Road cycling is accessible to almost everyone, and it’s a great way to get into cycling if you don’t live near established trails or aren’t confident enough in the sport yet to try mountain biking. If you’re biking to commute or just to get more exercise locally without driving out to trails, you’re definitely going to spend time on the roadway.
Cycling is growing more popular all the time, with 80 million cyclists sharing roads with drivers. Unfortunately, deaths due to cycling crashes have also increased about 30% from 2009 to 2018, with most of those deaths involving motor vehicles.
Collisions are most common between 6 pm and 9 pm, regardless of season, and bicycle-related deaths tend to peak in the summer months of June through September.
Whether you’re taking up cycling to get more exercise, see more of your hometown (or places you’re traveling), or to reduce your carbon footprint, making sure you stay safe on the road is a big part of adding cycling to your lifestyle for the long term.
In most places, cyclists riding on public roadways are legally considered vehicles with the same rights and responsibilities as drivers in motor vehicles. That means you need to be aware of bicycle-specific laws, drive predictably and defensively, and learn how to ride confidently before taking on long or highly-trafficked routes.
Know the Rules of the Road
Although the details of cycling laws vary by state, county, and city, the League of American Bicyclists has created 5 universal Rules of the Road to help cyclists in any city or state stay safe:
Follow the Law
Your safety and image of bicyclists depend on you. You have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers. Obey traffic signals and stop signs. Ride with traffic; use the rightmost lane headed in the direction you are going.
Make your intentions clear to everyone on the road. Ride in a straight line and don’t swerve between parked cars. Signal turns, and check behind you well before turning or changing lanes.
Ride where people can see you and wear bright clothing. Use a front white light, red rear light, and reflectors when visibility is poor. Make eye contact with others and don’t ride on sidewalks.
Anticipate what drivers, pedestrians, and other people on bikes will do next. Watch for turning vehicles and ride outside the door zone of parked cars. Look out for debris, potholes, and other road hazards. Cross railroad tracks at right angles.
Check that your tires are sufficiently inflated, brakes are working, chain runs smoothly, and quick release levers are closed. Carry tools and supplies that are appropriate for your ride. Wear a helmet.
While these 5 guidelines are a great starting place for safe cycling, it’s important to also look up the laws in your state to make sure you’re driving as expected for your area. Knowing the law will not only help you avoid a ticket on public roadways, but also be a predictable cyclist to avoid crashes.
Look up the laws in your area on the Bike League website.
Some rules you can expect to find in most states:
Drive where you can expect to be seen, in the same direction as traffic flow. Make sure to slow down and look both ways before crossing streets, and always signal turns or lane changes clearly. At night, be sure to use a bright, easily noticeable light on both the front and rear of your bike or kit.
Although riding on the sidewalk can seem safe, it’s best to avoid sidewalk riding if at all possible for several reasons. Sidewalks can end suddenly, forcing cyclists into the street quickly, and drivers do not expect to see moving traffic coming from the direction of the sidewalk. Sidewalk riding is also illegal in many areas, and pedestrians can easily take up the entire width of the sidewalk, forcing cyclists to stop suddenly or crash.
Get Involved in Your Local Community
Learning everything you need to know to keep yourself and others safe isn’t necessarily going to happen from reading a few articles on the internet. The best way to learn is from local cyclists who know your area — the roads, driving style, and local laws. By meeting other cyclists and getting involved in your local community, you can ask questions and get tips you won’t find online or in ‘official’ guides to cycling in your area. Join the community through volunteering, group rides, and advocacy to have a well-rounded understanding of the cycling landscape in your area.
Become a Confident Cyclist with an On-Bike Class
Take a cycling class through your school, recreation department, local bike shop, or bike advocacy group. Confidence in traffic comes with learning how to navigate and communicate with other drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians. You don’t want to be figuring out the laws while simultaneously dealing with traffic and distractions of a solo ride or commute, so taking a class is a great way to cycle safely before getting out on your own.
Make Sure Your Instructor is Certified
The League of American Cyclists offers Smart Cycling classes to help keep you safe on the road, and also certifies instructors around the US to provide a simple way to make sure the class you’re interested in is from a qualified cyclist and teacher.
How to Keep Cyclists Safe as a Vehicle Driver
While cyclists have a lot of power to keep themselves safe, it isn’t up to them alone. Most cycling fatalities involve motor vehicles, and it’s important to remember that people on bicycles have the same rights and responsibilities as people behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Yield to bicyclists as you would motorists and don’t turn in front of them. Underestimating the speed of cyclists is a commonly-cited reason for preventable accidents.
When pulling out of parking lots or backing up, be sure to check not only for motor vehicles, but for cyclists as well. You can also get into the habit of the “Dutch Reach” to protect yourself from opening your car door in the way of cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists.
Learn the technique by watching the Bicycle Safety and the Far Hand Reach video on YouTube.
Drivers turning right on red should look to the right and behind to avoid hitting a bicyclist approaching from the right rear. Stop completely and look left-right-left and behind before turning right on red.
Give cyclists room – Do not pass too closely: In most places, the law requires giving cyclists at least 3 feet of space on both sides when passing, which usually means passing bicyclists as you would any other vehicle — when it’s safe to move over into an adjacent lane.
Ensure You Have Adequate Safety Gear
Finally, make sure you are protecting yourself with materials designed to be seen and to protect you in the event of a crash.
At minimum, you need a well-fitted helmet and bright/neon clothing and high-quality fabrics while daytime cycling. For evening and night cycling, add reflective gear and a blinking light to the front and back of both your bicycle and your helmet or torso.
If you’re not sure how to fit your bike helmet, watch this How to Properly Fit a Bicycle Helmet video from Bike Exchange on YouTube.
For an even better fit, purchase your helmet in person from a reputable bicycle shop, and ask for help in the store. Cycle shops are happy to help you make a great decision on your gear, so don’t be afraid to ask!
Want to chase safest with WaveCel? Look for a WaveCel-equipped Bontrager helmet at your local bike shop for a helmet design to crumple, flex, and glide in the event of a crash, helping you to avoid concussion and protect your one brain.
- “Road Safety Topics: Bicycle Safety.” US Dept of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nhtsa.gov. Retrieved 27 Feb 2021.
- “Rules of the Road.” The League of American Bicyclists. 2019.
- Purdum, Stan. “Road Biking 101: A Beginner’s Guide.” Road Bike Radar, November 2018.
- Brooking, John. “Bicycle Lights: To See and Be Seen By.” Cycling Savvy, 9 Oct 2020. Retrieved 27 Feb 2021.
- People for Bikes: Building for tomorrow
- National Safety Council website: tools & resources
- Short, John Rennie. “US Cities Are Becoming More Dangerous for Cyclists and Pedestrians.” Earth Island Journal, 21 Feb 2019. Retrieved 27 Feb 2021.
- National Safety Council: Protect Cyclists with the Far Hand Reach