I'd like to be older when I die
April 20, 2012 10:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm seriously thinking of never riding a bike again, having just had my second serious crash in just over a year - despite it being my default mode of transport since I was 12 years old. I don't really want to stop, but I also don't want to end up a vegetable or dead. What are some non-obvious defensive (bicycle) riding techniques for an experienced rider to start using? How do you force yourself to learn and use them after 20+ years of habit?

Some background:
-Both accidents have left me hospitalised with post traumatic amnesia, concussion and various physical problems. I'm lucky to be alive after the most recent. The first accident is a bit of a mystery, I have no memory of it and there were no witnesses. Damage to my bike suggests I was hit by a car. The most recent accident involved me being hit by a taxi. Many witnesses, no fault of mine and the driver is looking at criminal charges from the police.

-I have good habits in terms of helmet wearing (or I'd be dead), light using, riding predictably and obeying road rules.

-I'm not sure what to change to make my riding safer. I try to do everything right, how do I defend against people doing everything wrong?

Talk me out of selling my bike.
posted by deadwax to Health & Fitness (58 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
I've been a bicycle commuter for, what, about 20 years now and I've been able to avoid major interactions with cars by imagining myself, at all times, as a prey-animal. The cars are predators. I need to be as vigilant and attentive to my survival as any other kangaroo rat, else the coyotes'll get me. I am not kidding about this.

The rest of it is just learned-response stuff. Never trust drivers, even if they make eye contact with you or wave you on. And always remember: drivers consider you a lower class and a lesser life form. Stuff like that.
posted by RockyChrysler at 10:09 PM on April 20, 2012 [10 favorites]

BicycleSafe.com is a great resource for this.
posted by grouse at 10:16 PM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm really sorry to hear this, and I hope you recover quickly.

Based on the info you've given, I don't know what any of us can tell you to avoid the next incident. Did this happen at a crossing? Was one of you turning? Was the driver fucking with his or her phone? Is it possible you made some sort of judgment error? Two accidents in a short period of time is not necessarily a danger sign; it could just be bad luck. You could have been hit walking on the sidewalk.

(A couple of years ago, I got hit by a car turning left, when I was riding straight down a road, on a bright sunny afternoon. Of course, fucktard "didn't see" me. I'm almost six feet tall, riding a big road bike. Thankfully I wasn't too badly hurt, and I still ride to work almost every day.)

My own technique, modified after 18 years of NYC commuting, is one of cautious aggression. I put myself out into the roadway as far as it takes to feel comfortable in the traffic mix, but I draw the line at doing really, really stupid things, like listening to music or weaving wildly through crossing pedestrians or slipping through tight spaces next to trucks or buses. I turn on my lights just before dusk, and I make big signals when I'm turning. I've also modified my commuting routes to roads that I feel don't feel are mini-freeways.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:28 PM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh dear. It's not pretty, but have you considered wearing a neon jacket or vest while you ride? Sometimes if the rider is wearing dark clothes, even in daylight, I just don't see the bike until I'm really close to it. My vision is fine--I think they just blend in to a busy background, and I do not live in a very bike-friendly city, so as a driver, I freely acknowledge that I don't get enough practice spotting bikes in traffic.

I think a lot of drivers erroneously assume that bikes are grouped with pedestrians rather than vehicles--they assume the bike will always give way to the car. That's a driver education problem, but unfortunately it is also your problem. From a driver's perspective, the main thing is to increase your visibility.
posted by elizeh at 10:28 PM on April 20, 2012 [10 favorites]

I am less of a bicycle rider now, and more of a motorcycle rider (I still ride a bicycle, but much less than I used to). One of the things I have come to accept about riding on two wheels is that sometimes it is ok to get what a friend calls "The Fear," and to take a break or to alter your riding to accept that for a while.

The Fear is when you've had a close call or an actual accident, and then later you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with a vision of your death in your head. Or when you are sitting there and all of a sudden you can "see" yourself sliding down the road on your face. Or when you are riding the bus and see a bicyclist/motorcyclist and can't help but see all the ways they are so terrifyingly vulnerable at every moment.

Some people will just say get back on the horse and ride again immediately, but I think The Fear should be respected, and that it is ok to take a break. Sometimes that break is a week, sometimes it is a year. Anyone who has ridden their whole life will almost inevitably return to riding, but taking a while to clear your head and look at the entire situation is time well spent.

I still ride, but I simply don't ride in nasty, conflict-heavy situations, for example. It's not worth it for me; I have other ways to get where I am going. And I still ride, but I don't take the same risks that I used to, because I have both experienced and seen the consequences. (Years ago I would have called someone in a Hi-Vis jacket a total pussy; now I think of that as being as common-sensical as using a light or wearing a helmet.) In other words, I took the time to realize that there was aspects of my own behavior that were unnecessarily raising my own risk, as well as aspects of riding that matter enough to me to be worth accepting a certain amount of risk.

Respect The Fear, but don't let it rule your life. Take a break if you need to, and change your behavior to be safer, but don't let it stop you from living.
posted by Forktine at 10:38 PM on April 20, 2012 [13 favorites]

Obey the rules of the road that motorists and pedestrians follow, unless there is an urgent reason to do otherwise. When a driver checks before pulling out onto a road or making a turn, he doesn't expect a bike overtaking between him and the curb on the right, or coming through an intersection on the wrong side of the road, or riding at bike speed in a crosswalk. Don't try to time lights so you can run them--you will eventually make a mistake, or be hit by someone else making a mistake or running the light. This rule applies whether you are driving a car or riding a bike, but the difference is that the guy in the car will have more protection.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:47 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know a lot of cyclists. I only know three who have been in more than one serious bicycle accident.

