Wheel you help me?
September 19, 2008 1:04 PM   Subscribe

I just bought a bicycle. The drivers in this city are terrifying. What do I need to know to stay safe?

I haven't been on a bike in 10+ years and I've never ridden on busy roads before. I bought this used bike on the cheap to go to and from school in the mornings (it takes about 10 minutes to drive to campus), but I'm really anxious about riding it. I don't like to DRIVE in this town because the drivers are unbelievably bad (my partner was hit on foot once and other friends have been hit - multiple times! - on their bikes; I can't even count how many times I've seen accidents or almost-accidents right in front of me) and I'm afraid the combination of my very shaky bike skills, plus nerves, plus awful drivers will be very dangerous for me.

So, what should I know about bike safety? The most basic advice is useful because I really know NOTHING about bikes: how to buy a proper helmet, do I need those pant-leg band things, do I need a bell or a light (I will likely not be biking at night or in the rain), etc. How do I become a respectful cyclist and how do I stop be so anxious about crazy drivers?

I'm in Ontario, if that matters for bike laws and such.
posted by pised to Travel & Transportation (34 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The most important things are visibility and awareness of your environment. That means wear things with reflective coatings, get really really bright back lights, and don't ride with headphones or earbuds.

Make sure your glasses or riding goggles don't obscure your peripheral vision.

I don't think it much matters how fast you go (keeping up with speed of traffic, etc...), but making sure you know what is coming up behind you is key.
posted by tmt at 1:13 PM on September 19, 2008

Bicycle safety
posted by TDIpod at 1:16 PM on September 19, 2008

Use Google Maps, including street view to find a better route. I know all the "bikes have a right to the road" stuff, but I simply don't trust my safety to anyone else. I'm fortunate in that I can ride 4 miles to work with minimal time on a busy street. I take residential streets that are parallel to the main arteries, and have a wonderful, relaxing, ride.

So, step one: think like a cyclist, not a driver. Better to go out of your way a little and enjoy it, than to turn it into something you don't like.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 1:18 PM on September 19, 2008

Best answer: Helmets -- you should have a good helmet. The folks at your local bike shop should be able to help you find one that fits.

Those pant-leg band things -- these keep your pants from getting into your chain. If you cycling during the day, this is usually more of a "save-your-pants" issue than it is a safety issue. You can also just roll up your pants when biking, or tuck them into your socks. If you're cycling at night, the leg bands, which are made of reflective material, makes you easier to spot. Additionally, if you're biking at night, you should also acquire front and rear lights. There are a variety of LED models that aren't terribly expensive, have excellent battery life, and make you much easier to see at night. Note that most states have laws requiring bicycle lights if you're out at night.

Seconding the "don't ride with headphones" recommendation, because that's really important. You need to be able to hear things behind you.

Ride with confidence. Don't get yourself stuck up against the curb because you're too nervous of the traffic. If you need to maneuver around an obstacle or avoid a crazy driver and you're too close you won't have room to maneuver and you risk a crash.
posted by larsks at 1:18 PM on September 19, 2008

Ride a bit in low-traffic situations (quiet roads, non-rush hours) to build your skills and confidence. You'll want to lose the shakiness enough to be able to turn your head to see your surroundings without veering into traffic. As for laws: don't ride on the sidewalk or in pedestrian crosswalks, don't ride against traffic, and follow all signs & signals.
posted by rocket88 at 1:20 PM on September 19, 2008

Best answer: The most basic advice I can give you about bike safety is this: RIDE PREDICTABLY. What does this mean? For one, if you're riding on the street, don't weave in and out of the parallel-parking lane if there are only cars every couple hundred feet - maintain a constant line.

Learn your hand signals - left arm pointed straight out away from your body for a left turn, left arm bent at the elbow, hand pointed up for a right turn, and left arm bent at the elbow, hand pointed down for a stop.

Never ride in the city with headphones on - you won't be able to hear cars coming from behind you. Always look a couple cars ahead of where you are. You don't NEED a bell, but if you don't have a bell, learn to say ON YOUR LEFT loudly as you approach a cyclist/pedestrian you're about to pass. If you're not comfortable yelling, get a bell. I ride with a flashing rear light all the time, day or night.

