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Defensive cycling

Adam Dluzniewski | Published on 4/15/2014

I will discuss here some general philosophy, attitudes and defensive riding techniques that I refer to as defensive cycling, which in principle is similar to defensive driving, and I act on the road according to these myself, well… most of the time :) This is all written based on my experience and it's not based on any official research. I'm sure there are some parts that may be argued or questioned by other cyclists. But I'm happy to say that I have never been in an accident and I've been riding pretty regularly around NYC for over 10 years and I plan to keep it that way.

This is a long article, I will go into lots of details here. You may want to read a few paragraphs, digest them and come back later to read more.

What is defensive cycling anyway?
ANSI/ASSE Z15.1, defines defensive driving as “driving to save lives, time, and money, in spite of the conditions around you and the actions of others.” Just replace “driving” with “cycling” and this is pretty much it. Since a lot what is happening around is a result of other people’s actions you need to sharpen your sense of awareness and observation skills, stay focused, but relaxed, avoid problems before they happen and remain calm.

You’re small, slow and soft
The first thing to always remember is that you are the most vulnerable vehicle on the road. There is no metal cage around you protecting your soft body. Everything else from tractor trailers to scooters presents a lethal danger to you. What will end up as a scratch on a car’s fender may mean broken bones, head trauma, internal injuries to you or even death.

Keeping that in mind, you need to realize that when riding a bicycle in the traffic you need to leave rage, anger, self-righteousness, and macho and bravado behind you and you will often need to swallow your pride and let your ego hurt a little bit so you can get out of a jam safely, physically uninjured. In order to stay unhurt you will often have to let others break the law, get out of their way and live with it. The keyword here is “live”. What’s the big idea if you can prove your point, exercise your right-of-way and prove the driver wrong if you don’t get to live to enjoy that?

Keep it cool at all times
Don’t get mad, don’t confront drivers unless an accident actually has happened, don’t race cars and don’t get into arguments with drivers. Most of them have minimal knowledge of the laws anyway and you will not be able to teach them anything. It always ends up in a yelling match, sometimes even ends up with violence. You can write down the license plates and report an aggressive driver to the Police or to their company, if it’s a commercial vehicle, but avoid confrontations.

An enraged person behind the steering wheel of a vehicle is irrational and they don’t think clearly. Road rage is a real phenomenon being studied by researchers. What makes a normal, intelligent and calm person a mad maniac behind the wheel? They might rev up their engine just to scare you but end up hitting you because in their rage they forgot their car is in gear, even if that wasn’t their intention. Once they calm down and return to reality they may be nice, apologetic and pay all your damages, but your legs are broken, too late.

Get out of the way if reasonably possible.
Although, it’s legal for a cyclist to take a full lane when conditions require so, don’t do that at any cost. Use common sense, use a mirror and watch the traffic behind you. See a bus or a truck? Pull over, even stop, turn your head around towards the traffic and gesture them to pass safely. See traffic build up behind you? Stop aside at the nearest intersection and let them pass. It makes you safer and it makes the drivers think better of you as a considerate cyclist not some jerk on a bike.

Driving a large truck or a bus isn’t easy, the last thing the driver wants to do is to kill somebody. They want to end their shift without any drama and return to their family. Letting them pass you safely makes their life easier and only costs you few moments.

Many bus drivers really dread cyclists because they put themselves in dangerous situations, stressing or even scaring the bus drivers, making them hit their brakes and toss their passengers around the bus, and it’s the bus driver who will have to live with the knowledge that the machine they operated killed or maimed someone. Again, if they hit another vehicle, it’ll be most likely a fender-bender, if they run over a cyclists they can seriously hurt or kill him or her. So be nice to bus and truck drivers, they’re not all bad.

Act as if you were invisible
Don’t assume that just because you have 14 blinking red lights on your rack and bright yellow safety vest everyone sees you. Be always mindful of your surroundings and the environment and how it changes with time, since nothing around you is static, and be always ready to get out of the way and act quickly. It’s called situation awareness. That’s what keeps fighter pilots alive. Constantly scan the traffic around you for as far as you can see. You may be able to spot that erratic car driver or a speeding motorcycle way ahead of the time and act appropriately. Don’t limit yourself only to the area immediately around you. Look further than that.

At the same time be mindful of what’s happening closer to you. With some experience you can predict a lot of stuff that’s about to happen. Learn to look for signals like people looking in their left mirror ready to pull out of a parking spot or open the door, their front wheels turning. Commotion inside the car: people ready to get out. Keep a safe distance and pay attention. Look at the drivers. Are they on a cell phone? Stay away from that car. Make an eye contact, if possible, make them acknowledge your existence. Watch the sidewalks and spaces between cars for pedestrians suddenly stepping into roadway.