One has ridden over 100 miles a week for 40 years and the odds have simply caught up to him.

The other two are serious about bicycle rights. Their bike lane is their bike lane, and no car will change that! Cars must show bikes the proper rights given to them by law!

And of course they're not wrong. This is the way things should be. But as soon as a car doesn't show them the right of way (or whatever other legal courtesy is their right) they play a sort of chicken with the car. They ride as big as they can be and take back the rights that that car was taking away. And that works right up until the car hits the bike and then its the laws of physics that win the day.

One finally mellowed out and got what others above call The Fear and hasn't had an incident of any kind in a few years. The other is still self righteous and has some kind of physical encounter with a car (tap, clip, etc) about every 3-4 months.

I don't know if this applies to you, it might well not. You might have just been unlucky. But the unfortunate truth is there is no room for a person to demonstrate their rights when the slightest difference of opinion or moment of inattention puts the cyclist in the hospital.
posted by Ookseer at 10:53 PM on April 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

-I have good habits in terms of helmet wearing (or I'd be dead), light using, riding predictably and obeying road rules.

Unfortunately, this isn't enough, this is doing the best with the things that you control, but the big uncertainty and danger comes from the stuff you can't control. "Never trust drivers" is a good refrain, though my personal bike riding mantra "is what's the worst that can happen right now?" I'm afraid it's a bit grim, but when riding on city streets it's how I try to keep myself aware of the ever-changing dangers around cars, and basically just fully anticipate completely idiotic behavior at all times. Even then, there's always someone who is just a little extra random, or a crappy situation I just have to ride through and hope no one does something stupid.

On preview: weapons-grade, the poster says they obey traffic rules in the question. They aren't asking how to follow the rules.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:55 PM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

You might be doing this already but I ALWAYS assume that cars will do the stupidest/most dangerous possible thing at all intersections. If they are not indicating, I assume they will turn anyway. If they are indicating, I assume they may have left the indicator on from their last turn, and might well go straight ahead. I give way even when I have right of way, unless I have made eye contact with the car who will give way to me and have evidence that he is stopping.

I also assume that every parked car I pass will open its door into me without looking, and that there is always a car about to pass me too close from behind (i.e. I never swerve even around broken glass or other obstacles in the road without a good look over my shoulder first).

When I'm in a cycle lane, I assume that drivers have no idea it is there and will swerve onto it at a moment's notice.
posted by lollusc at 10:56 PM on April 20, 2012 [13 favorites]

Visibility. I live in an area with lots of cyclists but my road has a big dip, maybe a half mile long on a straight stretch where the road drops and comes back up. It's hard to see a bike at night with the light on because there are so many other lights and they are at such a variety of elevations relative to you as you descend the dip. It's hard to see them during the day because you are looking down or up at trees and houses and everything blends in. Heck, it's hard to see the city bus sometimes.

A lot of people around here use minimal or no lights (morons) and a lot of other people are under the mistaken impression that a headlamp is a good bike light. It's not because I'm not looking for a headlight 6' off the ground and in the urban setting that doesn't register immediately. Similarly a blinky tail light is useless because it doesn't immediately say "Taillight!!" to me.

There is one guy who has a huge bike light, you could stun deer with it. He's got two rear or three lights, a blinky and a huge red spotlight and I think another one on his wheel. He has reflective pedals, a reflective helmet and bag some kind of lit up frame on his bike at time and always wears a bright yellow safety vest. I ALWAYS see that guy. Ask anyone on my side of town about the red headed guy with the safety vest and I bet you $10 they could pick him out of a line up.

Finally, don't ride too close to people who are less visible than you. I nearly killed a cyclist last year because I swerved to avoid his friend (no lights at night, black clothes, no moon, no street ligths) which put me on collision course with Bachelor #2, who did have lights but they were so dim I didn't see him until I was maybe 10m away. And I bike so I'm looking for bikes and I didn't see him.
posted by fshgrl at 11:05 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I biked exclusively from when I was 15-ish to 27. I developed these 5 rules:

1) Go mostly places that are accessible on an off-street bike path, and take the path even if that's not the most direct route. Use extreme caution at intersections between paths and roads, as they are huge accident hot spots.

2) There are lots of minor streets parallel to major streets -- the kind where one car goes by every 20-30 seconds, rather than a steady stream of cars. Use those streets rather than major streets. Sure it's a little slower, but it's more fun anyway.

3) Don't use bike lanes, they are deadly. There is practically always an obstruction that pops up at the last minute and forces you into traffic without warning. Stay away from the side of the road where there are opening doors, road detritus, and alleys and driveways with cars pulling out.

4) Get the best bike lights you can afford -- 1000 lumen LED lights cost $70, there's no reason not to buy them. They are 10 billion times better than the little flashing white things.

5) Most important: If you're tired or stressed out, or its raining heavily, or it's night and your lights are out of batteries, then don't bike. Call a friend or take the bus. It helps immensely to have alternate transportation for the 5% of times you really shouldn't be on your bike.

