Photo by Paul Udstand
The long dark evil vortex winter is finally loosening its grip on the poor people of Minnesota. That means the bikes are coming out of storage and the roads and trails are becoming congested with a dizzying array of riders, skaters, walkers, and runners. Even though the Twin Cities is the 1st or 2nd biking community in the nation year-round, we still see a big surge in bike traffic on our streets and trails this time of year. It’s a good time to review some rules and suggestions regarding bike safety and etiquette.
My perspective may be a little different from yours because I’m not a bikers-biker in a lot of ways, I own but do not wear a helmet, and my only concession to bike “fashion” is high a few high visibility t-shirts and jackets. I ride one 30 year old Gitane and a basic Schwinn Hybrid. My biking attitude is best aligned with Grant Petersen’s “Just Ride” philosophy. You can read my book review of Peterson’s book here and another long muse about bike safety in America here.
I’ll divide my observations into three sections. First I’ll talk about the actual laws governing bicycles in MN. Then I’ll discuss some basic conditions that make cycling less safe than it could be, and finally I’ll make personal safety recommendations. Some of my suggestions may be more controversial than others and as always I welcome comments and suggestions.
All bike safety discussions should begin by pointing out that riding a bicycle is an incredibly safe activity. It’s one of the safest activities in the world and its fun, healthy, and environmentally friendly. I’ve been riding a bike on city streets and more recently trails for over 45 years and I’ve never been seriously injured.
Let’s get started with the basic laws. You can read the actual statutes pertaining to bicycle riders here. I won’t go into great detail but in nutshell of sorts:
· Bikes are vehicles and bike riders are “drivers” under MN law. This means you are NOT a pedestrian. It also means you’re entitled to use drive-through windows by the way.
· Unless you are in an actual bike lane or making a left hand turn you are required to ride as far to the right as is practicable. Of course you can dodge debris and ride around parked cars.
· You’re supposed ride single file. In practical terms we all ride side by side on occasion but you need file up when other riders are passing you either from behind or head on. Basically no one should have to maneuver around you beyond a simple passing maneuver.
· You are supposed to issue an audible warning when passing slower traffic. Now I think we need to use some judgment here, to some extent shouting at everyone can be disturbing, but if someone is wandering around on the trail in front of you or clearly oblivious warn them. Children and pedestrians almost get a warning because they are unpredictable. And of course audible warnings should be issued to anyone who might wander in front of you under any circumstances.
· You’re supposed to signal your turns. Basically you don’t want your maneuver to take anyone by surprise.
· You’re supposed to ride in the same direction as traffic and obey traffic laws.
· You are NOT required in Minnesota to walk a bike through an intersection even in a crosswalk. Obviously if riding amongst pedestrians, don’t run over them, best to ride next to the crosswalk and give pedestrians a safe distance. I’ve always ridden through intersections because as a general rule they are the most dangerous places for bikers and pedestrians… the less time spent in the middle of intersection the better if you ask me.
· Stop lights and intersections in the US are simply not designed for bicycle traffic, but as a general rule you follow the traffic lights, not the pedestrian signals.
· You can ride on some sidewalks. Basically bikes are prohibited from sidewalks in business districts or other places where they high pedestrian traffic.
· There is one big exception for bicycle riders at stop lights, and this may surprise you. You can legally proceed through a red light if you come to a complete stop, and it’s safe to do so. It’s called an “Affirmative Defense” and it arises from the unique characteristics of a bicycle. For one thing, since you’re NOT a pedestrian you can’t be required to push a “walk” button on a stop light. And secondly, you and your bike won’t trigger the light change mechanisms for stop lights so you could end sitting there for a very long time if there’s little or no car traffic. You can read the entire statue here.
So that pretty much covers the laws, there’s nothing very controversial about these recommendations. I encourage you to check out the statutes for yourself. However safe bike riding isn’t just about following the laws, there are a number of factors that can diminish safety, here are a few of my observations:
1) Poorly designed traffic control. Our roads are exclusively designed for automobile traffic and there’s just no getting around that fact. We’re starting to improve with painted dedicated bike lanes but we’re decades behind countries with better safety records. This is improving but it’s a contentious and expensive process. Recently a Dutch cyclist has made a number of very insightful observations about biking in the US. You can look at that here. I recommend watching the video as well.