Look for clues like shadows, noises, look through cars windows to spot people on the other side. I know this sounds like a lot but it’s not that difficult. Our brains and senses are built for that we just don’t always use them correctly, they become dull and dormant. Sharpen your senses and you’ll be amazed at what you can see. I’m also a big believer in hearing. That’s why I advocate against using headphones while cycling. Hearing what’s happening around you is almost as important as seeing.

There is a whole world around you and you’re a part of it
You also need to think about the consequences of your own movement and your actions beyond what’s immediately in front of you. You may not be directly hit by a car, but you can cause an accident that will involve others but spare you.

It’s very common for cars to run into pedestrians or other cars because they swerved to avoid hitting a cyclist who just popped up in front of them. The cyclists usually rides away leaving people behind who were hurt because of his or her stupidity and recklessness.

Just like driving, riding a bicycle on the street is a privilege, not a right and that privilege comes with responsibilities and implied respect for the law and other road users. You’re not the center of the Universe and your actions have real and lasting consequences in the world around you.

Handle it
When riding in traffic always have both your hands on the handlebar and fingers near the brake levers ready to brake any time. This is not the time to show off your circus skills, this is the time to watch out and be prepared. That message or phone call can also wait.

Obey the laws
This should be obvious. Don’t ride the wrong way. Don’t ride on sidewalks. Stop at red lights. If you really want to ride through that red light, slow down, look twice both ways for traffic and pedestrians, look behind you, and judge the situation before dashing through the intersection.

Do not make illegal turns and illegal lane changes. You need to ride in a predictable way with the flow of the traffic. I know that there is some disagreement as to whether the bicyclists should obey the same laws as the drivers and that not everyone agrees that bikes should behave like cars and there is certainly something in that, but as of now, cyclists are expected to obey the same laws as cars.

However, don’t blindly follow the laws at any cost, use your judgment. Many laws leave some leeway in terms of how to proceed under various circumstances. For example, you are required to ride all the way to the right as close as reasonable and safe, but not always. Get it? As reasonable and safe. If there is no shoulder, or the shoulder is in bad shape or covered with debris, if there are cars parked or people walking on the shoulder and you have no other choice of detour you can ride further into traffic, even take the full lane.

Know your limits
Don’t push too hard, don’t ride to fast. Getting tired leads to confusion, disorientation and slower responses, you’re more likely to make a mistake when you’re tired. Stop, rest, have a drink of water.

Be mindful in extreme weather how the temperature affects your ability to ride and act accordingly. In hot weather, you’re more likely to become dizzy and confused from the heat. In cold weather you may become sleepy and isolated (detached), plus your fingers may be cold and you may not be able to operate your bicycle normally. In rain or snow you have to pay extra attention to the surface in front of you to avoid trouble spots. Riding too fast lowers your reaction time, increases your breaking distance.

What you fear, will hurt you
Being scared and intimidated by the roaring traffic is a recipe for a messy disaster. Take a detour, avoid busy sections or just dismount and walk those few blocks. Remember, you have nothing to prove. Your goal is to get wherever you’re going in one piece.

If riding on the street scares you silly then don’t ride on the streets yet. Fear will make you indecisive, erratic, it’ll cloud your judgement. Start riding on the streets on weekends and do shorter distances to practice riding with traffic. Join 5BBC and do some riding with us so you get used to street riding.

Ride with confidence
Be confident and let it show. Ride like you belong there, you have equal rights and responsibilities on the road like everybody else. Don’t act like a scared mouse, skipping along the curbs. Drivers and pedestrians will take any opportunity to take your space. Showing lack of confidence and acting in a confused, indecisive way is not safe.

To gain such (real) confidence, however, you need to know and follow the laws, be strong, have your senses tuned and be in control of your bike. There are a lot of confident people out there who are actually totally inept and incompetent, which borders on arrogance. Don’t confuse confidence with recklessness either and don’t be overconfident. True confidence is a state of mind when you know that what you’re doing is right, based on your experience, facts and knowledge, not just based on “thinking” and “believing” that you’re right. Don’t be one of those who are “always wrong but never in doubt”. Confidence is gradually built up with experience. Like with everything else in life: question everything, if not sure, do research, request literature from official sources: DOT, NYPD, city agencies, join a reputable bicycle club such as 5BBC, read up and learn the facts. Don’t rely on urban myths, newspapers, and “what people say” – that won’t build up true confidence.