In that time, I never had a serious accident. But I still had several close calls. These days I drive to work and bike for fun, which makes me a little sad, but my current workplace is really, really unbikeable so I don't have a choice.

Be safe.
posted by miyabo at 11:27 PM on April 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

You need a cycling safety course. They're not just for beginners. This article in The Guardian offers some insight into what an experienced commuter can learn. Lots, as it turns out.

These courses are offered in Melbourne by Bike Beyond. Please take one. I've been riding for over a decade but, like you, lost my confidence after a crash. When I finally decided to get back on the bike, I took a defensive riding course with BikeWise in Sydney. I was so nervous I took my bike to the venue in a taxi. The course changed everything. I got my bike mojo back. I wasn't a bad rider, but I'm a better rider since I did the course. I now commute every day and have even started joining bunch rides.

Off the top of my head, though, here are a few things I do to be safe on the roads.

- Take the lane. Do not ride in the car door zone or weave in and out of parked cars to "stay out of the way of the traffic". You are the traffic. If you ride in the gutter, motorists will assume there is enough room for them to squeeze past. They're often wrong, and you know how terrifying that can be. If you take the lane, they will have to change lanes or wait until you wave them past.

- BUT, once you have taken the lane, don't be oblivious to the cars behind you. Sure, cyclists have a right to use the road, but it benefits no-one to have cars backed up behind while you pootle along at 25km/h. Look behind often. If notice a motorist on your tail, pull in somewhere where YOU feel safe and signal the motorist to pass. This is so much less stressful than having angry, impatient drivers tearing past you unexpectedly. Motorists actually smile and wave.

- If I'm wearing dark clothing or the weather is crappy, I wear a godawful ugly orange reflector vest. I don't like it, and I wish I lived in a city where it wasn't necessary, but goddamn, motorists are so much kinder to me when I wear it. I think it's partly that they see me earlier and partly that hi-vis gear carries implicit associations of safety and authority - see police, road workers, etc. It's harder for drivers to assume that you're the one being reckless when you're clearly going out of your way to be seen.

Good luck getting back on your bike. We all have days when it feels like every second driver is an angry moron and cycling seems like a terribly dangerous thing to do. On those days, I find it helpful to think of the health risks of NOT cycling. For me, it's the only form of exercise I really, honestly enjoy. Giving it up and sitting on the couch instead (or relying on fragile willpower to drag myself to the gym) would not be good for my health. When you factor in lifestyle-related diseases like obesity and heart disease, being sedentary is significantly more dangerous than riding a bike. I know it doesn't seem that way when a taxi is heading straight for you, but it's true.
posted by embrangled at 11:51 PM on April 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Sorry, the article is in The Times, not The Guardian. But it's still an excellent article!
posted by embrangled at 11:55 PM on April 20, 2012

There are lots of suggestions for further safety measures you can take, but the fact is that cycling puts you at risk for accidents. So does driving a car or walking across the street.

Last year, I was crossing a street at a crosswalk, with a walk signal. A driver, probably drunk and uninsured, turned right into me, knocking me on the pavement. I had headphones on at the time and didn't realize what was happening until I'd stood up, realized my leg was throbbing, and the car drove away. I was doing nothing dangerous and I was obeying all traffic laws. I got lucky and didn't break a bone or suffer much more than the trauma and loss of confidence that the world wasn't going to randomly kill me for no reason.

Accidents are a fact of life. The reality is, you can be hurt at any moment. You take every precaution you can to avoid putting yourself at risk, but ultimately you are at the whims of chance. The universe is not predictable or fair. Consider the possibility that you simply got a streak of bad luck.
posted by deathpanels at 11:56 PM on April 20, 2012

3) Don't use bike lanes, they are deadly.

This is terrible advice.
posted by halogen at 12:33 AM on April 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

In re. elizeh's observation: yes, please do this. I found myself angry* with a cyclist the other day for wearing, at dusk on the side of a winding, zippy rural highway, navy and khaki. Should I always be looking out for cyclists? Yes. But... Navy, against the sky, and khaki, against the fields! How hard he'd been to spot terrified me.

Reflective tape is amazing stuff, and bright colours are currently trendy, so you should be able to get non-ugly, non-subtle things to wear. Apologies if you are already doing this. I think the days of riding around without helmets and things to improve visibility are going the way of driving without a seat belt, albeit perhaps a bit too slowly. It seems to me that I am not the only one with problems, particularly on the rural roads I'm often on, that has trouble with seeing subtly attired cyclists; if there's a neon vest involved, odds are the car before me has neatly moved to the side, which alerts me even quite a way back that there's something I need to pay attention to -- great. Not so much of that advance warning with the hard-to-spot ones, though.

* I had a close call as a kid when my brakes failed and I skidded out onto a road from a hill in front of a car. The driver got out and gave me a little bit of hell, which I thought was weird. Only when I was older did I grok that she, clearly somebody's Mom, had been far more traumatised than I, who at ten thought it was pretty easy to stop your car when you were coming round a corner and suddenly needed to do so for whatever reason. It really is scary for the drivers, too. The memory of that close call was in my mind when I brought my bike into the shop last week and asked to replace the brake pads even though they were still serviceable, just not as tickety-boo as new. First-rate maintenance should also be in any improved-safety plan.
posted by kmennie at 12:43 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

i've had good luck on the bike and i put it down to riding as if i were trespassing on somebody else's turf. i'm not an equal partner with cars, and i get the right-of-way never. honestly i don't think that bikes belong on the street, at least in cities. so i eye-scan constantly, look through the back window of parked cars checking for drivers about to pull out, stuff like that. one near-dooring in 20 years, that's it. also, in intersections, i assume i am totally invisible. but as others have said, it's just inherently dangerous - at least as dangerous as walking in the street, probably more so.
posted by facetious at 12:43 AM on April 21, 2012

In addition to strong bike lights, a good helmet, and reflective clothing, get mirrors, either on your handlebars or your helmet.

