Notes on Staying Alive

Bike commuting is great for health and exercise. It's an efficient and cheap way of putting in kms for training. And although all activities involve risk, it is remarkably safe if done well. This post is about riding to lower risk. 

Surviving the Crash
We are always going to be at a disadvantage in a crash with a motor vehicle. The key action is avoidance. But having survived three crashes, two with cars,  I am aware I am alive only because of my helmet. Helmets can be unmarked on the outer shell and broken on the inside. After any fall, replace the helmet. It works by breaking; if we've already broken the inner reinforcing, then all that's left to break is the head.

If you are anaphylactic with respect to Penicillin or have some other condition, wear a bracelet. This may save your life.

Avoiding the crash

Bike paths and back streets
Home to work is 28kms if I use Main North Road. The bike lane varies from non-existent on a three lane high-speed alley with a vertical kerb, to tolerable. It is often full of glass, parked cars, gravel sprays and sundry other hazards.  This route means I will be passed by several thousand cars on the way to work; half of the route is an 80kmh zone.

My actual commute is 30 km, which means it takes about 6 minutes longer. There is a dramatic drop in risk because I am on Main North Road for only 1 km. I am on secondary roads for about 4.5 km, and off the road for up to 7km. The other 18kms are back streets. So my actual exposure to traffic is one or two orders of magnitude less, the traffic is slower or non-existent, and the risk of being hit by a car is far less.

Google Maps and the SA Government Cycle Instead journey planner will both suggest routes, but these can be tweaked and improved.

Be visible
Clearly, if we don't pay attention when riding, we are asking to be hit. And it is true that cars are mostly at fault in collisions. But the practicality is that we need to ride defensively. I have more defensive riding techniques below, but the key strategy I employ is to be highly visible. The more visible we are, the less likely we are to be hit.

Wear Hi Viz
Exactly what constitutes high visibility is a question of debate. But I observe three things:

As an older person I can assure you that older eyes fail to see black on black. Black kit becomes invisible against black cars and against darker colours. Black knicks and tights are sensible for managing grime and grease. Black tops are just stupid, especially at night.

Into this same bracket fall fashionable "high visibility" tops which break up the body and, in effect, become urban camouflage. My sense is that they work to make us less visible!

I wear solid colour tops, mainly yellow or red, because these are the easiest to get. But I suspect that what SA drivers are most attuned to is high viz gear worn by road workers. Orange is a colour which we have learned means slow down to 25.

At night, all colours are muted; fluoro gear needs daylight to work. I have noticed in areas without good street lighting that cyclists are especially invisible in the dark. Lights on seat posts are often obscured by other traffic, and riding in the drops easily hides a helmet taillight, especially if we use a pack.  Reflective stripes, ProViz jackets, or middle of the back flashing lights are desirable.

Sit proud
I say here that

If you are on the shoulder or the verge, you invite the driver not to see you! Scientific studies (eg; here) show we "make up" lots of what we see on the periphery of our vision. Riding on the shoulder really invites SMIDSY. (The article also makes sense of why you should not ride "in the gutter" in urban areas.)

Sitting out proud is perhaps the best defence to being hit from behind. It simply means we are more likely to be seen.

Road Law says

You must keep as close as reasonably practicable to the left side of the road except:
when making, or about to make, a right turn
where the road is divided into lanes
when overtaking.
In deciding how close to the left side of the road or path is ‘reasonably practicable’, you should take into account factors such as obstacles in your path, lighting conditions at the time, and the quality of the riding surface. (Here)

My argument is that sitting well in from the kerb is an exercise in safety for us and for drivers. We make ourselves visible, we give ourselves somewhere to go in the case of close passes, and we are less likely to bounce back under a car because we have hit the kerb.

There is an alarming possibility that many people who pass us don't see us. I read somewhere that the UK West Midlands Police Close Pass safety scheme often have drivers they pull over ask, "What bike?"  I can only say that when I sit proud to the kerb, people tend to give me a lot more room.

I work on having at least a metre between me and the edge of the bitumen. I allow at least 1.4 metres for car doors.

You are invisible on footpaths
I have seen cyclist hit by cars when riding on the foot path. The simple fact is that the footpath is not part of the driver's visual focus. Coming off the foot path into traffic is a major risk point: assume they have not seen you. Riding across an intersection in the pedestrian area likely means you will be travelling 5 times the speed of a pedestrian. Even the driver who looks for pedestrians will likely be looking in the wrong place to see you.

Especially in the city, footpaths are a highly efficient, and legal, way to get around one way streets and other barriers. But they are dangerous. Pedestrians live in a world of their own, and we are invisible to cars.

The Door Zone
I allow at least 1.4 metres for car doors.

Getting Lost in Traffic
My first collision was at a roundabout. The driver slowed, stopped, and then proceeded to drive over me. Despite my lights, he had not seen me.

My second collision occurred when a driver t-boned me, because he did not see me in the bike lane as he did a hurried right turn through stationary traffic.

I was in the right both times, but got lost in other traffic, and became invisible.

To combat this I always use daylight flashers, front and rear, and wear high vis clothing. I slow right down when the bike lane, or the left lane, is clear but the other traffic lanes are slow or stationary.

Another key space for being plainly visible, but lost in traffic, is waiting to turn right at any intersection without a right turn lane. If drivers have any consciousness of bikes it will be to expect them in the left lane. Sitting in the right lane we are likely to be lost in the detail of oncoming traffic. If there is no right turn lane, and I will have to stop and wait to turn, I always hook turn, or go to the kerb and cross when it's all clear.

Take the road
At the small roundabouts that are on the minor roads, or where there is gravel spilling onto the road, "take the road" so that drivers don't seek to squeeze past and end up sending you into the kerb, or worse.

Flashing Lights
They are highly visible; non flashing lights get lost in the crowd. Get someone else to ride your bike.  If you can't see it clearly; that is, if it does not grab your attention at least 100 metres back, it's not bright enough.



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