How to ride through intersections
Intersections are where most cycling related accidents happen. This is where most cyclists get hurt and killed. As mentioned above: obey the traffic lights and signs. Also, don’t pass turning cars on the inside of their turn. This is a deadly mistake many cyclist have made. That means if a car is turning right, don’t pass it on the right, even if you’re turning in the same direction. No matter how big or small the vehicle is, let it complete the turn, don’t squeeze in. All it takes is one inattentive pedestrian to step in front of you or the turning car and you’re in trouble. Also, the driver may not see you, plain and simple.

Take your time. If you’re going straight, position yourself behind the turning car, make your actions obvious to the cars behind you. Turn your head back and make an eye contact with the driver directly behind you, if possible. Don’t attempt to pass the car on the other side if it means crossing the lane divider into the next lane, that lane is probably moving faster and you can get hit by a car passing in the next lane. Only pass when the turning car has moved enough to the right that there is clearance to pass it safely while staying in your lane. I would recommend against lane change even if it’s perfectly legal, for the above reason: the next lane can be moving too fast. Another reason is that some idiot may attempt to turn from the second or even third lane and run you over. Look out for those maniacs turning from other lanes as you’re crossing the intersection!

If you are turning in the same direction as the car in front of you, also position yourself behind the turning car, signal your turn with your arm to make your actions clear to the drivers behind you, turn your head back and make an eye contact with driver immediately behind you, if possible, and complete the turn as a car would do, oh and yield to pedestrians, please. Yes, it takes patience and self-discipline but I like my bones in one piece.

Turning left. This is more tricky and more dangerous as you need to position yourself in the leftmost traffic lane. Just like in the previous paragraph, don’t pass turning vehicles and don’t squeeze between. If it’s a quiet, single lane road with little traffic, simply stay in your lane, slow down or stop, signal your turn, wait for the oncoming traffic to pass and turn.

It gets trickier with more lanes and more traffic. You need to use your judgment. If the traffic is relatively calm and slow moving, do a legal lane change and take the lane, slow down or stop, make your intentions obvious to drivers behind you by extending your left arm for a while, wait for the oncoming traffic to clear and turn left. If there is a dedicated left turn lane it makes it easier as you don’t have the cars whizzing by few feet away from you.

If the intersection is a complex, multi-lane intersection with fast traffic my advice is to do it the safe way: stay in the right lane, go straight through the intersection and carefully, watching the traffic behind you, stop, dismount, get on the sidewalk, wait for the light to change, walk your bike through the pedestrian crossing to the other side then get back on the roadway, mindful of the traffic, and continue on your way. Do not ride on the crosswalk!

An alternative is to cross the intersection and position yourself in the right lane of the cross street so you can ride straight through the intersection after the light changes. However, there are a few issues here: legality of such maneuver is questionable, you may annoy the drivers behind you who were waiting to turn right, they may try to speed up and right-hook you while turning. Plus there is the danger of oncoming traffic making their left turn in front of you, they may not see you and run you over.

Dealing with polite drivers
Whaaat?? Seriously. Now and then you may encounter a rare specimen of a polite driver (they do exist in the wild), who will yield to you, even if they had the right of way, and gesture you with a smile to pass. Don’t. Smile back, wave “thank you” and insist that they go first and you wait your turn. Why?! Because the driver behind the nice driver might be a complete jerk in a hurry, he’ll step on it, drive around the other car and right into you when you’re passing. Or some idiot will attempt a blind turn from the second lane and run you over. Or both… Ouch! You’re hurt and imagine the guilt the nice driver will feel?

Passing cars
If you are moving faster than the traffic, which is not unusual in NYC, you may want to get ahead of the cars in front of you. Do it as if you were driving a car: signal a lane change and get to next lane and take the full lane by riding in the middle of it. Do not ride between lanes, between rows of moving cars. This is called lane splitting and it’s dangerous as it leaves you no escape route should one of the cars decide to turn or stop and open the doors.

Don’t worry if your lane change maneuver will slow the lane down a bit, ride as fast as you can and return to the right lane as soon as possible. You may want to look back and wave to the cars behind you to acknowledge them and as a “thank you” gesture after changing the lane, it may calm the drivers down and stop them from honking at you. Then get out of their way as soon as you can and wave them again as you leave their lane. A little gesture that goes a long way showing the drivers that you were concerned about them too.

Eye contact
I mentioned eye contact a few times above. Drivers see what they want or expect to see. They often don’t see a cyclist in the traffic because their brain is focused on larger objects: the cars. If you manage to make an eye contact with a driver that makes them acknowledge you, now they know you’re there. Unless, the driver is a complete idiot or jerk, your chances of being hit by that driver are now much, much lower.

Remember, that most people are good and decent people, they’re just inattentive, distracted, confused or tired. People can be idiots regardless of their mode of transportation: there are idiot drivers, idiot cyclists and idiot pedestrians. Just because you’re on a bike and the other person is in a car it doesn’t make them instantly your enemy.