I don't know how practical this would be in a big city or where there are a lot of intersections, but when I was in elementary school we were all told to get off our bikes and walk them across the street at intersections.

Don't forget to look for cars coming from your side, for example you and the car are going north and the car turns right, right into you.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:44 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

3) Don't use bike lanes, they are deadly.

This isn't good advice. It might be helpful where you live but it's not relevant to current Australian conditions. I would modify it to: Don't use narrow bike lanes that force you into the car door zone.

Do use nice, wide lanes next to a curb with no parking. Do use separated cycleways wherever they're available. Do use the painted bicycle boxes that allow you to stop forward of cars at intersections. Be wary of painted cycleways in the rain - the paint can be slippery when wet.

Cycling infrastructure in Australia is improving, and the newer bike lanes are actually pretty safe. The old ones are death traps and should be removed. It takes some practice to learn to spot the difference.
posted by embrangled at 12:45 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

That first comment about imagining yourself to be a "prey animal" was spot-on. I usually explain it by saying you should cycle as if you had absolutely no right to be on the street whatsoever. False as that is, it only takes one rude driver to show the truth of it.

Stick to bike paths when possible, even if it means going a bit out of your way, and remember that speed is a very relative issue when biking. You don't really need to zip around.
posted by zaelic at 12:49 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Longtime cycle commuter, sometime motorcyclist and current driver here.

Some of the most common bits of advice are around confidence, decisiveness, common sense and pace - confidence to take the lane, decisiveness to move or go when there is space, common sense not to go down the inside of any turning vehicles, and pace to keep up with moving vehicles.

And obviously you need to be alert. But for me defensive riding means reading people's intentions - watching for cars drifting ever so slightly to one side, looking through the car to see if the driver is using his mirrors or where he is looking, working out what pedestrians or other road users might be building up to do.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:59 AM on April 21, 2012

Wear bright clothing...you want people to look at you and say "Good God, who told that cyclist that neon green and bright pink go together"
posted by BoscosMom at 1:29 AM on April 21, 2012

Be especially careful at intersections on divided bike paths. There is a beautiful bike path* with a gorgeous view of the city that I avoid like the plague because it's studded with car intersections, and drivers simply forget that they are crossing a bike lane and that they have to stop. I have had many close calls on that path, many more than on the bike lane.

*St Georges Road on the north side of Melbourne.

posted by OLechat at 2:43 AM on April 21, 2012

In your second collision, you did nothing wrong, but were hit by a taxi; you mention criminal charges are pending against the taxi driver. So, your question is not just about bike safety, but about coping with being the victim of a crime. I'm not sure bike safety tips are what you need. Give yourself a pause; think about whether giving up biking entirely is a rational response or an overreaction to your victimization; and re-assess your feelings after you've had more time.
posted by jgfoot at 4:07 AM on April 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ugh, poor you, I'm so sorry. My city biking rules:
1. Never take the main road. Always find a route through quiet back roads and cycle paths, no matter how much longer. If a small stretch of main road is unavoidable, get off and push.

2. I only ride familiar, regular routes: to work and back, to friends' houses etc. Obviously at some point you'll want to go somewhere new, but sit down and plan the route in advance and stick to it. I never just set off and improvise on unfamiliar roads with no clear idea of my route.

3. Ride like a coward. I don't mean being timid in your use of space on the road, but underestimate, rather than overestimate the safety of everything. Feel free to get off and join the pedestrians at big junctions; in a queue of traffic at lights, don't sneak up the left to get to the head of the queue unless there's a lot of space and time, and nothing bigger than a car in the queue.

4. Over-exaggerated, super-clear manoeuvres: give yourself plenty of time to check out all other traffic, slow down if it will enable you to get more space on the road (eg drop back to be in a gap between two cars rather than alongside one); big, clear hand signal; get in position; look round again, if you can make eye contact with nearby drivers, do; clear signal again, then move.

5. Hi vis jacket.
posted by penguin pie at 4:17 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry, rereading your question, you probably don't need safe riding tips, didn't mean to patronise you. I guess always be over-cautious is all I was saying.
posted by penguin pie at 4:21 AM on April 21, 2012

Life is an adventure and a gamble, but it doesn't always have to be the same gamble. There is no shame, but actually common sense of survival if you decide to give up the bike.

From what you describe, you were already a safe biker, but you have suffered 2 major accidents, but you are lucky to be alive - and, you are ahead.

Depending on who and what is precious in your life, giving up the bike at this point would be a very respectable decision.
posted by Kruger5 at 5:39 AM on April 21, 2012

* Neon vest.
* More than one bright light, front and back.
* Wearing a flapping white shirt or jacket under your neon vest is a good visual flag.
* Slightly fatter tires. Skinny tires will skid if they even hear the word "skid."
* Never, but never, ride no-handed, or even one-handed. I want to bean riders who do this.