Since you haven't ridden in a while, the first time you do your ride to campus, do it on a weekend - there'll be less traffic. On this first ride, take your time and look around - what are the tricky/dangerous intersections, are there pedestrian crossings to look for, where are major driveways, etc. That way, when you do the ride on a weekday in traffic, you'll have an idea of where the "hot spots" are.

Any bike shop can help you buy a proper helmet; basically, you want a tight enough fit that the helmet doesn't move when you nod vigorously, but most helmets these days have adjustable fits that will accomplish this pretty well. Your bike shop is your friend.

Pant-leg-band things are handy, but you can also just roll up your chainside pant leg - you really don't want your pants to get caught in the chain, that won't end well for you or your pants.
posted by pdb at 1:20 PM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Cycling in traffic is a lot more dangerous than driving so perhaps you shouldn't do this given your inexperience etc. But if you do , see if there's route with bike paths or quiet streets. For extra safety dismount & cross streets with pedestrians.
posted by canoehead at 1:22 PM on September 19, 2008

Dont hit them.

Seriously though.. just like in a car.. watch for queues..

If a car passes you, and slows down.. its probably going to cut you off and turn in front of you. They forget they passed you -- seriously. If a car passes you, and theres a left hand turn ahead, ASSUME THEY WILL TURN.

Heads in parked cars = DOOR DANGER

The faster you ride, the closer to the middle of the road you go.

Assume you have no right-of-way. Assume cars will pull out in front of you whenever they get a chance.
posted by SirStan at 1:25 PM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Get a front light too. More car-bicycle collisions happen from a car turning left into an oncoming cyclist than a car hitting a cyclist from behind.

Don't ride the wrong way on a one way street and don't ride on the sidewalk. These are two places where drivers don't expect to see you--another major cause of accidents.

I'm on my way out the door so I'm going to recycle my answer from an earlier thread.

That said, if you think it's unsafe to ride in your local traffic, then don't ride. I'm a staunch supporter of bike commuting and urban riding, but I've been to places where I wouldn't want to try it.
posted by hydrophonic at 1:26 PM on September 19, 2008

You definitely want a bell. I mainly use it to alert other cyclists/pedestrians that I'm passing. You need gators (pant-leg band things) if you've got reasonably flared pants - ride in a parking lot, see if the bottom of your pant leg is close to the gears - if yes, get gators.

You will be a respectful cyclist by being predictable. Concentrate on going in a straight line (little to no wavering), by signaling early and for a while, and by making eye contact with drivers at lights, if there's weirdness. I generally prefer to be as far right/left as possible, instead of in the middle of the lane since I'm reasonably slow. If you're doing that, then at a left turn you might be in a confrontation with the first driver in the lane. Turn your head, look right at them, and try to give some sort of cue as to if you'll be hurrying out or letting them go first and coming into the lane behind them.

Watch out for cars turning right. Biggest worry is right there. Don't blow stop signs unless you'd feel comfortable doing so in a car, and even then I dunno.

Helmet - don't worry about it, just go to a bike shop and grab one. They're all safety-checked - just get one that's comfortable. Also, since you bought a used bike on the cheap, bring it into the bike shop for a quick tuneup - check the brakes, the chain, the tires. You really don't want your chain to be slipping, it'll make you a lot wilder on the bike. And the less said about brakes failing, the better.
posted by Lemurrhea at 1:27 PM on September 19, 2008

Washingon Area Bicyclist Assocation Safe Biking Guide (.pdf)

If you're in the DC area, they offer classes too.
posted by meta_eli at 1:29 PM on September 19, 2008

Nthing the suggestions to be predictable. Act like another vehicle. For example, when you approach a stop sign or red light, move into the center of the lane to claim your spot. Then wait your turn at the red light or stop sign. Don't squeeze through the line of waiting cars, roll through red lights, hop onto the sidewalk and then suddenly onto the road, etc.--act as if you're driving a car, and you'll be in the spots that drivers expect to see other vehicles, which makes you more visible.

The only time I got hit was when I was (as mandated by local law!) riding on the sidewalk.

