So you want to get into bike commuting, but you have some safety concerns.
You want to get home (and not end up in the emergency department) at the end of the day.
Here are the most common hidden dangers I have discovered as a bike commuter, and what you can do about them to make sure that you cycle to work with the peace of mind that you’ve done everything you can to reduce the risks.
1. Beware of right turners (UK, Ireland, and other wonderful countries: left turners)
If you drive a car you know exactly what a dead spot in the mirror is. Cars magically appear out of nowhere when you want to turn or change lane. You didn’t spot them in the blond spot.
Sometimes (more often than you think!) you, as a cyclist, are in the dead spot of a car.
But when you’re on the bike, it’s easy to forget that to some people you may be invisible at certain moments.
Just the other day, I was riding home in the city at night. The city lights were on and my super bright Cateye Volt 800 in blinking mode. (It sends out short blasts of light).
I was going in the bike lane on the side of the road, and I had the right of way.
A driver, who was taking a right turn didn’t notice me coming (either didn’t check or I was in his blind spot). It was a near miss.
Thankfully I was prepared to come to a full stop because I knew that it was a tricky intersection.
Remember that buses have blind spots too. They stop and go regularly at every bus stop. And buses hurt.
Keep in mind that you should:
- Never assume that you’re visible to everyone all the time.
- Always have your hands near the brake so you can slow down.
2. Stopping too late
Stopping in time or just a few feet too late is the difference between a safe pass and an accident with a pedestrian… or a car.
In some extreme circumstances passing the line means receiving a fine. (Some cops are very strict when it comes to what it means to run red lights).
To be an amazing bike commuter you need to be good at pedaling when you need to go and be able to stop quickly when necessary.
To go faster you rely on your muscles, but how soon you can stop depends on:
- Tire grip
- Your reaction time
- How good your brakes are
Different surfaces and different tires offer different grip. I have a whole article about slicks and treaded tires here. You need to understand how quickly you can stop on different surfaces.
Here are some examples of what you can generally expect:
Good grip: asphalt, concrete (wet asphalt or concrete are less grippy, but generally still quite good)
Medium grip: gravel, cobblestones, snow
Terrible grip: wet leaves, wet cobblestones, wet grass, a sheet of ice.
Your reaction time means how quickly after a critical event you can pull on the brake lever.
Reaction time can dramatically increase if your mind is not on the road or if your hands are not near the bike levers. Riding no-handed or using your cellphone make it impossible for you to react quickly.
The condition of your brakes is always within your control. You should check your brakes regularly.
When you ride your bike daily, you will immediately notice even small differences as your brake loses power.
As soon as you feel that your brakes are losing grip, check out what may cause the problem. Is the cable worn? If you have hydraulic brakes do you need to top up the oil? Are your brake pads worn?
You can neglect your derailleurs, but don’t play Russian roulette with your brakes.
Understand your braking distance
To understand your braking distance practice it when it doesn’t matter. Get on your bike and go out for a spin to someplace that isn’t busy. Pick up speed and pick a point in the distance by which you need to stop.
Try this on different road surfaces and if possible, in different weather conditions. You will learn a lot.
This is different than just not being able to stop in time. Slipping happens in corners.
Your bike goes one way and you go another way ⇒ bruise, broken bones or maybe even something worse.
Slipping has a lot to do with the road surface, your tire, and your speed.
No need to practice this one until you fall, but if you practice stopping in time as suggested in the previous point, you will get a good understanding of how fast you can take a turn and how much you can lean into a corner in various conditions.
Here are some dangerous surfaces to be aware of:
- Icy patches
- Wet cobblestones
- Signs painted on the road (especially when wet)
- Leaves (I wonder if fall as a season was named by a cyclist)
You can probably guess by now that you need to be extra careful when riding in rain and damp weather.
4. Getting doored
Cycle lanes are great because you have your own lane you don’t need to share with cars.
I see this at least once a week: a cyclist is riding in the cycle lane confident that he’s in a protected zone. A driver has just parked the car and wants to get out. He opens the car door without checking the mirror.
Most seasoned cyclists know that they can always expect the unexpected, but I have seen people getting doored.
Some people suggest that we should educate drivers about the Dutch reach, which means checking for cyclists and reaching for the car’s door with the right hand. It doesn’t allow you to open too wide.
I’m a driver as well as a cyclist. I’m all for safety, but I almost never remember to use the Dutch reach. How can I expect everyone I pass by to know about it?
Most bike lanes are wide enough that a car’s door doesn’t open all the way to the far side. By riding near the line that separates cars from cyclists, you can avoid getting doored.
Still… be cautious!
5. Accidents at intersections
Between a car and a bike, the cyclist is always weaker.
About 28% of serious (read fatal) accidents happen at junctions. About 50% of the time it is the fault of the cyclist, who either:
- Failed to signal turning intent
- Didn’t stop at stop signs
- Didn’t stop at the red light.
