Sydney Critical Mass
This page is reproduced from http://BicycleSafe.com with modifications for Australia.
How to Not Get Hit by Cars
by Michael Bluejay
"Since I've become more observant of how bikes and cars interact, I've decided that bicyclists have two major safety threats: cars and themselves." --Lee Nichols
This page shows you real ways you can get hit and real ways to avoid them. This is a far cry from normal bike safety guides, which usually tell you little more than to wear your helmet and to follow the law. But consider this for a moment: Wearing a helmet will do absolutely nothing to prevent you from getting hit by a car! Sure, helmets might help you if you get hit, and it's a good idea to wear one, but your #1 goal should be to avoid getting hit in the first place.
Plenty of cyclists are killed by cars even though they were wearing helmets. Ironically, if they had ridden WITHOUT helmets, yet followed the guidelines listed below, they might still be alive today. Don't confuse wearing a helmet with biking safely. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It's better not to get hit.
As for following the law, most people are already aware that it's stupid to race through a red light when there's cross traffic, so the "follow the law" advice isn't that helpful because it's too obvious. What you'll find here are several scenarios that maybe aren't that obvious.
The other problem with the "follow the law" message is that people may think that's all they need to do. But following the law is not enough to keep you safe, not by a long shot. Here's an example: Your typical safety guide will tell you to always signal your turns. While this is a good idea, what they DON'T tell you is that if you're in a position where a car has to know that you're about to turn in order to avoid hitting you, then you're a prime candidate for getting hit. Even if you signal.
(Obviously, cruising through a stop sign when there's no cross traffic isn't necessarily dangerous, but we can't recommend that you do so, because it's against the law, not because it's unsafe. You should understand the difference. By all means follow the law, but understand why you're doing so.)
Now let's find out how to not get hit by cars.
This is one of the most common types of collision or potential collisions. A car is pulling out of a side street, parking bay, or driveway on the left. Notice that there are actually two different kinds of possible collisions here. Either you're in front of the car and the car hits you, or the car pulls out in front of you and you slam into it.
How to avoid this collision:
1. Get a headlight. If you're riding at night, you should absolutely use a front headlight. It's required by law, anyway. Even for daytime riding, a bright white light that has a flashing mode can make you more visible to motorists who might otherwise Left Cross you.
2. Honk. Get a loud horn and USE IT whenever you see a car approaching (or waiting) ahead of you and to the left. If you don't have a horn, then yell "Hey!" You may feel awkward honking or yelling, but it's better to be embarrassed than to get hit.
3. Slowdown. If you can't make eye contact with the driver (especially at night), slow down so much that you're able to completely stop if you have to. Sure, it's inconvenient, but it beats getting hit. Doing this has saved my life on too many occasions to count.
4. Move right. Notice the two blue lines"A" and "B" in the diagram. You're probably used to riding in "A", very close to the curb, because you're worried about being hit from behind. But take a look at the car. When that motorist is looking down the road for traffic, he's not looking in the bike lane or the area closest to the curb; he's looking in the MIDDLE of the lane, for other cars. The farther right you are (such as in "B"), the more likely the driver will see you. There's an added bonus here: if the motorist doesn't see you and starts pulling out, you may be able to go even FARTHER right, or may be able to speed up and get out of the way before impact, or roll onto their hood as they slam on their brakes. In short, it gives you some options. Because if you stay all the way to the left and they pull out, your only "option" may be to run left into the driver's side door. Using this method has saved me on three occasions in which a motorist ran into me and I wasn't hurt, and in which I definitely would have slammed into their driver's side door had I not moved right.
Of course, there's a tradeoff. Riding to the far left makes you invisible to the motorists ahead of you at intersections, but riding to the right makes you vulnerable to the cars behind you. Your actual lane position may vary depending on how wide the street is, how many cars there are, how fast & how close they pass you, and how far you are from the next intersection. On fast roadways with few cross streets, you'll ride farther to the left, and on slow roads with many cross streets, you'll ride farther right.
A driver opens his door left in front of you. You run right into it if you can't stop in time. If you're lucky, the motorist will exit the car before you hit the door, so you'll at least have the pleasure of smashing them too when you crash, and their soft flesh will cushion your impact.