Please, do get back on. We need you to be An Entity.
posted by BostonTerrier at 5:49 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The way I survived over 20 years with my bike as my main form of transportation (including time as a bike messenger in Manhatten): I do what's safe, rather than what's legal. As mentioned above, I avoid busy main streets. But I also ride in the opposite direction of traffic, regardless of what the law is. Drivers aren't paying attention to me, so I need to be able to see them before they run me over. And I ride on the sidewalk in places where there are no pedestrians.

I currently live in Houston now, where drivers throw bottles at cyclists, and deliberately run you off the road into drainage ditches full of water. After too many experiences like that, I gave up on being legal. I'd rather get a ticket than be dead.

Also, always look both ways, even if it's a one-way street. Always expect the worst, and always expect stupidity by drivers.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:44 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just piping in to say that if you'd been driving a car for 20 years instead, the chances of being hospitalized in two different accidents aren't all that small.
posted by hermitosis at 8:10 AM on April 21, 2012

My two cents on the "deadly bike lanes":

Depending on your city, bike lanes can be wonderful or fraught with danger. Where I live, unfortunately, cars can park to the right of bike lanes (and for whatever reason, tend to not look before opening doors or turning back into traffic). For that reason, I don't let bike lanes lull me into a fall sense sense of security. I'm always scanning as I bike, attempting to anticipate what drivers might do; after a few close calls, I continue this in bike lanes too.

Actually, I tend to avoid bike lanes now that the weather is nicer. Not because they're overly dangerous, but because I've found that newer cyclists gravitate here and I bike faster than most.

All the other tips on bike maintenance, better lights and assuming that drivers will do the worst are excellent. Good luck healing up, and definitely take your time before you rejoin us on the road.
posted by Paper rabies at 8:27 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mexican Yenta, I'm too chicken to ride a bike and I'm terrified of driving near cyclists. (I live in a neighborhood with very narrow streets and parked cars everywhere and lots of cyclists so I really really watch out.) The one time I've almost hit a cyclist (and another time when my husband almost did) was when he was riding against traffic. When you are looking left to see the oncoming traffic to turn right, you don't see the cyclist coming from the right. How is going the wrong way safer? (Also, the guy I almost hit rode the wrong way through an intersection of two one way streets where both cars had stop signs. He rode through without stopping because he didn't have a stop sign and thought he had the right of way. Well, of course you don't have a stop sign, they don't put those facing the wrong way on one way streets.) I'm not being snarky here, I'm responding to you saying one of my biggest driving fears is a good safety tip. I've thought many times about posting an askme asking cyclists to tell me how to drive around bikes without having heart attacks.

I have learned from this thread that the new bike lanes they've put in New Orleans are the death trap kind, so that's just great.
posted by artychoke at 8:42 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

John S. Allen's Bicycling Street Smarts is a useful pamphlet. Some of its contents are doubtless old hat to you, but it's worth a read anyway. John has even produced a free online version for those of you in countries where people drive on the left.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:43 AM on April 21, 2012

Oh, I should add that I don't dress like a Christmas tree, but I do have generator-hub-powered headlights and taillights on my bikes, and I usually run them in the day as well as at night. I also carry around an Amphipod reflective harness that fits over street clothes, in case I am cycling between dusk and dawn.

Good luck recovering! I've had only one really serious bike accident (broken arm), but it was my own damn fault for grabbing too much brake in the rain just before a pothole.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:46 AM on April 21, 2012

"I also ride in the opposite direction of traffic, regardless of what the law is. Drivers aren't paying attention to me, so I need to be able to see them before they run me over. And I ride on the sidewalk in places where there are no pedestrians."

That's not what any bicycle safety program would teach; the conventional wisdom among experienced cyclists is that this puts you at greater danger by putting you in places where people are less likely to see you. (Imagine a driver or pedestrian crossing your path--they're going to have their head turned to watch traffic coming from the other direction). One study:


"Bicyclists traveling against the direction of traffic, whether on the roadway or on the side­walk, and regardless of age or sex, incur much greater risk than those traveling with traffic (on average 3.6 times as great), at an overwhelm­ingly high level of significance.... Bicyclists on a sidewalk or bicycle path incur greater risk than those on the roadway (on aver­age 1.8 times as great)."

Accidents are rare (if, unfortunately, much less rare as they should be), and as a result it's difficult to generalize from one person's experience. You really need to look at research. (Which, unfortunately, I don't believe there's nearly enough of. We really need a better understanding of what works and what doesn't.)

That and the absence of any details about the accidents makes it difficult to advise the original poster, but other things being equal "obeying road rules" sounds like a good first step.
posted by bfields at 8:52 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I love cycling, but I mostly gave it up for the same reasons. When riding I am in constant terror of being killed by a car. Or killing a pedestrian who is barely looking out for cars, and not bicycles at all.

I also have to disagree with the "ride against traffic" advice. Not a whole lot of upside, and a tremendous amount of downside as far as I can tell. I'm not sure what the statistics are, but my gut tells me that most bicycle accidents are not cause by cars rear-ending bicycles. And that's all that riding against traffic seems to prevent.

