Bike Safety for Newbies
Cycling is a fun, green way to travel, but make sure you know the rules of the road
Even if you haven’t been on a bike since grade school — or ever, for that matter — there are lots of great reasons to start pedaling: It’s fun, it’s good exercise, and it’s a cheap, gas-free way to travel.
But if you're new to cycling, or never became an expert, take some time to make sure you’re safe on the road. Bicycle safety definitely isn’t just for kids: Roughly 50,000 cyclists of all ages are injured in traffic accidents each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, riders 45 and older are more likely than children under 15 to die in a bike accident.
Start with the right bike in good repair
The most important piece of safety gear is the bike itself. If your bike doesn't fit you or doesn't work properly, you could be pedaling toward disaster. If your bike has been in storage, consider taking it to a bike shop for a quick tune up.
For best control, make sure your bike is the right size. When you stand and straddle it, the bar on the road bike frame should be about two inches below your bottom, five inches if you're riding a mountain bike. Make sure the seat is at the right height, too. When you're on the bike, push the pedal to its lowest position. If your knee is slightly bent at that point, you’re fine.
Before every ride, check to see if the tires have enough air. The tire should be firm, not soft and mushy, if you give it a good push. Press on the brakes to make sure they actually stop the tires. If you can push the brake lever to the handlebar, you need to adjust your brakes.
Turn the bike upside down and give those tires a spin. They should spin straight and true without rubbing against the brakes. If you have quick-release wheels, make sure they're attached properly. The last thing you want when riding is an unplanned quick release, especially if you're riding in traffic.
Take along some basic supplies in a backpack or saddle bag, including a bike pump, water, energy bars, a charged-up cell phone and money. If you're doing more than riding around town and foul weather is a possibility, consider bringing a space blanket.
If you're riding at night or on a cloudy or foggy day, make sure you and your bike are easy to see. Wear bright, reflective clothing, and remember that you're required by law to have red lights or reflectors on the back of your bike and a white light in the front. Feel free to add reflectors to the wheel spokes, too. Even during the day, reflectors and bright clothing or vests will help you stay safe.
Related: 5 Gadgets to Make Biking Safer
Helmets are a must for safety. According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, a bike helmet will prevent a head injury in a serious wreck nine times out of ten.
But simply slapping something on your head isn't enough. For real protection, you need a securely attached helmet that actually fits your head. The helmet should be comfortable but snug; if it rocks when you move your head, it’s too loose. The helmet should be level, not tilted up or down. When it’s in place, the front of the helmet should be one or two finger-widths above your eyebrows. When picking out a helmet, look for the label of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Follow the rules of the road
As an adult, you already know the basic traffic rules. Those rules don’t change when you move to two wheels.
Wherever you ride, you should travel in the same direction as traffic. Many cyclists overlook this basic rule, but it’s important for at least two reasons. First, other drivers won’t be looking for bicycles or anything else moving the wrong way down a street, especially when they're making a turn. Riding with traffic is simply the best way to be seen. Also, riding with traffic lets you see stop signs and traffic signals, which of course you should follow. If you run into a problem, avoid showdowns with an angry driver.
Related: How to Ride Safely With Your Child
Remember that your bike is just one vehicle among many. You'll often have to give the right of way to cars and pedestrians. When possible, ride on the side of the road to give cars room to pass. On a narrow street where there's not enough room for both a car and a bike, ride in the middle. It's legal, and cars have to wait until they can pass.
Generally speaking, it's a good idea to stay off the sidewalks. In many places it's illegal for an adult to ride a bike on a sidewalk; check your state and local laws. If you do ride on the sidewalk, be sure to ride slowly, give pedestrians plenty of space and watch for cars entering and leaving driveways.
Know your hands signals
You need a foolproof way to let other drivers know you're turning or stopping, and hand signals were designed for just that. The three basic signs are:
- Left turn: Extend your left arm out to the side with all your fingers extended, or one finger pointing to the left.
- Right turn: Extend your left arm bent at a 90-degree angle, hand up and palm facing forward. (Alternatively, you can extend your right arm out to the side with all your fingers extended or one finger pointing right.)
- Stop: Extend your left arm at a 90-degree angle with the hand down and your palm facing backwards.
(Photo: New Mexico State University)
More bike safety basics
If it’s been a while since you've been on a bike, you might want to practice some basic skills before you ride anywhere with a lot of traffic. You should be able to look behind you while pedaling without wobbling or swerving. Also, remind yourself of the crucial difference between the rear brake and the front brake. If you're whizzing down the road, hitting the front brake first practically guarantees a flying end-over-end crash. Hit the rear brake first and start slowing down before gradually applyiing the front brake.
Here are some other tips from veteran cyclists. Putting them into practice will help you avoid serious injury or worse.
- Don't pass on the right.
- Use a mirror, and never move left without looking behind you first.
- If a car is waiting at a red light, stop and wait behind it (still on the side of the road) rather than directly beside it. This is often the driver's blind spot, and even cyclists with years of experience have been badly injured in this spot.
- To avoid cars pulling out of side streets and driveways, honk your bike horn if you see one approaching or waiting. If you can't make eye contact, slow down and prepare to stop if you need to.
- If there are parked cars on the street, ride far enough to the left of them to avoid crashing into a car door if it opens unexpectedly.
- Never whizz across a street without stopping first, whether or not you think the car at the intersection can see you.
- Look out for and avoid sewer grates and train and trolley tracks: your tires can get stuck and pitch you into traffic. Likewise, avoid manhole covers, oily pavement and gravel, which can cause you to skid and fall.
- Don't be a daredevil. Zooming down a hill has injured many veteran cyclists when they ran into debris, potholes or a branch jutting out into the street.
Ultimately, there's a lot more to bicycle safety than memorizing rules. As an adult, you have an advantage: common sense. You know that you need to stay alert, and that means no blaring earbuds or texting while riding (yes, some do it). You know to stay away from traffic or terrain that you can’t handle. And you know not to do anything really crazy like riding while high or intoxicated. Most of all, you know that cycling can be a great way to travel — as long as you’re truly ready for the ride.