescent yellow option. Here on Amazon.
- LED ankle light and arm band light, for extra safety if desired. Here on Amazon.
There are more things you can do, of course, than these four steps. Take it easy on downhills, beware of sudden, bad road surfaces, stay in control when riding in a group. This list could go on and on.
But I like to stratify — find the 80/20 rule — in anything I do. Based on the research I’ve done in the past couple years, my theory is that if you be a Nervous Nellie at intersections, avoid riding on roads at dusk or in the dark, use a flashing light (on the road), and wear bright leggings, you can substantially reduce the risk of a road bike accident. You will never eliminate the chance it could happen (my disclaimer), but why wouldn’t you try to make yourself as safe as possible?
Von Collins is an accomplished triathlete and cyclist, and the author of four fitness and training books: Smarter Running, Your First Triathlon Guide, Fit Foods, and 30 Rut-Busting Workouts.
Von has been cited as a triathlon, cycling, and fitness expert by Healthline, CNET, Forbes, Eat This, Not That and other major outlets.
Von has done dozens of triathlons and endurance bike races, coaches, and is an avid part of the cycling and triathlon community.