Safety is paramount.
Whether you ride a bicycle in an urban area for fun, fitness or to commute to work efficiently through traffic-choked city streets, safety is paramount. In 2015, crashes with motor vehicles killed 817 bicyclists, a 13 percent increase over 2014, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And in 2014, 71 percent of bike deaths occurred in urban areas, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “The number one consideration is safety,” says Andrew Leeka, president and chief executive officer of Good Samaritan Hospital and a biking enthusiast who rides 16 miles to work each day. Here are tips from experts to ride a bike safely in a city:
Keep in mind you’re sharing busy city streets.
City biking can be fun and exciting, but it requires mindfulness, says Doug Smith, everyday bicycling coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “We should be aware of all the other road users who are walking, riding and driving.” Bicycling deaths have increased in part because the number of riders has more than doubled since 1995, Smith says. “It’s not unsafe to ride a bike, it’s just there’s a lot more bicyclists on the road, which is why the number of crashes has increased. Over the last 10 to 20 years, bike safety has improved in many cities, especially in those that have installed dedicated bike lanes.”
Make sure your bike works.
You don’t need an expensive bike to ride safely, so long as it’s in good working order. That’s true whether you use a high-end bike or one you bought at a thrift store for less than $100, Smith says. Check the brakes and chain, and make sure the tires are sound and properly inflated, Smith says. Some bike shops will check your ride for no charge; others will charge a modest fee. Bike mechanics who volunteer their services to bike cooperatives are also an option. “A safe bike is a bike that’s comfortable and works,” he says. “You don’t need a $3,000 bike.”
Wear a helmet.
Always wear a helmet, whether you’re riding a few blocks or embarking on a 100-mile adventure. Helmets save lives and can protect riders from serious head injuries that can cause concussions, seizures or even death. In most bike deaths, the most serious injuries are to the head, according to the insurance institute. Helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of a head injury by 50 percent, the institute notes. Nationwide, more than 20 states and the District of Columbia have helmet laws that apply to young bicyclists, often bikers younger than 16, but not all riders. In recent years, no more than 17 percent of bicyclists killed in crashes were wearing helmets, according to the insurance institute.
Keep your headgear up to date.
“Helmets for the most part get only one crash. If your helmet’s been in a crash or is cracked, it should be replaced,” Smith says. New helmets that can be effective for five to eight years, provided they aren’t in a crash, haven’t been dropped onto hard surfaces or left in sun or rain, which can degrade them. “If your helmet’s 10 years old, it may be time to get a new one,” Smith says.
Make sure your reflectors are intact.
They’ll help motorists and others see you at night. Generally, all new bikes sold in the U.S. “must have a colorless front reflector, recessed colorless or amber reflectors on the back and front sides of the pedals, and a red reflector on the rear,” according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Track bicycles designed for use in competition and one-of-a-kind custom-made bikes are exempt from these requirements.
Add lights to your bike.
Mounting lights on the front and back of your bike is a good idea if you’ll be riding at night, Smith says. There’s a wide array of battery-operated lights available at bike shops, sporting goods stores and online merchants that range in price from a few dollars to $500 per light, depending on the item’s power and durability. “There are lights that help you be seen, and lights that help you see,” he says. You may not need particularly bright lights if you’re riding in an urban area where nighttime lighting is good.
Make sure you’re seen.
Do whatever you can to ensure motorists, pedestrians and other bicyclists see you. At intersections, indicate turns with arm signals. “You don’t have to stop there. You can point, put your hands up in a ‘stop’ motion if you assume a motorist in front if you is staying put and make eye contact,” says Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets, which advocates for innovative and equitable transportation solutions in the Boston area. You can also improve your visibility by wearing brightly colored reflective helmets, shirts, vests, shorts and tape strips. You needn’t be fancy. “A bright white T-shirt can make a difference.”
Consider a hybrid.
If you’re riding on smooth roads, a road bike with skinny tires might be your best bet. If you like to cycle on dirt trails, a mountain bike with thick tires with deep treads is a good option. For riding in a city, which may have its share of potholes, a hybrid bicycle may be the way to go, Smith says. The tires on hybrid bikes are thicker than those on road bikes and should be able to handle rough city streets. “First and foremost, find a bike that is comfortable for you,” Smith says. “If it’s not comfortable, you won’t ride it.”
Don’t drink and ride.
Riding while impaired can be deadly. In 2014, about 20 percent of bicyclists killed in crashes had a blood alcohol level of .08 (or higher), the illegal alcohol level in all states, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “The principle’s the same as ‘Don’t drink and drive,'” Thompson says. “Any time you’re doing something that will impair your ability to operate a vehicle or your mobility, you shouldn’t ride. It’s not just about drinking. There may be times when you take medication and shouldn’t get on your bike. If you wouldn’t operate a car, you should also not operate any other mode of transportation.”
Pay attention to your surroundings.
You hope the truck driver you’re sharing the street with is looking out for you, but he may not be. It’s your responsibility to keep an eye on not just motorists but pedestrians and other bicyclists. “It’s easy to get into the zone and go straight,” Thompson says. “Understanding what’s going on around you will help you avoid crashes when you or motorists are making left or right turns.”
Keep your ears open.
It’s important for bicyclists to hear what’s around them. You need to hear that ambulance siren screaming behind you or the pedestrian frantically calling out to you at the intersection. Some states have laws prohibiting or restricting bicyclists from wearing headsets or earbuds while riding. “You should always have your head in the game when riding a bike, especially on the street with moving, motorized traffic. Your hearing is often the first sense that tips you off to trucks or other vehicles passing you from behind,” Thompson says. If you really need tunes while you ride, she recommends using a small, portable bike speaker.
Obey the rules of the road.
In terms of safety, riding a bike is a lot like driving a car — it’s important to follow traffic laws and obey traffic signals and signs. Ride in a predictable manner so motorists and pedestrians don’t have to guess what you’re about to do. “Stop at stop signs and red lights, yield to pedestrians, flow of traffic, look over your shoulder before turning and follow all traffic laws,” Smith says. “Unless there’s a dedicated bike lane allowing you to do otherwise, ride in the flow of traffic and operate your bike in a predictable manner.”
Give a wide berth to parked cars.
Some bicyclists are injured when they ride near a parked car, the driver opens his door and the biker slams into it, a situation known as “dooring.” “Someone could be parked for four or five minutes, looking at their cellphone or finishing a call and suddenly open their door without looking behind them,” Smith says. “Give yourself space from the door and slow down to try to give yourself time to react if the door opens.” Slamming into a door can result in a wide range of injuries to your head, shoulders, arms, legs, knees and feet.
Plan your route.
If you’re going to start riding your bike to work, map out the route and go online to determine whether it has dedicated bike lanes, says Elizabeth Dominick, a physical therapist and program director for the spinal cord injury/neurological program at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, New York. She’s also the White Plains chapter director for the ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation. It’s worth doing a practice run on your route on a light traffic day to see what the streets are like and whether there’s construction on them. “If you know your route, you’ll have a higher success rate of getting there safely,” she says.
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