How to avoid this collision:
Ride to the right. Ride far enough to the right that you won't run into any door that's opened unexpectedly. You may be wary about riding so far into the lane that cars can't pass you easily, but you're MUCH more likely to get doored by a parked car if you ride too close to it than you are to get hit from behind by a car which can clearly see you.
You stop to the left of a car that's already waiting at a redlight or stop sign. They can't see you. When the light turns green, you move forward, and then they turn left, right into you. Even small cars can do you in this way, but this scenario is especially dangerous when it's a bus or a semi that you're stopping next to.
How to avoid this collision:
Don't stop in the blind spot. Simply stop BEHIND a car, instead of to the left of it, as per the diagram below. This makes you very visible to traffic on all sides. It's impossible for the car behind you to avoid seeing you when you're right in front of it.
Another option is to stop at either point A in the diagram above (where the first driver can see you), or at point B, behind the first car so it can't turn into you, and far enough ahead of the second car so that the second driver can see you clearly. It does no good to avoid stopping to the left of the first car if you're going to make the mistake of stopping to the left of the second car. EITHER car can do you in.
If you chose spot A, then ride quickly to cross the street as soon as the light turns green. Don't look at the motorist to see if they want to go ahead and turn. If you're in spot A and they want to turn, then you're in their way. Why did you take spot A if you weren't eager to cross the street when you could? When the light turns green, just go, and go quickly. (But make sure cars aren't running the red light on the cross street, of course.)
If you chose spot B, then when the light turns green, DON'T pass the car in front of you -- stay behind it, because it might turn left at any second. If it doesn't make a left turn left away, it may turn left into a driveway or parking lot unexpectedly at any point. Don't count on drivers to signal! They don't. Assume that a car can turn left at any time. (NEVER pass a car on the left!) But try to stay ahead of the car behind you until you're through the intersection, because otherwise they might try to cut you off as they turn left.
While we're not advocating running red lights, notice Otis in fact safer to run the red light if there's no cross traffic, than it is to wait legally at the red light directly to the left of a car, only to have it make a left turn right into you when the light turns green. The moral here is not that you should break the law, but that you can easily get hurt even if you follow the law.
By the way, be very careful when passing stopped cars on the left as you approach a red light. You run the risk of getting doored by a passenger exiting the car on the left side, or hit by a car that unexpectedly decides to pull into a parking space on the left side of the street.
A car passes you and then tries to make a left turn directly in front of you, or left into you. They think you're not going very fast just because you're on a bicycle, so it never occurs to them that they can't pass you in time. Even if you have to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting them, they often won't feel they've done anything wrong. This kind of collision is very hard to avoid because you typically don't see it until the last second, and because there's no where for you to go when it happens.
How to avoid this collision:
1. Don't ride on the sidewalk. When you come off the sidewalk to cross the street you're invisible to motorists. You're just begging to be hit if you do this.
2. Ride to the right. Taking up the whole lane makes it harder for drivers to pass you to cut you off or turn into you. Don't feel bad about taking the lane: if motorists didn't threaten your life by turning in front of or into you or passing you too closely, then you wouldn't have to. If the lane you're in isn't wide enough for cars to pass you safely, then you should be taking the whole lane anyway. Lane position is discussed in more detail below.
3. Glance in your mirror before approaching an intersection. (If you don't have a mirror, get one now.) Be sure to look in your mirror well before you get to the intersection. When you're actually going through an intersection, you'll need to be paying very close attention to what's in front of you.
You're passing a slow-moving car (or even another bike) on the left, when it unexpectedly makes a left turn right into you, trying to get to a parking lot, driveway or side street.
How to avoid this collision:
1. Don't pass on the left. This collision is very easy to avoid. Just don't pass any vehicle on the left. If a car ahead of you is going only 20 km/hr, then you slow down, too, behind it. It will eventually start moving faster. If it doesn't, pass on the right when it's safe to do so.
When passing cyclists on the right, announce "on your right" before you start passing, so they don't suddenly move right into you. (Of course, they're much less likely to suddenly move right without looking, where they could be hit by traffic, then to suddenly move left, into a destination.) If they're riding too far to the right for you to pass safely on the right, then announce" on your left" before passing on the left.