As a driver, here are some situations where I see potential danger all the time:

1) There is a fairly narrow bridge by my house. When a cyclist is crossing it, they try to hug the curb and create a third lane for themselves. This seems terribly dangerous. You gotta take your lane when the streets are narrow.

2) The bike lanes in the city are terrifying to me, because in congested traffic they force cyclists to violate the "don't pass on the right" rule. If the cars are moving at 5mph and the bike is moving at 10mph, it is REALLY HARD to see a bicyclist coming up on the car's passenger side when the car tries to change lanes into a turning lane.

3) Same thing with regular flowing traffic. If there is an intersection where cars might want to turn right on green, a bicycle really can't safely be in a third lane that is to the right of the cars' lane. A bicyclist has to either take their spot in that lane, or become a pedestrian to cross the street.

4) Gotta have good lights at night. I've come up on bicyclists with LED lights that I'm sure claimed to be super bright, but were practically invisible until the last moment. Cheap LED lights probably are their rated brightness, but only when looking head on. They don't have nearly the same brightness when observed from an angle. Which is really hard to get right when mounted to a bicycle.
posted by gjc at 8:57 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The other issue with riding against traffic is that your combined speeds are much greater, so everyone has less time to see you and react, and if there is a crash the forces are greater. Like always, the specifics matter, and I've definitely been on a few streets where it felt safer to go against traffic, but in general I think it's not a good approach.
posted by Forktine at 8:59 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm perplexed by your first crash. Could it be a medical problem,i.e. could you have blacked out? Anyway, study the Bicycle Safe web site, lots of good pointers (especially about helmets).

From this site I learn of something called "Effective Cycling" which sounds completely contrary to my cycling philosophy.

posted by Rash at 9:09 AM on April 21, 2012

You were the victim of a crime. A violent one. You were attacked, had no control in that moment, and someone made you suffer horribly. Almost anyone put in that situation will develop strong aversion to being in that situation again. This is perfectly normal! You're being a good self-preserving human!

Before you make any big decisions, please (please!) read about victim psychology (if you haven't already). There's a double edge if you decide to sell your bike: you've avoided the situation, but you've also surrendered control. How are you going to feel for the rest of your life when you see pass commuting on a bike? Make the decision on your own terms. Maybe you get back into riding; maybe you only ride your bike on car-free paths; maybe you decide to never ride again. You have to own the attack.
posted by introp at 9:11 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The advice to ride against traffic is truly terrible. Please don't do this.
posted by two lights above the sea at 9:15 AM on April 21, 2012 [9 favorites]

One practical tip is to learn to do an emergency stop. This video gives a good overview. The key is to practice it a lot in non-emergencies, so that you do it reflexively when you need it. Most people's instinct is to slam on the brakes when they need to stop quickly, which is a great way to send yourself flying over the handlebars.

Forgive me if this falls into the too-obvious category, but each time I've told a friend about this technique they have looked at me bewildered. I know I had been riding for many years before I learned to do it, and I'm pretty sure it has helped me avoid accidents on a couple of occasions.
posted by messica at 9:16 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I third the "prey animal" idea. I am not a biker, but it works as a pedestrian to always be thinking that I need to get the hell away from the cars ASAP. No matter what the law says, the car always has the right of way because you will get a lot more injured than the car will in a collision.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:36 AM on April 21, 2012

IANAC (I am not a cyclist?) but I walk pretty much everywhere. If I had the attitude of "always obey pedestrian laws, and you'll be safe!" I'd be dead several times over (including yesterday, when I had a walk signal at a very busy intersection for drivers and pedestrians, and someone eagerly wanted to make a right on red into me and my dog). Bright clothing, LEDs, and safety gear can only go so far and will not protect you from the crazies (or the anxious or distracted). Agreeing with lollusc many times over -- Always assume the defensive. Even as a driver I started playing a game of "Will they turn without a signal?" and am currently at a 70% "yes" rate.

In short, obeying the laws and making yourself visible are helpful, but not when it comes to people who aren't paying attention anyway. Be aggressively defensive. And if you can't do that, unfortunately no, I don't think you'll be safe riding next to traffic.
posted by ariela at 9:40 AM on April 21, 2012

To respond to several people questioning riding against traffic: I always assume that the drivers don't see me, no matter which way I'm going. Always, always. Just assume you're invisible, no matter what. I always stop at intersections if there's any cars in the area, whether there's a stop sign or not, because drivers assume they have the right of way regardless. So I just automatically give them the right of way. The advantage of going against traffic is that you can see the person texting while driving who is about to sideswipe you, and you can get out of the way. If they're behind you, you have no idea that they're about to hit you. (And I have been sideswiped while going in the "correct" direction, and it was back before cell phones were in use. Lots of drivers just don't pay attention. It was the only time I've been hit, and bikes have been my main form of transportation since 1976, in many different cities. But then again, lots of cyclists don't pay attention either, or they ride as if they're at war with automobiles.)

So, of course it's everyone's individual choice, but this has been my experience. And with what I've seen of the (lack of) experience of people who design bike paths and make laws, I'm going to keep doing what works for me. YMMV. Literally. :)
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:57 AM on April 21, 2012

I found myself angry* with a cyclist the other day for wearing, at dusk on the side of a winding, zippy rural highway, navy and khaki.