Also, you can't overdo the reflective tape. Put it on your helmet, back bumper or rack, sides (like on the beam that goes from the handlebars to the seat), and in between the spokes on the inside rim of your wheels (obviously, not where it would interfere with the brake pads). I've read it's most effective if you do that to only half the wheel so you get a flashing effect.

I always bring a light set even if I don't think I'll need it. Storms can appear without warning, and I like the freedom of being able to change plans and stay out late. You'll want a light in front and in the rear. You'll also want a helmet; I got a cheap ANSI approved one at Kmart.

And "act like a vehicle" applies only to your behavior, not your route. Riding a bike is almost subversive, because you learn about all the quiet streets and alleys and paths that you never noticed in a car. Your route through your city becomes much more creative and scenic. In other words, don't ride the route you drive. Find a quieter way.
posted by PatoPata at 1:31 PM on September 19, 2008

Heads in parked cars = DOOR DANGER

Cannot stress this one enough. Also, one thing I forgot - you could be riding in blaze-orange pants and a flashing neon shirt, and drivers will not see you. Assume as you're riding that nobody sees what you're doing, and ride accordingly - this does not mean be stealthy. Just the opposite, in fact - telegraph your moves as much as possible. No sudden turns, no sudden stops.
posted by pdb at 1:32 PM on September 19, 2008

Oo, one more thing: I love my geeky rear-view mirror. I got the kind that clips on your glasses. This means I always know what's coming up from behind me without having to turn my head and possibly lose my balance. It's still good to do a real check over your shoulder (like when you drive) but the mirror is great for keeping tabs on what's coming.
posted by PatoPata at 1:34 PM on September 19, 2008

It may be tricky to find, but try to track down Robert Hurst's "The Art of Urban Cycling".
Everything from the history of cycling to discussing different strategies of cycling in traffic. Well worth a read, even for non-cyclists.

It's not at Amazon.ca or Indigo.ca, but may be available at your library. (I do see it in the Toronto system, YMMV)
posted by Chuckles McLaughy du Haha, the depressed clown at 1:34 PM on September 19, 2008

When biking next to parked cars, look through the car's windshield to see if there is someone in the driver's seat or in the back seat. Check out the angle of the front wheel to see if it's turned or turning into your lane. Its also good to just look down the line of parked cars to see if a pedestrian is crossing between them.

Get a bell and a light. It's getting dark earlier, and you might get caught out in the dark accidentally. In New York, it's part of the rules for having a bicycle, look up Ontario's department of transportation to see if they have something similar. Big cities usually have a handbook of bicycle rules.

When stopped at an intersection, make eye contact with the driver next to you. Make sure they see you and that they are aware that you see them.
posted by hooray at 1:38 PM on September 19, 2008

When wearing a helmet make sure you are doing it right. Protect that lovely frontal lobe of yours.
posted by collocation at 1:41 PM on September 19, 2008

Don't bike aggressively, but do bike like a defensive driver.

What I mean is, follow all traffic laws. Don't be a jackass. But do assert your right to the road, which some people will think seems aggressive, but is really just smart and for your own safety. If there's no considerable extra space on the side of the road, take up a whole lane, if it makes you safer. People will honk. Whatever. If they were on bikes, there would be plenty of space to go around. When turning, merging, etc, go and hope that they will allow your right of way, and go, but don't expect that they will, and be ready to stop.

In turn, obey the law. Don't run red lights. Even if you're really sure it's safe. You wouldn't if you were in a car. Stop at stop signs. Etc.

Also, don't mess with buses.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 1:46 PM on September 19, 2008

Good advice so far. When I'm riding (for recreation) I always assume that the drivers are out to get me (here in Arizona, that isn't much of a stretch).

Learn the arm signals to tell other drivers if your going to turn or stop. I've had drivers give me signs of acknowledgement when using the arm signals. They're a little goofy, but they work.

When I'm approaching a driveway with a car waiting to turn into traffic, if I can't see the driver's face or eyes, then I know that there's a big chance for danger. Slow down and keep watching. If the driver is blocking the sidewalk or is poking too far forward into your path, see if you can't go around behind them.

