How do you stay safe in traffic? I can't really tell you that. I can only tell you how I stay safe (or try to stay safe) in traffic.
- Obey the traffic laws
Everybody says you should obey the laws, all the laws, which apply to cyclists. Count me as everybody plus one. When I follow the highway traffic act, it makes me possible to predict. Drivers know where to look for me, they can make a good guess as to where I'll go (and more importantly, where I won't go) in the next second.
In the A&E TV reality series "Airline", the camera crews hung out at airports and taped (usually distressed or unruly) passengers. Once, they taped customers griping because the airline had held up a flight when a part didn't fit. I felt like shouting at the screen: you want to fly seven miles up, going five hundred knots, in an aluminum tube stressed to thousands of pounds per square inch, with a part that doesn't fit? Sometimes, I feel like asking fellow cyclists the same question: you ride on a public road, surrounded by two-ton battering rams going fifty feet every single second, and you don't want the drivers to know what they can expect you to do next?
- Stay Attuned to the Road
I use every sense I have. I have normal hearing; it gives me an enormous advantage. I listen for traffic around me, and particularly behind me. The sound of an engine gives me a very good rough guide to the size of the vehicle behind me, and the driver's intentions. If I hear a Cummins diesel, I get ready for a truck; if I hear a car engine revving up, I make sure I give the driver every chance to safely pass me.
- Cycle and Signal, in That Order
I try to ride my bicycle first. I always make it my first priority to stay upright and in control; whatever the situation, I know I won't improve my situation by collapsing in a helpless tangle in the middle of the road. Second, I try to make sure I signal my intentions. Signals come second; a driver can't respond to what I intend to do if I don't control the bike.
- Stay Ahead of the Bike
I try to keep my mind the appropriate range of distances ahead of my bicycle. In some cases, such as dense traffic on a straight street ride, that means keeping most of my attention on the cars right in front of me. Coming up on a turn or a lane change, I try to look out for the state of the traffic in the other lane or the intersection in mind. I try to stay aware of gaps in the traffic, and how long I can expect them to last.
- Behave in a Polite But Firm Manner
I have the same right to use the road, according to the law, as transit vehicles, cars, trucks, and pedestrians. To the greatest extent possible, I ensure people notice me. I stay far enough from the curb to avoid hazards. I allow cars go by me when I can, and I take lanes when I need to. I have a right to operate my bicycle safely and according to law.
- Keep Your Bike Well Maintained
When I take my bike into an intersection, I really want to know (not just hope) that my chain won't jam, that my gears won't slip and I won't go over the handlebars, and I can concentrate on the job at hand: negotiating the cars, pedestrians and streetcar tracks. I keep my bicycle maintained. If I ever balk at the cost of two professional tuneups a year, thinking about what an accident would cost cures me of that.
- Wear the Gear
When I first contemplated a bicycle helmet, I asked myself whether I considered my brain worth $25. Right, a bicycle helmet won't protect you from everything. It certainly won't replace all the other safety techniques I try to practise. I still wear one anyway. Better a helmet than a head injury.