From my experience, when you’re walking or riding a bike you feel a lot more visible to cars than you are. When I’m riding I try to remember how much trouble I’ve had seeing bike riders when driving. Where I live, I’ve driven past people walking at night on unlit streets, wearing all black, on the side of 2 lane roads. Several times I have literally not seen someone until the moment I passed within inches of them. Scares the shit out of me every time.
posted by bongo_x at 10:18 AM on April 21, 2012

After a very close call with a car, I got a BikeGlow.
posted by krisken at 10:22 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I do have generator-hub-powered headlights and taillights on my bikes

Unfortunately those aren't very bright. Nor are the LED lights. You want a serious, car sized light on your bike in traffic.
posted by fshgrl at 10:53 AM on April 21, 2012

But I also ride in the opposite direction of traffic, regardless of what the law is.

Sweet Jesus, do not, ever, do this. I can't think of anything more dangerous.

The very last thing you want to do is startle someone who is moving a tonne of metal towards you by appearing where they're not expecting you. Even if they don't always act appropriately, drivers at least know that in theory bikes might appear in the flow of traffic moving the same way as them. They don't expect to see you suddenly pelting towards them on their side of the road. It's insane advice.
posted by penguin pie at 11:54 AM on April 21, 2012

The advantage of going against traffic is that you can see the person texting while driving who is about to sideswipe you, and you can get out of the way. If they're behind you, you have no idea that they're about to hit you.

The correct solution to that problem is a helmet mirror (to see the car) and no headphones (to hear it).

(Not saying you wear headphones, MY, just mentioning a general safety tip. I cringe when I see cyclists listening to music instead of their surroundings.)
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 12:21 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

But I also ride in the opposite direction of traffic, regardless of what the law is.

I just got back from running some errands, and interestingly had an encounter with someone doing this not fifteen minutes ago. Basically, I came a lot closer to squishing them than I am comfortable with, even though I'm super aware of bicyclists and did what I could to avoid an accident.

When someone is riding with traffic and there is not space for me to safely swing wide around them (say, there is traffic in the other lane), I can just slow down and match their speed and wait until it is safe to pass. And on a regular in-town road, where speeds are slow, even a slow bicyclist goes fast enough for me to have a lot of time to check my mirrors and make a decision about whether to slow or to swing out and pass. But I can't do that if someone is coming towards me, and I'm forced to make a decision much, much faster because of the combined speeds.

I was driving a large truck with big mirrors -- I take up most of a lane, and when there's another large vehicle in the other lane, I can't ease left, period. So when the guy came zipping down the road towards me, I slowed, gave him the six or so inches of free space that I could (taking me a lot closer to the horse trailer in the other lane than is safe), and even so came extremely close to clipping him with my right side mirror.

And when I'm driving a large truck, I'm blocking the view forward of the cars behind me, so they have no warning that a bicyclist is going to be popping out around my right fender at fifteen miles per hour. Any of them could have nailed him, just by drifting a bit to the right side of their lane.

The tl;dr of this is don't do this, except in very specific situations where it genuinely adds safety. In general, it's a bad idea, and I'd be feeling really sad right now if I had whacked the guy, even though I'd almost certainly be legally off the hook.
posted by Forktine at 12:29 PM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've had three very serious crashes with cars (or four, depending on criteria), one of which almost killed me, and been deliberately run over twice, and I still ride, but I no longer delude myself that it's a smart thing, or even a rational thing to do.

And obviously you need to be alert. But for me defensive riding means reading people's intentions - watching for cars drifting ever so slightly to one side, looking through the car to see if the driver is using his mirrors or where he is looking, working out what pedestrians or other road users might be building up to do.
posted by MuffinMan

I really like MuffinMan's advice. I follow it myself as best I can-- it's not easy, either-- and I think it represents a step beyond defensive riding, because once you grasp other people's intentions, it's pretty natural to adjust your riding so they get to do what they want as much as possible.

I think of this as cooperative riding, and it has had the very large extra benefit for me of helping me control my temper, because it gives me a baseline attitude of benevolence toward drivers, pedestrians, and other riders. Drivers can sense that too, in my opinion, and I believe I've been treated much better on the road since I started feeling it.

I also take care to always ride in a low enough gear that I can accelerate sharply whenever I want. This has gotten me out of a lot of trouble, and beyond that, really rapid acceleration, where I'm using every bit of strength I can muster in a short burst, has turned out to be one of the greatest pleasures of cycling for me.
posted by jamjam at 12:32 PM on April 21, 2012

I’ve also sort of always ridden on the street as if I was doing something illegal, taking side streets, always watching out for others, trying to stay out of the way. I know bikes should be able to ride in the street like any other vehicle, but people, they are what they are.
posted by bongo_x at 1:08 PM on April 21, 2012

I rode a bicycle in London for 12 years. Not sure about the conditions in Melbourne, but this is what I learned:

Be as visible during the day as you would be at night. I use to wear a BRIGHT, NEON, REFLECTING VEST plus armbands and legbands. You can wear these even on hot days. Also install bright yellow/red spoke-mounted reflectors, so you are visible from the side.

Have something extending widthways, that scrapes the side of cars that come too close. I used one of these reflective, extending arms (this one is a bit shorter than the UK ones and does not flip up). If you get a hinged, flip-up-and-down one, you can flip it up if you need to squeeze through traffic, then flip it down again when you are free to ride in your own space. The plastic ones don't damage paintwork but make a satisfying scraping sound that a driver notices!