Another thing I have to be wary of is drivers encroaching into the crosswalk area at intersections. Drivers in my area just love to creep into intersections to make a right-on-red turn. Sometimes they are still traveling at full speed when they're approaching the intersection and slam on the brakes at the last minute as I am approaching the intersection. That scares the hell out of me.

Also, anytime I'm approaching an intersection or a driveway of a large strip-center I glance over my shoulder to see if someone is approaching from behind. I get a lot of drivers who will race around in front of me to turn into the driveway because they're too impatient to wait 5 seconds for me to clear the driveway (same goes for intersections, especially when waiting at a red light).

One last thing: definitely do everything you can to be as visible as you can. Flashing lights, brightly-colored clothes, or one of those flags-on-a-stick things that attach to the back of your bike. I've also seen some riders wearing on of those neon-colored hunting vests over their work clothes (the same kind that construction workers wear). If you've ever noticed how hard it is to see someone on a motorcycle, then you'll know what I'm talking about.
posted by phrayzee at 1:53 PM on September 19, 2008

Best answer: Just random off the top of my head thingies:

- when pulling up to an intersection: if there's a car there making a right hand turn, you should SAFELY pass this car on the driver's side. That is: do not go through the intersection on the curb side.

- when you are riding your bike and there are cars parked on your right. scan the following for people/movement/action: under the cars (yes, you can actually see right under and to the head of the car where feet may be), seams where doors close, top of head rests, front wheels.

- when trying to determine if a car is turning do NOT rely on their turn signals. Watch their front wheels to see if they are straight or not. This is the only true indication of a car's movement.

- wear bright shit at all times. I am frankly stunned at the number of people I see riding dark bikes wearing dark clothes. These people are the idiots of idiots. I have three lights on my bike (they're about $5 each)--two on the back and one of the front. I also wear a helmet in a bright or reflective color (white, neon orange or green, etc.). Do not buy a black or dark blue helmet. If possible, mount a light on your helmet as well.

- learn your hand signals and use them.

- practice, in a safe environment, the action of getting on and off a curb under extreme circumstance (pedals in odd position, different speeds, etc.) so that when the need arises, you're able to do it without going ass over elbow.

- unless the need arises (meaning you're going to get hit by a car or are yourself going to hit a car or a person/animal), stay off the fucking sidewalk. If you must get on the sidewalk, do so and then, assuming it's safe, immediately stop. That is: use it as a refuge; avoid driving on it.

- learn how to take a lane so that, when necessary, you are forcing cars behind you to go around you and treat you like a proper vehicle. others will disagree. however, like the sidewalk, the middle of the lane can be your friend. however, do not venture there if you're not CERTAIN there is lots of room between you and the vehicle behind you. The reason you'll occasionally want to do this is: cars opening their doors, bad road work, items on the road (construction, etc.), passengers standing between cars looking to cross (they are horrible judges of speed).

- learn how to slow down. i rarely stop my bike. when you're stopped, you're a danger. By this I mean that I think most (non-getting-hit-by-a-car) accidents happen when you're starting from a stopped position. it's when you're least stable on your bike. when approaching an intersection that may turn red, slow down way ahead of time (make sure there are not vehicles (including other cyclists) on your tail) so that you can essentially go slowly towards the intersection and, if you time it right, hit it as it turns green and then you can just continue through. if you use the same routes all the time, you can learn how long lights last. I can go to and from work (about 25km) without stopping AT ALL. With the exception of the start of my ride and the end, my bike is always in motion.

- make eye contact with drivers. when approaching 4-way intersections, for instance, with cars stopped at all points, make sure that each of them sees you seeing them. pay attention to their wheels, know who has right of way and who's going in which direction. time your approach to the stop line so that you have an OBVIOUS right of way--this will allow you to slow to an almost stop but still keep going once you've carved out your right of way. (others will say you shouldn't do this--I completely disagree. in the scenario mentioned, your stopping your bike (full stop so that you have to put a foot down) will, imo, only confuse the hell out of everyone else--meaning it'll throw off the right of way situation and the drivers will try and take it from you and then you'll end of in the middle of the intersection with a car on your ass or at your side).