If several cars are stopped at a light, then you can try passing on the left cautiously. Remember that someone can fling open the passenger door unexpectedly as they exit the car. Also remember that if you pass on the left and traffic starts moving again unexpectedly, you may suffer #3, the Red Light of Death.
Note that when you're tailing a slow-moving vehicle, ride behind it, not in its blind spot immediately to the left of it. Even if you're not passing a car on the left, you could still run into it if it turns left while you're left next to it. Give yourself enough room to brake if it turns.
2. Look behind you before turning left. Here's your opportunity to avoid hitting cyclists who violate tip #1 above and try to pass you on the left. Look behind you before making a left-hand turn to make sure a bike isn't trying to pass you. (Also remember that they could be coming up from behind you on the sidewalk while you're on the street.) Even if it's the other cyclist's fault for trying to pass you on the left when you make a left turn and have them slam into you, it won't hurt any less when they hit you.
A car coming towards you makes a turn right in front of you, or right into you. This is similar to #1, above.
How to avoid this collision:
1. Don't ride on the sidewalk. When you come off the sidewalk to cross the street, you're invisible to turning motorists.
3. Wear something bright, even during the day. It may seem silly, but bikes are small and easy to see through even during the day. Yellow or orange reflective vests really make a big difference. I had a friend ride away from me while wearing one during the day, and when she was about a 250 meters away, I couldn't see her or her bike at all, but the vest was clearly visible.
4. Slowdown. If you can't make eye contact with the driver (especially at night), slow down so much that you're able to completely stop if you have to. Sure, it's inconvenient, but it beats getting hit.
You innocently move a little to the right to go around a parked car or some other obstruction in the road, and you get nailed by a car coming up from behind.
How to avoid this collision:
1. Never, ever move right without checking your mirror or looking behind you first. Some motorists like to pass cyclists within mere centimeters, so moving even a tiny bit to the right unexpectedly could put you in the path of a car.
2. Don't swerve in and out of the parking lane if it contains any parked cars. You might be tempted to ride in the parking lane where there are no parked cars, dipping back into the traffic lane when you encounter a parked car. This puts you at risk for getting nailed from behind. Instead, ride a steady, straight line in the traffic lane.
3. Use a handlebar mirror. If you don't have one, go to a bike shop and get one.
A car runs into you from behind. This is what many cyclists fear the most, but it's not the most common kind of accident (except maybe at night, or on long-distance rides outside the city). However, it's one of the hardest collisions to avoid, since you're not usually looking behind you. The best way to avoid this one is to ride on very wide roads or in bike lanes, or on roads where the traffic moves slowly. Getting rear-ended in the daylight is rare.
How to avoid this collision:
1. Get a rear light. If you're riding at night, you absolutely should use a flashing red rear light.
Bike shops have red rear blinkies for $15 or less. These kind of lights typically take two AA batteries, which last for months (something like 200 hours). I can't stress this item enough: If you ride at night, get a rear light and use it!
2. Choose wide streets. Ride on streets whose outside lane is so wide that it can easily fit a car and a bike side by side. That way a car may zoom by you and avoid hitting you, even if they didn't see you!
3. Choose slow streets. The slower a car is going, the more time the driver has to see you. I navigate the city by going through neighborhoods. Learn how to do this.
4. Use back streets on weekends. The risk of riding on Friday or Saturday night is much greater than riding on other nights because all the drunks are out driving around. If you do ride on a weekend night, make sure to take neighborhood streets rather than arterials.
5. Get a mirror. Get a mirror and use it. If it looks like a car doesn't see you, hop off your bike and onto the sidewalk. Mirrors cost $5-15. Trust me, once you've ridden a mirror for a while, you'll wonder how you got along without it. My paranoia went down 80% after I got a mirror. If you're not convinced, after you've used your mirror for a month, take it off your bike and ride around and notice how you keep glancing down to where your mirror was, and notice how unsafe you feel without it.
6. Don't hug the curb. This is counter-intuitive, but give yourself a little space between yourself and the curb. That gives you some room to move into in case you see a large vehicle in your mirror approaching without moving over far enough to avoid you. Also, when you hug the curb tightly you're more likely to suffer a leftcross from motorists who can't see you.