That’s right! Obey the traffic laws!
Don’t be the cyclist that takes the red light as a mere suggestion. Even if that other guy that you want to beat to the end of the road so badly crosses that light (this is so tempting sometimes, especially if you’re a competitive person).
What about the other 50% of accidents that’s not in your control?
We take risks all the time, so you can’t completely eliminate every risk. But wearing a helmet is a good start.
Always wear a helmet!
6. Blind corners
In some corners, you just can’t see who’s coming from the other direction.
If two people approach on the same side of the road, and at least one of them is fast enough…
I see this in my commute every day.
There are two blind corners where cyclists and pedestrians can both use the road. There are no mirrors to see who’s coming from the other side.
I once had a cyclist crash into me and a few close shaves with others.
This is how you maximize safety in blind corners
- Reduce your speed as you’re approaching
- Ring your bell to let others know you’re coming
The problem with some bells is that they are installed too far from your thumb’s reach, so you can’t brake and ring the bell at the same time.
Not so with the Trigger Bike Bell. This guy was designed so you can be ringing while braking and braking while ringing! And it can be mounted on any handlebar.
7. Photographing and wandering pedestrians
When pedestrians and cyclists share the road you need to be extra cautious. Not everybody expects bikes to pass them by. Especially in tourist areas.
This usually happens when I see tourists and it drives me nuts, but in a way, I understand them.
The come to see Budapest. Beautiful!
They take pictures of the Parliament. Amazing!
They are busy adjusting the camera settings on their phone. Not so amazing!
They need to take a step back to get the perfect shot. OH NOO!!!
Others go on their merry ways wandering in the middle of the shared pedestrian and cyclist road because they are on holiday.
It drives me nuts because it’s my daily commute! But I understand them because it’s their holiday. I ride that way every day, but they may only get to see that beauty once in their lives.
I have two choices, and I choose the third one.
- I can be the arrogant local, who yells and gets mad at every tourist or anyone getting into his way.
- I can be the idiot riding at snail’s pace behind pedestrians that never gets home
There is a happy third way.
Ring the bell when still quite far, but within earshot, and watch how they react. If they don’t hear you or don’t want to move, then slow down.
9 times out of 10 this is enough. You will find that many pedestrians even say sorry for being in your way.
There’s no need to shout or get mad. Just a little bell.
8. Objects on road
I was perfectly aware of how careful one needs to be crossing train and tram tracks, but I had no idea that there was a right and a wrong way to cross an extension cord, until recently when I had to put down my feet to keep me from falling.
In hindsight it makes sense.
Any small object that is either loose on the ground or your tires can get stuck into is a hazard.
Since your tires are slim (even fat bikes have slimmer tires than cars), and to stay on your bike you rely on your balance, you need to watch where your tires are going.
Especially your front tire.
Don’t underestimate pebbles, bolts, nuts, cables, tracks… Avoid them if you can. If you need to cross them, do it as close to 90 degrees as possible.
9. Being invisible to cars
Safety rule #1: stay visible!
Safety rule #2: stay visible!
Safety rule #3: stay visible!
This happened recently on a dull day.
I went out for a spin with my wife, kids and a friend of mine.
I stayed behind with my son to fix his helmet. The others went ahead and I saw them from a distance.
My friend had a black bike with no lights on it and wore a high-vis jacket. My wife had her white bike with a blinking rear light and wore a dark jacket.
From about 300 feet I could see my wife’s bike, but not my wife and my friend’s jacket, but not his bike.
I thought to myself that if they swapped bikes, my wife would turn completely invisible.
We’ve all passed by that ‘invisible cyclist’ at night as we were driving home. None of those people set out on their journey with the intention to blend in and not be noticed, but they risked their lives by failing to take some necessary precautions.
As a bike commuter, who’s on the road several times a week and several times a day, visibility is the best way you can stay safe.
What makes you visible?
- Reflective details on your bike (I love my Continental Ride Tour tires and my wife’s Schwalbe Marathon tires because they have good puncture resistance and they come with reflective sidewalls).
- Bright, high-vis jacket (don’t worry if it feels a bit awkward like a Christmas tree initially)
- A set of good lights (after buying several lights, I settled with the Cateye Volt 800, which gives me plenty of running time, different levels of brightness and I can charge it from any USB port).
10. Mystery puddle
The best part about cycling in the rain is getting wet.
The worst part of cycling in the rain are potholes filled with water.
In the rain, every puddle is a potential pothole.
You really need to be certain about what you’re riding into if you choose to go into one.
But my advice is to avoid puddles altogether if you can!
Cycling to work doesn’t come without certain dangers and risks, but knowing what you can expect and how to minimize those risks can help a great deal.
If you have little or no experience you can use these tips to get off to a good start.