- DO NOT steal the right of way. if I'm approaching a 4-way intersection, I scan all areas. if there is no traffic, i cover my brake (meaning I put my hand on it) and I ride through. the most dangerous thing in this scenario are assholes on bikes without lights or bright clothing at night. if there are cars coming, i determine whether I will have right of way by a fair distance or whether it will be close. if it's close, i slow down and give the car right of way, meaning i let them arrive at the stop before i do--far enough ahead so they can stop and go through the intersection before i reach the line, at which point i carry on through.

- accept that you look like an idiot and wear a fucking helmet.

- learn your bike inside and out. know how fast it can stop and at what speeds and in what weather (rain effects stop speed). know the difference between stopping with the front brake, the back brake, and both brakes. master stopping with one brake so that you feel confident riding with one hand. know how tight a turn you can take both left and right. know how wide your bike is and what you can drive between. (tip: you'll be a better judge of this standing up on the bike than sitting down). know everything you can about how your bike handles--learn this shit on dead end streets or alleys or wherever it's safe.

-- if your bike has gears, learn which are best in which scenarios so you're not one of those yahoos who's weaving to and fro as they go up a hill. my personal recommendation is to ditch the gears altogether but most find that a bit extreme.

- do not ride no hands. ever.

- On preview, I'll disagree with stopping when the coast is clear. Last I heard California was attempting to change the laws so that cyclists could treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs. this is not the law where you are so don't behave that way when other drivers are around--but if you're confident you're the only one on the road then i think it's a good rule of thumb. if i were to stop at every stop sign or light in the dead of night, i wouldn't enjoy riding my bike and it would take me forever to get around, which defeats the purpose of riding the bike.
posted by Manhasset at 1:56 PM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

And here's the Toronto Cycling Map page. Some of the rules of the road I and others have mentioned are diagramed on the sides of the map pages.
posted by Manhasset at 2:05 PM on September 19, 2008

Yep, "The Art of Urban Cycling" by Hurst is awesome. HIGHLY recommended. If you're not in Toronto, see if your local library has free Inter-Library Loan so you can get one of our copies if they don't have a copy.

I've been a timid driver (barely passed my driving test and "accidentally" let my license expire several years because I hated driving in the city so much) and when I started cycling as an adult about 10 years ago, I stuck to paths and parks as much as possible because traffic made me so nervous. But I've been riding a lot in Toronto since April of this year and am now a pretty confident cyclist.

Here's what I recommend:

1) Be comfortable on your bike. Do you have the appropriate lights and mirrors on it that have been recommended above? Take your bike to a local shop and confirm that it fits you well. This may mean adjusting the saddle and handlebar placement. One thing that kept me off my bike for 10 years was taking someone's advice to switch to clipless pedals. I never felt really secure about the quick release, so when I started riding again this year, I got big, comfy, basic metal platform pedals.

2) Know the traffic laws. Know how to obey them. Know when to break them IF and WHEN this is safe and appropriate (and knowing that you may get fined anyway). The Hurst book outlines some of these scenarios. Know how to position yourself safely on the road. See this Toronto guide for excellent illustrations of common positioning scenarios. Also, How Not to Get Hit by Cars. In general: be predictable, be respectful, keep your cool, keep 3-4 feet away from parked cars, signal, take over a lane when it's appropriate for you to do so, and keep yourself visible but ride as if you're invisible.

3) If there are local bike safety courses offered, like the CAN-BIKE series in Toronto, take them.

4) This might sound counter-intuitive, but based on my experience, I'd suggest riding alone as much as possible until you get comfortable. I had my confidence nagged out of me when I cycled with someone else 10 years ago. I gained confidence this year by riding on my own, but the worst riding I've done this year, including one rather dramatic spill (pedal strike on a curb, all my fault), was when I was cycling with someone else and distracted by trying to keep track of them.

5) Most importantly, don't freak out. Right now you're learning about all the ways that you could be put in danger. The more you learn about cycling, the safer it gets. There are no guarantees against freak accidents, but there's plenty you can do to get some healthy exercise while staying pretty damn safe. Read this to get a little reassurance about your safety.