2) Unfamiliarity. We’ve seen a huge surge in bike riding in the last two decades and we’re just not used this mix of bikes, pedestrians, and automobiles on our streets and trails. Pedestrians in many ways are the biggest hazard to American riders. This will improve with time
3) Biker profile. We have a lot of riders who are very “proficient” when it comes to biking skills, but lack the experience that builds expertise. Proficiency is acquired much fast than expertise. By comparison the insurance industry estimates that it actually take up to five years for a person to really learn how to drive a car. I think cycling is very similar especially if you don’t ride frequently. Most American riders are NOT lifetime riders. Most of today’s cyclists had bikes for toys as children but didn’t actually start riding till later in life. Compare that to European riders who start riding as children and ride more or less without interruption for their entire lives.
4) Vehicular riding. Too many Americans riding their bikes in traffic as if they’re driving cars or racing.
The whole vehicular riding craze was started by John Forester back in the 1970’s. It’s kind of unique American mentality. The idea is that bikers are safer when they ride amongst traffic and “drive” their bikes as if they’re cars. This method of riding was based on a flawed data that appeared to indicate that cyclists on dedicated bike paths got injured at higher rates than those who rode with traffic. Unfortunately although the data itself was junk and has yet to be replicated by other research, the idea took hold in a big way. This is why you see “aggressive” riders in traffic, encroaching on car lanes or even swerving out into traffic on occasion in efforts “defend” their lanes and make drivers slow down or at least be aware of their presence. There’s certain logic to this riding style, but it’s divorced from the reality of traffic. For one thing it always assumes that the driver that hits you is the one who’s watching you ride your bike, not so. Secondly it just ignores physics, any collision between a 40LB bike with a 160LB rider and a 1+ ton vehicle is going end badly for the biker, with or without a helmet. Vehicular bike riding just closes the distance between a biker and an increasingly distracted population of car and truck drivers, thus decreasing the margin of safety.
Vehicular riding is losing its popularity and more and more cyclists are abandoning the mentality while fewer enthusiasts are recommending it.
5) Bike models. Too many Americans are riding road or touring bikes with swept down handles.
Road bikes were designed almost 100 years ago for racing. Originally they weren’t even equipped with brakes. They are not designed for traffic situations where a rider needs to maintain a 360 degree field of awareness. The very design of a road bike actually encourages a rider to keep their head down and fly. In many cases people riding these bikes can cruise at very high speeds that are completely unsafe for the conditions their riding on and the bike design itself actually encourages this. This way we end up with proficient riders cruising at unsafe speeds because they lack the expertise to ride at an appropriate speed for the given conditions. The popularity of road bikes is peculiar to the United States. I think it grows out of the fact that for years, between the mid-1980s and late 1990s the majority of people riding bikes in the US were cyclist rather than commuters or recreational riders. Touring or road bikes appealed to cyclists for a variety of reasons during this era. A change in consumer choices towards more comfortable and appropriate bike designs will eventually put fewer racing bikes on the roads and trails.
Now that we’ve discussed the law, and some of the factors contributing to safety problems, let’s look at a few of my personal safety suggestions.
1) Use the bike trails and lanes when available. Don’t ride on the parkway streets unless you need to commute and the bike trail is running the wrong way. Those roads are narrow, curvy, and congested with distracted drivers, you’re never more than one distracted driver away from having a really bad day if you ride on those streets. I realize many of the bike trails are one way affairs so if you need to go the opposite direction around one of the lakes for instance, you’re better off riding on the street than the wrong way on the bike path, keep your time on the parkway as short as possible and consider alternate routes.
2) Try to avoid heavy traffic streets. In most places our streets are laid out on a grid and you can find a parallel street with far less traffic to ride down. Plan a route that avoids tricky traffic conditions as much as possible. Bikes aren’t the fastest mode of transport so it’s better to take a slightly longer ride than ride in more dangerous conditions.
3) If you have to ride in traffic, don’t ride “assertively” by encroaching on traffic, remember you’re supposed ride as far to the right as practicable, and stay in the bike lane. You don’t want to be fearful but don’t try to modify traffic behavior with riding techniques, all that does is put you in danger.
4) There are situations where a sidewalk might be safer than the street, and legal. I’m thinking for instance along University Ave. over by 280 and KSTP TV. It’s a nasty stretch of road and there’s almost never anyone walking on the sidewalk there. The thing about sidewalks is you have to watch for driveways and pedestrians.