You're riding on the sidewalk and cross the street at a crosswalk, and a car makes a left turn, left into you. Cars aren't expecting bikes in the crosswalk, so you have to be VERY careful to avoid this one.
How to avoid this collision:
1. Get a headlight. If you're riding at night, you should absolutely use a front headlight. It's required by law, anyway.
2. Slowdown. Slow down enough that you're able to completely stop if necessary.
3. Don't ride on the sidewalk in the first place. Crossing between sidewalks can be a fairly dangerous maneuver. If you do it on the right-hand side of the street, you risk getting slammed as per the diagram. If you do it on the left-hand-side of the street, you risk getting slammed by a car behind you that's turning left. You also risk getting hit by cars pulling out of parking lots or driveways. These kinds of accidents are hard to avoid, which is a compelling reason to not ride on the sidewalk in the first place.
And another reason not to ride on the sidewalk is that you're threatening to pedestrians. Your bike is as threatening to a pedestrian as a car is threatening to you. Finally, riding on the sidewalk is illegal in some places. If you do plan on riding on sidewalks, do it slowly and EXTRA carefully, ESPECIALLY when crossing the street between two sidewalks.
You're riding the wrong way (against traffic, on the right-hand side of the street). A car makes a left turn from a side street, driveway, or parking lot, right into you. They didn't see you because they were looking for traffic only on their right, not on their left. They had no reason to expect that someone would be coming at them from the wrong direction.
Even worse, you could be hit by a car on the same road coming at you from straight ahead of you. They had less time to see you and take evasive action because they're approaching you faster than normal (because you're going towards them rather than away from them). And if they hit you, it's going to be much more forceful impact, for the same reason. (Both your and their velocities are combined.)
How to avoid this collision:
Don't ride against traffic. Ride with traffic, in the same direction.
Riding against traffic may seem like a good idea because you can see the cars that are passing you, but it's not. Here's why:
Cars which pull out of driveways, parking lots, and cross streets (ahead of you and to the right), which are making a left onto your street, aren't expecting traffic to be coming at them from the wrong way. They won't see you, and they'll plow right into you.
How the heck are you going to make a left turn?
Cars will approach you at a much higher relative speed. If you're going 15hm/hr, then a car passing you from behind doing 50 approaches you at a speed of only 35 (50-15). But if you're on the wrong side of the road, then the car approaches you at 65 (50+15),which is 250% faster! Since they're approaching you faster, both you and the driver have lots less time to react. And if a collision does occur, it's going to be ten times worse.
Riding the wrong way is illegal and you can get ticketed for it.
There's one possible exception to riding the wrong way. When you're riding in the country on narrow, high-speed roads, it may be helpful to ride against traffic so you can see what you're up against. Compared to city traffic, country traffic is likely to have less road space for bikes and cars to share. That being the case, riding the wrong way allows you to bail into the shoulder if a car doesn't see you. You don't have problem #1 above because side traffic is rare, and #2 is avoided because you're riding primarily along one road and not turning left.
Country traffic is more likely to be sparse, which means that you may have the ability to switch to the "correct"side of the road when a car approaches you from a head. I did a 100-mile ride with a friend once, continually switching from the right-hand side of the road to the left-hand side depending on whether traffic was approaching us from ahead or behind, since a vehicle passed us only once every several minutes -- but when it passed us, it was doing 110km/hr+, and we wanted to be as far away from it as we could. But remember that vehicles will still approach you faster when you ride the wrong way, and it's still illegal. It's your choice.
More General Tips
Avoid busy streets.
One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they start biking is to take the exact same routes they used when they were driving. It's usually better to take the streets with fewer and slower cars. Sure, cyclists have a right to the road, but that's a small consolation when you're dead. Consider how far you can take this strategy: If you learn your routes well, you'll find that in many cities you can travel through neighborhoods to get to most places, only crossing the busiest streets rather than traveling on them.
Ride as if you were invisible.