Have fun! The fall should be a great time to ride.
posted by maudlin at 2:07 PM on September 19, 2008

my rules of the road after 15 years of bike commuting:

- cars are predators, you are prey; behave accordingly and follow your instincts.
- they can hit what they can't see; they often will.
- carry a pump, a tube, and tools; you will almost never need it if you do.
- own your space; be ready and willing to move.
- know that the morning's weather may change; welcome wet-weather; have the right gear and keep it on the bike.
- watch the right-hook across your bow; watch the oncoming crossing left; never ever trust eye-contact.
- properly inflate your tires; check them everyday.
- be a little smug about your second class status (smiling slightly, around the corners of your mouth), but never cocky or radical; quietly evangelize your cohorts; you are the cowboy, in the world of cars but not of it; you are the revolution (which will not be motorized).
- park you bike inside your office; don't ask, just do; talk about your bike with all who inquire about it.
- ride home the long-way as often as you can; find interstitial places where the cars cannot go; name them; revel in them as you would any other secret place.
- understand that fenders are good, and so are big bags and wire baskets; let your geek-flag fly.
- never engage the angry driver in a debate; think: smug as you ride away; pretend the cold sweat on your back is from riding.
- remember: empirically, a helmet will not save your life; it lets them know you are (were) serious, and probably not too drunk.
posted by RockyChrysler at 2:31 PM on September 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

The most major thing I learned while biking on the streets of Manhattan that made a marked difference was: CLAIM YOUR LANE.

Just because you're a bike, don't ride on the right-hand edge of a single lane. Obviously, if there are bike lanes or extra space on another lane, get out of the way of cars, but if you can't, set yourself in the middle of the lane, dead center.

This is important, important, important. If you ride on the edge of a lane, cars will try to squeeze pass you. Cabs will squeeze by and nick your handlebars/bag/whatever and startle you. Drivers not used to bikers on the road might not even see you. But if you stay in the center and claim your lane, then drivers will shift lanes to try to pass.
posted by suedehead at 3:01 PM on September 19, 2008

minor but important tip: watch out for dangle-y shoelaces - tuck 'em back into your shoes or use rubber bands to keep them down - if they get caught in your front gear/chain, you're in for a world of hurt & confusion

i speak from bitter experience :(
posted by jammy at 3:03 PM on September 19, 2008

Nthing the recommendation to find good side streets if the main streets make you nervous, and practice your route(s) during non-peak times to get a feel for it. That'll help you get more comfortable with the act of riding before you deal too much with car traffic. Good luck, and have fun!
posted by epersonae at 3:26 PM on September 19, 2008

Thirding How to not get hit by cars. This stuff is vital, you want to know it inside out until it's at a gut instinct level.

If, say, an intersection gives you pause (lots of traffic, too many lanes to cross, cars potentially cutting too close around a corner, whatever), don't be too lazy or too proud to get off your bike and use the pedestrian crossing - if you're bike-commuting, you're in it for a the long-haul - it's something you will be doing every day, so taking a small risk that you normally wouldn't worry much about, ceases to be worth it if you're going to be taking that small risk again the next day, and the next, hundreds of times a year. So get into a route and routine that puts safety first, even if that means (as per above example) adding an extra two minutes to your commute by getting off the bike and waiting for a ped signal rather than deal with an intersection that is unusally unsafe for some reason.

Similarly, (assuming a regular commute), if route A is harder than B because of a hill, but A is safer, grit your teeth and get in the habit of A. etc. etc.

Risks are for recreational activities. For commuting, cycle as safely as you can.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:29 PM on September 19, 2008

Best answer: I also distort my route so that I rarely, if ever, have right of way. If cars have to yield to me, that means they can fail to do so, and thus hit me. If I have to yield to them, I am staking my life on my judgment, not on theirs, and this raises my safety enormously.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:41 PM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

In Toronto, MANY people I know, myself included, have gotten injured when our tires have fallen into a streetcar track. This can happen when you're on a skinny streetcar street, like Queen or Dundas, and you move into the center of the road to avoid getting doored by parked cars on the right. Falling into the tracks will typically result in you going over the handlebars, and possibly into traffic or the back of a parked car.

