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Road Cycling Safety and Etiquette

by Matt Russ

I live in Atlanta , arguably the worst city in the country to ride a bicycle. Planning (or lack of) Atlanta ‘s explosive growth has rarely considered the cyclist. Roadside bike paths are for the most part non-existent, as is adequate road shoulder space.

The bike paths that do exist are multi-use. This means cyclists, rollerbladers, runners, and walkers all vie for use of this limited resource. Traffic is terrible even in the suburbs and tempers are short. Motorists have little patience for anything that will impede their already slow progress; especially a cyclist. This does not exactly paint a rosy picture now does it?

Dealing with Motorists

The lack of patience with cyclists has lead some motorists to resort to terrorist like tactics such as putting tacks in the roadway in popular cycling areas. They view cyclists as arrogant, rude, and mainly in their way, and in some cases they are correct.

This bad blood creates a dangerous situation for cyclists and motorists alike. There are some things cyclists can do to diffuse this situation though, most of which are just plain common sense.

Your Rights as a Bicyclist

You do have a right to ride your bicycle on the right side of the road; period. This right is protected in the law (check your local ordinances or go to http://bicyclegeorgia.com/galaw.html in Georgia .

Where or when you ride is up to your individual prudence. I personally value my life so I try to choose routes and times that have lower traffic flow.

This may not be practical for everyone but riding on a Sunday morning versus a Saturday makes a big difference in these parts. For safety’s sake I recommend riding with a partner

Don’t Ride Against Traffic

First of all, never ride your bike against traffic. Way too often, I see novice cyclists of all ages riding in the left lane as they would as if they were walking or running.

Often times they’re not even wearing a helmet (this is illegal if they’re under the age of 16 and a very bad idea if they’re not). They must feel safer seeing the on-coming traffic, but the fact is that 20% of all car-bike collisions result from cyclists riding the wrong way in traffic. Motorists just aren’t used to looking for vehicles coming at them in their lane.

Stay as Near to the Right Side of the Road As Possible

Second rule is to stay as near to the right side of the roadway as is practical, unless making a left hand turn, avoiding hazards in the road, or when the lane is just too narrow to share safely with a motor vehicle.

I recently observed a presumably novice rider spinning very slowly up a hill approximately 4 feet from the roadside, in a lane that had ample room for both him and the motorists. This occurred at 5 p.m. and traffic was backed up about 8 cars deep behind him.

I was personally amazed at that the motorists exhibited as much patience as they did. I watched several pass him in the oncoming lane creating a real hazard for them selves. I don’t think he realized what a dangerous situation he had created.

Novice riders tend to stay either too far left or too far right. You must stay as far right as practical (preferably 6 to 18 inches from the left of either the curb or the white line, whichever is safer) while avoiding road hazards.

On the other hand, the farther from the curb you ride the better motorists can see you. So it is sometimes a balancing act, staying as far right as practical while still staying safe. That’s another reason why I like riding with a partner. It’s easier for a motorist to see two cyclists than one and sometimes there’s just more safety in numbers.

When to Ride Towards the Middle of the Road

There are few occasions when it is safer to ride in the middle of the road: When you’re riding at the same speed as the traffic around you, or when you’re on a road with no shoulder, frequent pot holes or parked cars.

Always give yourself enough room to maneuver safely while avoiding both obstacles in the road and opening car doors. When the traffic speeds up faster than you can ride, move back over to the right to avoid obstructing traffic flow.

Don’t Ride Two Abreast

While riding two abreast is legal here; ? (b) Persons riding bicycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.? 

It is a practice I don’t personally endorse except on the most rural and least traveled roads. Again, impeding the flow of traffic creates bad blood. I also find that chatting with your training partner leaves you distracted to what is occurring around you.

By the time you realize there is a car it may be literally behind you before you are able to line up single file. Perhaps it is my experience riding a motorcycle in these parts that has left me with an awareness of how diligent you must be in traffic, and I feel I am a lot more vulnerable on my bicycle.

Final Notes on Motorists

I have had objects and obscenities hurled at me, run off the road, and harassed by motorists. Although my mere presence on the road could be cause for this I have also observed behaviors by cyclists that could be the root cause of such actions.

The bottom line is that in a confrontation with an automobile a cyclist will always loose, and you do not have eyes in the back of your head. While a motorist may only want to harass you, accidents do happen. Discretion is always the better part of valor, so keep that middle finger in its proper place.

I developed a practice to help diffuse potentially volatile situations with motorists. When answering obscenities or obscene gestures, I wave back, smile and yell, “Hi Pat!? as if I knew the offender. You’d be surprised how well this works!

Don’t Urinate in Public

You would be aghast if you observed a motorist pulling their vehicle over to the side of the road and urinating out the door of their car. When did this become acceptable behavior for cyclists?

If you can not make it to the nearest convenience store at least find a place out of the public eye.

Obey Traffic Signals

Blowing through red lights and stop signs is not only unsafe it is very arrogant in the publics’ eye. Yes you have the right to co-exist on the road but you have to follow the rules like everyone else. I think the road rage you vent on a motorist is just projected onto the next cyclist they come upon.

Do not be afraid to point this out to a person in your group who exhibits these behaviors. You will be doing your fellow cyclists a huge favor by doing so.

Be Respectful Of Others on Multi-Use Paths

If you are riding on a multi-use path realize that you have to be respectful of everyone using it. Blowing by a family at 25 mph with children on training wheels is dangerous to everyone and inconsiderate.

I have found most recreational paths are better for recreational cycling unless you are prepared to stop and start a lot.

Civil Disobedience Bike Rides

You may have read or observed civil disobedience rides that purposely impede traffic. While this definitely does bring cycling out into the public eye I do not really know how this helps the situation. I think the best way to reform the system is from within. W

e have several advocacy groups such as Bike Roswell, www.bikeroswell.com, which are dedicated to making local government aware and sensitive to the needs of cyclists. I have seen these groups make real progress.

In Conclusion

Please take it upon yourself to learn the rules of the road and practice better cycling safety and etiquette, then get out on your bike and enjoy your ride- but be safe and courteous while doing so.

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