Very few people will run a cyclist over intentionally, so visual communication (eye contact to get them to acknowledge) helps immensely. A simple “hello” or “thank you” gesture or even a smile goes a long way too. A driver is more likely to respect a cyclist who shows them respect as well, and behaves predictably and not like an idiot on a bike.

Going over obstacles
It’s always the best idea to ride around any obstacles, but sometimes you just can’t. Also remember that a bike with fatter tires can handle obstacles much better than one with thin tires.

Any stationary long obstacles such as curbs, rails, hoses, tubes, ropes, cables, long cracks in the pavement, bridge plates, road plates, etc. have to be approached at a straight angle, head on and slowly. If the obstacle is more than an inch high or deep lift your front wheel slightly, by pulling your handlebars upright, right before rolling over it. Stay in a straight lane until you have completely cleared the obstacle with both your wheels. Crossing such an obstacle at angle can cause your front wheel to skid which in majority of cases ends in a crash. Even the most skilled cyclists won’t recover from front wheel skid and it happens in a blink of an eye, before you know what happened you’re lying on the pavement. Unless you have some mad mountain biking skills do not stand up on pedals while going over obstacles, for two reasons: one, when you're standing up you're rising your center of gravity and become top-heavy and two, if you lose balance it will be harder for you to put your feet down.

Take your bike to an empty parking lot and practice riding over curbs and cracks: approach slowly, lift the wheel, roll over. It’s not that hard.

Long obstacles that may not remain stationary as you roll over them, such as a short piece of tube, a piece of wood, chunk of rope may roll or slide as your front wheel applies pressure to it which may also result in front wheel skidding. These kinds of obstacles need to be tackled at a very slow speed and lifting of the front wheel is essential. Once your front wheel passed the obstacle then your real wheel will clear it as well. The front wheel is the tricky one.

Holes and cracks that are deep enough to swallow your wheels must be simply avoided. A hole or crack deep enough will prevent the front wheel from clearing it, bring your bike to a sudden stop, and throw you over the handlebars, which is generally not considered fun unless done in a movie. Stop and walk if you have no other choice. Also, walk over obstacles that are too high to comfortably ride over them: if you’re not sure you can do it, then you probably can’t, so walk your bike. Keep in mind that even though the fall itself may be harmless, falling in front of incoming cars may not be harmless at all.

Road plates. These require a special mention since they’re very slippery when wet, condensation may form on them even if the road around is dry, they can move and shift as you ride over them and there may be gaps around them and rounded bolt heads sticking out. It’s best to avoid them altogether or ride very slowly in a straight line without any sudden moves, like on ice. They’re very dangerous in wet weather. If they are at significant angle, or you can tell they move then avoid, do your best to go around them.

Manholes also deserve a special mention too. If they’re flush with the pavement they don’t present much danger to cyclists in dry weather and only a moderate danger in wet weather, since they’re relatively small. Although, if you can it’s better to avoid them as a rule of a thumb. They are more dangerous if they’re partially opened, crooked, cracked or protrude above the surface. Round manholes are more dangerous since you can’t approach them at a straight angle, you always roll over their edge at an angle which presents a problem if they protrude. Rectangular manholes can be dealt with like the road plates. Any manhole that is protruding above the surface or is sunk below the surface, or is cracked, crooked or partially or completely opened should be avoided.

Puddles. Be careful. Ride around them, they can hide deep cracks and holes that you can't see. Enough said.

Shiny road surface? Oops, a spill? Gasoline or oil? Ride around it, period. Walk if you have no other choice.

Grates and storm drains. Many states have replaced them with bicycle safe versions without slots or with holes short enough so as not to swallow a bike wheel, but they still better to be avoided altogether. If not for the holes, there may be cracks or gaps around them and the metal can be slippery.

Bridges with metal surfaces

Bicycles are usually not allowed on bridges unless there is a bike path. You’re supposed to dismount and walk your bike across using the sidewalk. If your really have to ride across a bridge or a draw bridge be extremely careful.

First, they may have long gaps or grooves running along, in the direction of your movement. If your wheels get caught in those, you’ll be like a train on the tracks, you will loose any ability to steer and most likely lose balance and fall. They are slippery as well, just like storm drains and road plates, in particular when wet. Plus, they’re grated to there is even less contact and traction between your tire and the surface of the bridge. Those metal bridges ice way before anything else too. The temperature may be around 35F, all the roads may be perfectly dry but there will be ice on the bridge! Finally, watch out for bolts, connector plates, anything protruding. In wet weather riding across a metal bridge is crazy. Riding over a metal bridge in snow is suicidal.

I hope you were able to read the whole thing without falling asleep and found some of it useful.  Thank you for reading!