Get the brightest lights, with a variety of effects, to shine into motorists' faces, flash at head height (a headband or helmet-mounted light) to get their attention, and shine different colors so they can see which way you are going.

Don't ride across pedestrian crossings (get off and walk), jump lights or ride against the traffic flow. It gives motorists an excuse to write you off as an idiot (more likely to cut you off) and also exposes you to people jumping the red light coming the other way or not looking in your direction before they pull out.

Ride defensively. Expect every parked car door to be about to open, everyone coming up behind you to turn in front of you, and every car stopped at an intersection to pull out as you approach. Keep your distance and don't wear pedal clips that you can't jump out of quickly. Get ready to jump for the kerb if anything happens.

Hog the road - especially at traffic lights, roundabouts, and intersections. Keep in the middle of the lane, where you can. Stop ahead of stopped cars, so they see you clearly. Stick your arm wide out and wave madly when you need to change lane. Get people's attention.

Be a pain. If someone drives too close to you, thump their car as they go by. People often don't realize how close they are cutting it - even more, they don't like to think their car might be damaged and you're teaching them a lesson.
posted by Susurration at 1:45 PM on April 21, 2012

thump their car as they go by

That may be all right in the UK, but it's likely to get you shot in parts of the US. In any location, aggression against something which outmasses you by an order of magnitude is not a good idea.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 2:08 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a counterpoint to the people telling you to get a superbright light, I would say this depends on where you are mostly riding. If you are almost entirely riding on roads, then sure. If you are riding half or more of your commute on cycle paths that are set away from the road (as I do in Canberra), really amazingly bright headlights are not fair to the oncoming cyclists (especially if there is little or no streetlighting). I have to pull off the cycle path and wait for my eyes to become undazzled several times a night because of cyclists coming towards me with the really blinding lights. Sometimes they blind me already from 300+ metres away. The worst are the headmounted ones, because they are right at my eye level.

I'd assume you are mainly on roads, given your accidents, but since it's possible that your commute is a combination, I just wanted to put that out there.

Get as bright a tail-light as you like, of course, preferably several.

And my new bike has reflective strips right around the side of the tyres, which is great for visibility from the side.
posted by lollusc at 5:38 PM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just assume you're invisible, no matter what.

You know, a lot of the bizarre behavior I seen on the roads (cars and bicycles) seems to center around this. Drivers who act like they are invisible and do things that terrify the other drivers when they see them. It doesn't seem like the right mindset. Better to acknowledge that you are less visible than other things on the road and do things that make you more visible.
posted by gjc at 5:56 PM on April 21, 2012

I'm feeling a little hesitancy about jumping into the fray right now. I've only had my bike out once this season so far. Takes a while to get your legs and your confidence back. But soon I will be riding everywhere. Looking forward to it.

Because this I know. The bicycle is human scale. I'm travelling at a speed that is appropriate to me, It allows me to observe and hear the environment around me. I can make quick changes to the way I am riding (even stopping or getting off and walking) in reaction to potential hazards. And that helps me feel safer. Not only for myself, but for the other people using the same streets I travel.

When I'm driving, especially in congested areas, I'm hurtling along at speeds that challenge my ability to properly notice and understand all the agents and activity that could impact me. I'm insulated from the street, I see and hear little of it. I have blindspots. I'm constantly pushed by other cars to clear the way for them, which can force me to make poor decisions. The car has been engineered to allow me to believe that I am in control, but this is an illusion - any sudden change to the conditions and I will soon learn that my ability to regain control of all that horsepower and metal is limited. When I am driving, my potential negative impact to myself and other people in cars, on bikes and on foot is multiplied significantly. I am a danger.

That is true for me, and I believe for all other drivers. When we're on our bikes we are vulnerable to them. We can, and should, ride as defensively at possible, always maintaining our awareness of possible dangers. We can do all that and still a driver can lose control, misjudge or fail to adequately pay attention to all the people who need to use the street, and then they can harm us. So, first recognize that riding a bike (responsibly) makes the overall environment safer for everyone, and then - I think this is important - fight within the culture, when speaking to friends and family, against the idea that the car is the way normal people get around, and that everything else (cycling, walking, using transit) is aberrant. I know that I'm not really answering your question, but I don't know if there are any great tips that anyone can give you that you don't already know if you're an experienced rider. We need attitude shift away from the dominance of the car towards spaces that are safe for everyone, no matter how they choose to get around.
posted by TimTypeZed at 9:04 PM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

But I also ride in the opposite direction of traffic, regardless of what the law is.

You already probably knew this, but this is a terrible idea. Ride in the same direction of traffic unless it is absolutely necessary, and then never ever on a busy road or a high speed road.

thump their car as they go by

Also, this is very bad advice. I don't know what people's attitudes towards their cars are in Australia, but in the U.S., the car is viewed as an extension of the driver's physical self, so touching it is seen as an act of aggression. Years ago, my now ex-husband kicked a car that had buzzed me when we were both riding, and the driver wigged out and confronted him.

Lollusc's advice on headlights is spot on. There are a lot more people in New York City riding with lights (maybe 40-50%, up from less than 25%--and people, these are *my* estimates only, not official statistics from T.A. or something similar), but many of them think it's best to angle the front so it's right in the face of people riding toward them. Some of them are excruciatingly bright, which negates any ability you have to see them or around them.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:23 AM on April 22, 2012

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