Handling Road Traffic
As discussed earlier in the chapter, riding a bicycle in traffic is not all that different from driving a car because most of the same rules apply. The key is to become a part of traffic, not a hindrance to its normal flow. While some motorists believe bikes don't belong on the road, remember your rights and earn your place in the streets through safe and competent riding.
Avoid Traffic Whenever Possible
Cycling in traffic is not dangerous if proper riding techniques are followed. But even for the most cautious riders, traffic is always more dangerous than no traffic, so avoid riding in traffic whenever you can. Take roads less traveled, even if they make for a slightly longer route. Quiet streets are not only safer, they can make the ride quicker by circumventing traffic jams.
If you must ride on congested streets, stay to the right and keep away from motorist traffic whenever possible. If the road has a clear and well-paved shoulder, use it.
Because bicycles generally move slower than cars on the road, you will probably be passed more often than you pass. While cars approaching from behind cause much anxiety for inexperienced cyclists, you needn't worry; passing cars are rarely the cause of car-bike collisions. Whenever it is safe to let a car pass, do so. Sometimes, though, cyclists are better off holding up cars in the interest of safety. On narrow-laned roads, for instance, squeezing right to let a car pass could send bikes off the road. Ride close to the middle of the lane when necessary; if the car wishes to pass, let it switch lanes. Avoid this, though, if the road has only one lane of traffic in each direction: causing a car to cross the center divider in order to pass can be dangerous if the car must quickly shift back over (and into you) to avoid oncoming traffic. By the same token, watch on two-way two-lane roads for approaching cars that enter your lane to pass another approaching car. In either case, be prepared to stop sharply or even ride off the road completely.
On those occasions when you need to overtake a car (or another bicycle), always pass on the left unless the other vehicle plans to turn left or the lane between the car and your bike is clear. Passing on the left, of course, means you need to leave the right side of the road for a time. That's okay. Just stay out of the car's blind spot as you pass and notify others as you approach. Then move back to the right as soon as it is safe.
Switching lanes safely in traffic—a skill called negotiating—is among the most important riding techniques a bicyclist can learn. If you ever plan to make a left turn in traffic, you'll need to negotiate your way across the roadway to get into the proper lane. While leaving the safety and comfort of the right side to enter the main flow of traffic can be intimidating, negotiating is safe and easy when done correctly.
The first step in negotiating is to check behind to see if any vehicles are approaching and to slow down if necessary. Try to make eye contact with drivers and use standard hand signals to make your intentions known and ask to be let in. If the driver slows down and indicates a willingness to let you in, nod or wave “thanks,” then move gradually left into the lane. Continue glancing behind to ensure other cars do not enter the lane. If you must negotiate across more than one lane, simply repeat the procedure. As you gradually move left, check traffic twice for each lane, once before you enter on the right side of the lane and once as you move across to the left side.
If you find yourself in the middle of heavy traffic, unable to shift into the left lane, do not stop. Continue riding forward, even if that means you miss your turn (you can always turn back later). In high-speed traffic, negotiation is much more difficult and dangerous—often impossible. If traffic is moving too quickly for you to interact with approaching drivers, simply be careful and shift lanes when you can.
Many of the trickiest traffic situations come at intersections, where vehicles coming from various directions meet. Be careful and alert as you approach intersections because there's usually a lot going on. Don't enter an intersection while the light is yellow and try to rush through. There may be a car trying to do the same thing and not watching for you. Instead, stop and wait at the light with the rest of traffic. If a right turn is possible, move into the center of the right lane so cars will not cross in front of you as they turn.
If you reach an intersection and find a line of cars waiting—at the light or stopped in a traffic jam—you may be tempted to squeeze through to the front of the line. Unless it is specifically outlawed in your state, this is certainly your prerogative. It may annoy motorists stuck in line, but as one of the bicycle's few on-the-road advantages, it's well worth making use of. Be cautious, though, and watch for cars that may be shifting lanes in the traffic. As always, be as predictable and as controlled as possible.
If you end up in front of a group of cars at a stop light, it's best to let at least one car go through the intersection before you. This will establish the flow of traffic and avoid a situation in which a car coming from another direction does not see you and enters the intersection while you are crossing. To cross the intersection as quickly as possible, shift your bike into a low gear before you stop at a traffic light or stop sign.
To make a right turn at an intersection, simply remain in the far right lane and turn when traffic conditions permit.
Figure 7-3 PROCEEDING STRAIGHT THROUGH AN INTERSECTION
When proceeding straight through an intersection, move left to avoid getting cut off by motorists turning right. If a right-turn-only lane exists, shift left to the right side of the first straight-only lane (see Figure 7-3). Once you cross the intersection, return to your path on the right side of the road. If the right lane offers a choice to turn right or to go straight, move to the center of the lane, cross the intersection in the normal stream of traffic, and return right once you are through. As you cross the intersection, be prepared to turn sharply right if a car from the opposite direction makes a sudden left turn into your lane without seeing you.
Left turns are more difficult and require planning long before the intersection. When in doubt, simply get into the center of the correct turn lane. While this may slow traffic, it will ensure that you are seen and not cut off. If the left lane is a left-turn-only lane, move to the right side of that lane and turn wide to the right side of the cross street. If the left lane offers a choice to turn left or to go straight, move to the center of the choice lane and turn left into the center of the cross street before returning to the right side (see Figure 7-4). If one left-only lane and one choice lane exist, position yourself on the left side of the choice lane to make the turn.
Figure 7-4 TURNING LEFT AT AN INTERSECTION
Be sure to look both ways down the cross street and straight ahead before attempting the left turn. If you must wait in the center of the intersection while traffic from the opposite direction passes, turn your bicycle at an angle (45 degrees or less) to make yourself more visible to approaching cars. If traffic is very heavy, consider making the left turn as a pedestrian would. Remain right as you go through the intersection, then cross left on the crosswalk.
At a single-lane roundabout or rotary, ride in the center of the lane until you reach your turnoff, and watch traffic behind you before making the turn. At a multiple-lane roundabout or rotary, stay in the right lane only if you plan to make the first right. Otherwise enter and ride in the left (inside) lane until turning off. Make sure the right (outside) lane is clear before making the turn.
Though bicycles are often restricted from them, highways with clean and wide shoulders can be relatively safe for biking. Where highway riding is allowed, bikes should remain on the shoulder as far right as is safe and practical. Because expressways have limited access, bicyclists only need to worry about breaks in the right shoulder at exits and feeder lanes. Where an exit lane approaches on the right, follow the shoulder into the exit until the exit completely breaks from the main road. Watch behind you for exiting cars; when the lane is clear, cut back to rejoin the highway on the right shoulder. If no traffic is approaching as you reach the exit, simply stay straight and cut across the exit. Or, if you plan to exit, follow the exit lane on the right shoulder.
Figure 7-5 TURNING FROM A ROUNDABOUT OR ROTARY
Where a merging lane approaches on the right, watch for entering traffic. Shift right to the right shoulder of the merging lane as soon as possible, and avoid riding straight into the path of any entering cars. If you are entering on a merging lane, simply stay to the right as the merging lane joins the main expressway traffic.
The Panic Stop
Riding in traffic can be unpredictable. In an emergency, sharp and sudden stops can be necessary. A safer quick-stop technique—commonly called a “panic stop”—should be performed as follows:
Shift your body weight toward the back wheel by sliding slightly off the saddle, and position your body low over the frame.
Apply the brakes evenly and firmly on the front and back wheels, then gradually increase pressure on the front brake as you stop.