Assume that motorists don't know you're there and ride in such a way that they won't hit you even if they don't see you. You're not trying to BE invisible, you're trying to make it irrelevant whether cars see you or not. If you ride in such a way that a car has to see you to take action to avoid hitting you (e.g., by their slowing down or changing lanes), then that means they will definitely hit you if they don't see you! But if you stay out of their way, then you won't get hit even if they didn't notice you were there.
On very fast roads, cars will have less time to see you because they're approaching you so fast. Now, you should avoid fast roads in the first place if at all possible, unless there's plenty of room for a car and a bike side by side. And if there IS such room, then on fast roadways, you can practice invisibility by riding to the extreme left. If you're far enough left that you're not in the part of the lane the cars are in, then they'll zoom by and won't hit you, even if they never saw you. (exceptions to riding on the extreme left are noted below)
Here's another example: It's a good idea to signal a right turn, but it's a better idea to make your right turn at a time or place where there aren't cars behind you that could hit you while you're stopped and waiting to make that turn. You can hang out in the middle of the street, stopped, with your right arm out, waiting to make your turn, but you're counting on cars behind you to see you and stop. If they don't see you, you're in trouble.
Naturally we don't advocate running red lights, but if you're the kind of person who does, then apply the invisibility principle when deciding on whether to run a particular light: Could any cross traffic possibly hit me if I were invisible? If yes, then absolutely don't do it. Never make a car have to slow down to avoid hitting you (red light or not). Remember, the more you rely on cars to see you to avoid hitting you, the more chances they'll have to actually do so.
Remember, you're not trying to BE invisible, you're just riding with the assumption that cars can't see you. Of course, you certainly WANT them to see you, and you should help them with that. That's why you'll wave to motorists whom you think might be about to pull out in front of you, and why you'll be lit up like a Christmas tree at night (front and rear lights).
There are exceptions to riding as though you were invisible. For example, often you'll need to command a whole lane of traffic instead of riding to the extreme left, for the reasons mentioned in the next section.
Take the whole lane when appropriate.
While you'll often prefer to ride to the extreme left to keep out of the way of cars passing you, it's often safest to take the whole lane, or at least move a little bit to the right. As you'll see from diagram #1 above, riding a bit to the right allows cars at cross streets at intersections to see you better. Also, you should take the lane if cars are passing you too closely from behind. This requires cars behind you to see you and either slow down or change lanes. Then again, if you're on the kind of street where you've got cars blocked up behind you or constantly changing lanes to get around you, you're probably on the wrong street and should find a quieter neighborhood street.
By the way, it's perfectly legal for you to take the lane. RTA (and the laws of most other states) says you have to ride as far to the left as is"practicable". Here are some things that make it impracticable to ride to the extreme left:
- Cars are passing you too closely.
If the lane is too narrow for cars to pass you safely, then move right and take the whole lane. Getting buzzed by cars is dangerous.
- Cars are parked on the left-hand side of the road.
If you ride too close to these you're gonna get doored when someone gets out of their car. Move right.
- You're in a heavy traffic area with lots of side streets, parking lots, or driveways ahead and to your left.
Cars turning right won't see you because they're looking for traffic in the MIDDLE of the road, not on the extreme edge of the road. Move right. See Collision diagram #1 above.
If you're paying attention, you'll notice that there are risks to both riding to the extreme left as well as taking the lane. If you wanted a steadfast rule, then sorry,it isn't that simple. (But take heart, because many of the OTHER concepts we mention in our Top 10 list above work 100% of the time.) If you ride all the way to the left, you risk getting doored, and you make it hard for cars at cross streets at intersections to see you. But if you take the lane, you'll definitely get hit if a car behind you doesn't see you. To make it more likely that they'll see you when you're taking the lane, be lit up like a Christmas tree at night, and take neighborhood streets when you can, since the cars will be traveling slower and therefore approach you from behind slower, and have more time to see you.
Lights,Mirrors, Horns, Helmets
Accessories alone won't make you safe. You also need to know How to Not Get Hit by Cars. Stock up on accessories, sure, but also make sure you learn how to not get hit!
Too obvious? Well, if it's so obvious, then why do most night-time cyclists ride without lights? Bike shops have rear red blinkers for $20 or less. Get a light with white LED's, which lightly sip battery juice compared to standard incandescent lights. LED lights will last for weeks.