5) Slow down. Ride at an appropriate speed. Outside of races and tracks I’d keep it to around 15MPH on average, of course you can easily exceed that at times, 18 – 20MPH can be safe in certain conditions for a period of time. I reach 25MPH just coasting down the river road under the Washington Ave. bridge.
6) Approach all intersections with caution and take advantage of the fact that you have a better field of view and are not inside a vehicle. You can see AND hear potential hazards. Always be prepared to brake at an intersection.
7) Watch for pedestrians, they are by and large clueless. If I had a dollar for every pedestrian who sauntered in front of me I’d be a millionaire.
8) Make others aware of you, light up at night, and bright up during the day. And give those audible warnings.
9) Learn to anticipate hazards, you can read body language of pedestrians and other riders and even drivers. Don’t put yourself in front of a car than can hit you unless you know that cars going to stop, don’t assume it’s going to stop.
10) Be prepared to stop and slow down. Especially if you riding a road bike. One other problem with road bikes is the position of the brakes. Many bikers ride with their hands out of position for braking. You need to have your hands on the hoods unless you have the old style combination brakes (see photo). If your hands are out of position you may not be able to reach your brakes in an emergency. I suspect a lot of road bikers have collisions because they didn’t or couldn’t brake in time.
11) I’ve already mentioned, our controlled intersections are a disaster for bikes, especially if you want to make a left hand turn. You have use your judgment, sometimes a modified pedestrian cross from one side and then to the other is the best way to go. If you decide to use the left hand turn lane, don’t put yourself in between or in front of cars and trucks, get off to the side. Remember a very high percentage of auto collisions happen in intersections for a variety of reasons ranging from inattention to feet slipping off of brake pedals. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time you’re gonna get smushed. A fender bender for a car is potentially fatal for someone on a bicycle.
12) I believe in rear view mirrors on bikes, especially if you’re riding on city bike trails. I know they’re kinda dorky but they make it a lot easier to check your six o-clock, and you should always glance behind you before making left hand turns, passing someone, or slowing down because of traffic or responding to a potential hazard. Bikes are quiet, and they’re fast enough to pop up behind you unexpectedly.
13) Don’t assume other bikers aren’t going to do anything stupid. Again, many cyclists are proficient riders but lack expertise; just because they’re riding 25mph with $2000 worth of equipment doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing. Riders acquire proficiency must faster than they acquire expertise. Safe riding isn’t just about reflexes and balance, experience and anticipation are critical and can take years to acquire depending on how often your ride.
14) Tunes on a bike. You can listen to music but don’t wear noise cancelling ear-buds and keep the volume down so you can hear audible warnings and traffic. It’s not uncommon to hear a hazard before you see it.
15) Keep your bike tuned up. Unlike cars bikes are pretty cheap and easy to maintain. A malfunctioning bike can distract you at just the wrong time and otherwise cause accidents.
16) Finally, no one should be riding anywhere but a time trial on a track with those triathlon handle bars (pictured below) or “aerobars”. I see people riding with them on the Greenway and Cedar Lake trail and I know what they’re thinking, it’s flat, it’s pretty straight, and you have good visibility. Problem is I’ve seen everything from stray dogs to homeless people stumble out of the woods and tall grass along those trails. With those handlebars you can’t maneuver. And look how far out of position the hands are in relation to the brakes. Those handlebars have actually been banned in for road racing because they’re too dangerous, they don’t belong on any trails or roads in a city. At the very least you might kill or injure something accidentally and it’s bad Karma to kill or injure something with your bike.
Dave Zabriskie Wiki Commons
Before we go I’ll just say a quick word about helmets. I personally don’t believe helmets are an essential piece of safely equipment unless you’re riding off road or racing. I actually think lights and high visibility are more important. The actual data on helmets and injuries is surprisingly inconclusive. You can read a more thorough discussion of the issue here. I simply think it’s more important and ultimately safer to focus on riding safely and building expertise, avoid accidents rather than to equip for them. However I don’t discourage people from wearing helmets, if you feel more comfortable with a helmet by all means wear one. And you can always wear them some times and not others. If you do wear a helmet, (or put one on your kids head) make sure it’s tight and in position on top of the head. One thing we do know about helmets is that they are useless or maybe even worse if they’re flopping around or out of position when you hit your head on something.
So that’s my advice. Ride safe, ride polite, and have fun. You’re riding through a beautiful world so don’t just speed by it without looking. Don’t be afraid to talk to people once and while and its good Karma to help a person out every now and then. Sometimes those folks on the green Nice Ride bikes need directions or recommendations.