Moral: avoid skinny streetcar streets! This includes most of the east-west streetcar streets (except College east of Little Italy). Instead, consider biking on Harbord if you're heading to U of T from the west.

Extra vigilance is also needed on Bloor; it may be streetcar-free, but it's not inattentive drunk student-free.
posted by Beardman at 5:18 PM on September 19, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you for all of the awesome comments and suggestions; these are fantastic. Just to be clear, I'm surprisingly NOT in Toronto (though I understand why everyone assumes so! I know T.O.'s reputation as a city not kind to cyclists). The city that I live in has way worse drivers, for real -- I would rather drive in Toronto than here.
posted by pised at 7:44 PM on September 19, 2008

previous posters have covered safe riding pretty well (flashing lights, lane dominance...), so I won't rehit that stuff, but your bike itself is another topic.

it's not necessary to become mechanic-certified, but I'd suggest at least familiarizing yourself sufficiently with tire pressures and brake system adjustments that you can maintain these yourself. I've seen plenty of folks with cheap-but-decent bikes that were completely unsafe to ride just due to never having been setup properly.

as mentioned above, bike shops are your friend. however, i noticed that you wrote that you bought a cheap used bike. while i can't speak for the shops in Ontario, it's been my experience that alot of shops can be fairly uppity when it comes to bringing in a cheap bike that they didn't sell you and trying to get it serviced. my general rule is to seek out the shop with the fewest spandex jerseys hanging in the windows, and the fewest $3000+ race bikes on the showroom floor, as these are also the places most likely to employ young kids as part-time mechanics. where i live, there's a ratio of about 3 of these big $$ bike shops for every 1 small-time shop run by a lifetime professional cycle-gearhead who's actually just in the bike business because they love it. these bike shops, much moreso than the first variety, are your friend.
posted by bilgepump at 8:14 PM on September 19, 2008

Find a big empty car park or something similar and practice riding whilst looking behind you, over both shoulders, and signalling with your arms (find out what the correct arm signals are in your area). Use your new found skills.

You are not a wimp if you feel you need to get off and walk your bike across a particularly nasty stretch of road.
posted by Helga-woo at 11:58 AM on September 20, 2008

Here are some of the most common ways cyclists get hurt/killed:

1) The Door Prize - You're driving past a parked car and the driver/rear passenger opens the and you drive into it. It also happens that people swerve left to avoid the open door and get hit by a passing car.

How to avoid it: Slow down when driving past a lane of parked cars. Keep an eye out for signs that a car has just parked: lights go off, one of the other doors opens, etc. Use your bell if necessary. If this is your daily commute, adjust your route to avoid stretches like this. Don't drive too far over into the lane left of you, because another common way to get hurt is:

2) Being hit by a car passing you on the left - Cars are a lot bigger and harder than people. The car will try to pass between you and another car on its left. Sometimes they don't give you enough space. Most likely to happen with larger vehicles, SUV's delivery trucks, etc.

How to avoid it: Stay 2 feet or so from the curb. Most lanes are wide enough to accommodate a car passing a bike. Choose routes with bike lanes or make use of residential streets.

3) Car makes right turn in front of you - A car passes you and slows to make a right turn. The cyclist will try to pass between the car and curb, as the car makes the turn. Collision ensues.

How to avoid it: Collisions of this sort are the cyclists' fault. You are not a pedestrian. Never try to go to the right of a car making a right turn, even if it slows down or stops. The driver is looking to the left to look for a gap in traffic, or ahead and right for pedestrians. They're not looking for a cyclist coming from behind. Watch for cars preparing to make a right. Slow down and let them pass
posted by thenormshow at 8:30 AM on September 21, 2008

How to avoid it: Collisions of this sort are the cyclists' fault.

Sometimes, perhaps. In my experience, collisions like this more often happens when the passing car does not complete the pass, but simply drives into or cuts off the cyclist, in which case no action by the cyclist (unlike the car) is able to prevent collision. Avoiding this requires an awareness of the speed and any speed changes of cars coming up behind and beside you, as well as slightly ahead, so you can brake if you predict there is a risk of a turn - once the car starts the turn, it may be already too late to do anything.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:09 PM on September 23, 2008

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