Lights are absolutely essential for night-time riding. Most cyclists who get killed are hit at night, don't have lights. For a rear light, get a cheap ($5-15) red flasher, which runs off two AA or AAA batteries that will last for months (up to 200 hours of use). This is a cheap way to keep you from being invisible. Get these at any bike shop, although sometimes they can be had at places like K-Mart. (And you can check out my Guide to Batteries to see which batteries work best.) Red flashers are cheap and effective. This is a no-brainer. Get one.
With headlights, you have a choice. You can get a light similar to red flashers, but with white, yellow, or green light. The advantage is that it's cheap and the batteries last forever. It's bright enough to get you noticed in some situations, but it's not as noticeable as a white headlight. It's also not bright enough to light up the roadway, but if you're riding in the city, this usually isn't a problem since the whole city is lit up like a Christmas tree at night anyway.
Your other option in a front light is a solid white light. These start out at $20, though some models cost a lot more. Most of these headlights have sorry battery life (usually only a few hours of run time). One solution is an LED flashlight, like the $30 LightWave or $20 Princeton Tec, each of which run for 15-100 hours on rechargeable AA or AAA batteries (even longer on alkalines). The secret to the long battery life is that the light comes from four white LED's, which sip battery juice compared to standard incandescent lights. You'll have to find a way to attach the flashlight to your handlebars, because the flashlight isn't "designed" for a bike.
No matter what kind of light you use, you'll want to use rechargeable batteries. Here's my Guide to Batteries and rechargers.
The advantages of solid white lights over flashers is that some are bright enough to light up the roadway a little for you.
A mirror is an absolute must. Your paranoia will decrease by 75% once you can see what's behind you. You can get a handlebar mirror at K-Mart for just $5. (The disadvantage of these mirrors is that objects are REALLY closer than they appear!) You can get a "good" handlebar mirror at a bike shop for $20-35. You can also get a helmet mirror or a sunglasses mirror from a bike shop for about $20. The ones that go on your sunglasses make you look like a Borg, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on your personal style. The newest kind of mirror is a tiny circle on a pivot that glues to the INSIDE of your sunglasses! It sounds crazy, but it works great. Here's a site which reviews various bike mirrors.
Horns. Another extremely handy device is an Air Zound horn. It's LOUD! If a car blasts you, you can blast them right back! The horn mounts to your handlebars, and the air canister is shaped like a water bottle and fits in your water bottle cage on the frame. You refill it with a standard bike pump, and it's good for about 20 good blasts between refills. I use it when I'm biking at night and there's someone ahead of me on the right who's about to pull out of a driveway or parking lot. Never again to I need to worry that they can't see me. The horn can also scare off some (but not all) dogs. It's pricey ($50-60), but worth it.
Helmets. Don't confuse wearing a helmet with bicycle safety. A helmet only makes it safer to crash, but does nothing to make it safer to ride. A helmet might only help once you've already been hit. Your goal is to avoid getting hit in the first place. To that end, you can greatly improve your chances of not getting hit by getting lights, a mirror, and an Air Zound horn, by not riding recklessly, and by being aware of the main ways a car can nail you (pulling out in front of you from your right, making a right-hand turn in front of you, and opening their door in your path). Also remember that a helmet doesn't make you invincible -- local cyclists have been killed in accidents in which they WERE wearing their helmets. All this aside, it's still a good idea to wear a helmet because it may afford some protection in the event of a crash, but don't think that strapping on a helmet makes you "safe" -- being knowledgeable, alert, and well-equipped will go a lot farther toward protecting your life than simply strapping on a piece of styrofoam. Here's a good page about helmet facts & myths from the Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling.
Make sure you know how to adjust your helmet to fit properly. If you wear it wrong it'll come off in a crash, erasing any safety benefit you might have gained. Thrift stores like Vinnies have helmets for as little as $2. (Note that used helmets may be less effective if they've been dropped or impacted in a collision, but if you're pressed for funds, a cheap helmet beats no helmet.) K-Mart has new helmets for as little as $30. A helmet at a bike shop starts out at around $30, but the folks at a bike shop can also show you how to make sure it fits properly.
THANKS FOR READING, AND RIDE SAFELY! :)
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