My August "The Break Room" column, Pedaling Toward Productivity, focused on the benefits of bicycle commuting. Arriving at work via bike fosters healthy habits, saves money, can increase productivity and is just plain fun. But there's also a dangerous side to bike commuting. As with anything else, if you don't follow the proper safety procedures, you're putting yourself at risk.
One of my pet peeves is watching a bicyclist ride on the wrong side of the road -- on the left, against traffic. This is not a safe practice. Bicyclists move quickly and can easily surprise drivers by traveling on the wrong side of the road. A driver on a cross street about to turn onto the road may not expect a biker to be approaching her against traffic. Surprised drivers who come upon a wrong-way biker may even swerve into the next lane to avoid impact. (You can read more about why biking on the wrong side of the road is dangerous here, here and here.) The bottom line is that bicyclists -- and drivers -- are safest when bikes are treated as another vehicle on the road. That means riding with traffic, stopping at red lights and stop signs, signaling to turn or stop, and following all other applicable traffic laws.
For some reason, this dangerous wrong-way biking practice is pervasive. I have no idea where this incorrect and unsafe habit came from. It is true that pedestrians should walk on a roadway facing traffic for their own safety, but this is not the case for bicyclists.
Biking on sidewalks is unsafe, as well. (And in most cases, it's illegal, too.) These bicyclists pose a threat to slower-moving pedestrians, and cars turning from cross streets may not see a biker approaching on the sidewalk. I know many inexperienced cyclists feel uncomfortable biking on the street with cars, but the fact is, that's the safest place for a bicyclist to be. (See my column for more bike commuting safety tips.)
So please, spread the word that it's safest to bike on the road and with traffic.
Light Up For Safety
After James Nash of Mercer ORC Networks read my column in the August issue, he took a few minutes to share his own bike commuting tips:
"I enjoyed your column on biking to work. I've been doing it my entire life. I can think of about half a dozen reasons why it makes sense, most of them you touched on.
"I recently moved and I chose my new location partly so I could bike through the park on bike trails to work. I've got a 7 mile commute, which is just about the perfect length I think. I recently bought pants and a jacket so I can stay dry and bike in the rain. However, when biking in the rain you need to reduce your speed by at least 1/3 because your brakes will not work as efficiently and your tires will slip on turns. The only thing that stops me is ice. I would warn readers about that. Hidden patches of black ice in the winter in shady spots are a real hazard. A second thing I would mention is riders need to use several bright flashing lights fore and aft on their bikes and even the helmet. There are a lot of distracted drivers out there, and bright clothing alone isn't enough, especially as we get into autumn and you are biking home in the dark. I myself came too close to striking a biker while driving on a narrow winding road, but his flashing lights warned me with enough time."
So there you have it: Reduce your speed in the rain, avoid riding in icy conditions and be sure to use lights. If you're riding during dusk or twilight, you might be able to see fine, and you might feel visible, but in reality you may be nearly invisible to drivers.
Biking is a fun, healthy activity, and it's safe if cyclists take all the necessary precautions. Wear a helmet. Use lights and wear bright clothing. Ride on the right side of the road, and stay off the sidewalk. Follow traffic laws. The more bicyclists who follow the rules of the road, the safer the roads will be for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike.