Cycling is an amazing alternative to motor vehicle transportation. It is mainly an aerobic activity which promotes cardiovascular fitness, weight loss, and you’ll likely save a ton of gas money as well. However, there are a lot of precautions to take when cycling, particularly on roads alongside traffic.
In this handy guide, we are going to cover the do’s and don’ts of bicycle safety (according to the law), basic safety measures, and choosing the proper safety equipment. The road laws in this article are oriented towards UK cyclists, but the safety information can be applied to all cyclists around the world.
This section isn’t intended to scare you, but scary thingscanhappen if you choose to ignore safety. For example, some people think it looks “cool” to ride a bicycle without a helmet – but you’ll be a lot less “cool” as a comatose vegetable with a traumatic brain injury.
According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA), over 3,300 cyclists were “seriously injured” on the road, with 102 total being killedthroughout the year of 2016. A further 14,978 were “slightly injured” – of course, these statistics only represent the incidents that were reported to the police. A great number of accidents involving cyclists are not reported to the police, even if the cyclist is taken to the hospital.
ROSPA also found that two thirds of cyclists killed or seriously injured were involved in collisions at road junctions, most commonly T-junctions and roundabouts. Rural roads also play a factor, as people may feel safer driving at higher speeds on rural roads. Of course, speed of travel and severity of collision go hand in hand.
It was reported that80% of cycling accidents occurin broad daylight – the most dangerous hours being between 8am to 9am, and then 3pm to 6pm – which is commonly rush hour traffic. This goes against the grain of “common wisdom” that bicycle accidents occur because drivers cannot see you. Of course, cycling accidents that occur at night are more likely to be fatal.
For child cyclists, the most common cause of accidents are children simply playing, performing bicycle stunts, or riding too fast. Thus, only 8 children were killed in bicycle accidents, while 1,664 were “slightly injured”. However, for adults, accidents are more likely to involve collisions with motor vehicles. The most common contributing factor to bicycle collision with motor vehicles is driver / rider error.
“Failure to look properly” at junctions is the most cited cause, with 57% of “failure to look properly” collisions being attributed to the car driver. Other common contributing factors include drivers / riders performing a “poor turn / maneuver”, or “careless, reckless, in a hurry”. Alcohol of course also plays a significant factor, as the casualty and injury rate increase when a driver is impaired by alcohol.
The second most common collision factor is “cyclist entering the road from the pavement”, which can also include when cyclists cross the road at pedestrian crossings – this accounts for about 20% of serious collisions, and over one third of serious collisions involving child cyclists. Its highly likely that these children are speeding across pedestrian crossings, oblivious to (or uncaring towards)traffic altogether.
The Most Common Cyclist Injuries
The most common injuries occur to the arms and legs, while chest injuries are the least occurring. However, chest and abdomen injuries frequently go hand-in-hand withheadinjuries, which are the most fatal.
Skull fractures, brain damage, and concussions are the most common types of head injuries. In fact, even wearing a helmet does notentirelyprevent head injuries altogether – but it can be the difference between a concussion, and a fatal skull fracture.
ROSPA found that of 116 fatal cyclist accidents in London and other rural areas, over 70% of them had moderate to serious head injuries.
Unfortunately, the official Highway Code (HC) is often confusing – because it is a combination of bothmandatory rulesandadvice. Thus, some people may interpret the advice sections asmandatory rules, and vice versa, which can often lead to confusing traffic incidents. See a PDF of the currently regulationshere (legislation.gov.uk).
However, just because the official law is split intomandatory rulesandunofficial recommendations, does not mean you should look at it in black-and-white. The safest bet is to just pretend that it’sallmandatory. So we will show you themandatory rulesfollowed by the Highway Code recommendations, but you should take the recommendations to heart.
Of course, these laws apply to the Highway Code in the UK – if you live in another country, you should research your exact local laws concerning cyclists on the road.
The following is a list of legal requirements that every cyclist of all ages should follow when cycling on the road.
You must be equipped with approved front and rear lights which are lit, clean, and properly working, particularly when cycling between sunset and sunrise. This is determined by exact sunset and sunrise times – you cannot, for example, get away with saying that its past sunset but the sun hasn’t gone down yet. It goes alongside the law that dictates when motor vehicles must switch from sidelights to headlights.
Image source:Cambridge Cycling Campaign
You must have a white light on thefrontof your bicycle, and a red light on therear. They must be visible (not obscured), such as by a saddlebag. A torch mounted on your headdoes not count! The lights must be affixed to your bicycle and not obscured in any way. You may also have flashing lights, if they flash between 60 and 240 times per minute.
You can haveoptional or additional lights which do not need to comply with the minimum lighting requirements given above. So its perfectly legal for you to affix a second light to the front of your bicycle, in any color you wish (except red),as long asyou have a primary white light also attached to the front. But, as we just stated, itmay not be red, and you may also not attach a white light at the rear.
Lights are not a legal requirement during thedaytime, although you should still have lights always affixed to your bicycle, especially incase of dense fog.
Reflectors also apply (mandatory)between sunset and sunrise hours. You must have red rear reflectors and four amber pedal reflectors, one at the front and rear of each pedal. Youcannotreplace an amber pedal reflector with a reflective heel strip or ankle band. If you purchase clipless pedals, these are typically not designed to have reflectors – thus, you should either find a brand of clipless pedalswithreflectors, or only use your clipless pedalsduring the daytime hours.
It is an offence to ride your bicycle on public roadswithout two efficient braking systems, which operate independently on the front and rear tires. The law here is a bit hazy, as it only really specifies that brakes which operate directly on pneumatic tires are “not efficient”.
As far as alcohol and drugs goes, cycling on a road or other public places while intoxicated can carry a fine up to £1000. In fact, its illegal to even bein charge of a bicyclewhile intoxicated. Technically, this means that you cannot legallypushyour bicycle while walking alongside it, if you are under the influence of drugs are alcohol.
In most cases, police can conduct a sobriety test, and let you “sleep it off” in a jail cell. But if your inebriation causes you to ride your bicycle in a dangerous, reckless manner, you can be charged with “furious cycling”, which carries a prison penalty with it, especially if you cause harm to others. Causing injury to others while cycling furiously can carry a maximum of two years imprisonment.
Careless cycling means simply not giving due consideration for other road users, which carries a fine between £1000 to £2500, depending on how dangerously you are cycling. This can be somewhat difficult for police officers to interpret correctly, such as believing that cyclists must move to allow cars to overtake them – when cyclists often assume a primary position to discourage unsafe overtaking.
Cyclists must not cross the stop line when the traffic lights are red – this can carry a penalty of £50.
If there is an ASL (advanced stop line), cyclistsmayposition themselves ahead of the motorized traffic, but must still be behind the ASL, and certainly not cross the ASL during a red light.
Cyclists must not ride through an amber light,unlessthey are already so close to the stop line that stopping would cause a collision.
The legislation does not officially refer to pavements. However, a bicycle counts as acarriage.It is an offence to drive a carriage on “any footpath or causeway by the side of any road made or set apart for the use or accommodation of foot passengers”.
However, Chief Police Officers are responsible for enforcing this, and many acknowledge that cyclists are sometimes afraid to cycle on the road alongside traffic. Thus, you may get away with a warning if you show consideration to pavement walkers, and demonstrate that the road is generally unsafe for your bicycle at that particular moment. This really boils down to police discretion.
So while cycling on the pavement istechnicallyan offence, it may not be held against you if, for example, road conditions make it unsafe for you to cycle alongside motorized vehicles, and you are showing utmost consideration for others on the pavement. In this scenario, however, it might be best to simply push your bicycle on the pavement, until you can get onto the road safely.
It is illegal to carry more than one person on a bicycle, unless it is specifically “constructed or adapted for the carriage of more than one person". This means you cannot seat your wife on the handlebars while cycling home from the grocery store – shecouldsit behind you, if you owned a two-seater bicycler.
You also cannot hold onto a motor vehicle while cycling – it sounds silly, but some people might find it thrilling to hang onto a car and allow the vehicle’s acceleration to propel their bicycle forward. This is incredibly foolish and dangerous.
It isnot illegalto ride two abreast (or more), but there is some confusion on rule 66 of the Highway Code. This is because it contains the words “You should” and “never” in the same paragraph, which leads some drivers and police officers toassumethat riding two abreast is illegal.
However, because it is anadvisoryin the Highway Code, ignoring it can be seen as contrary behavior, and presented as evidence for cycling without reasonable consideration for other road users. Furthermore, the HC advices that cyclists should "ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends", but thismaycause issues. It boils down to the fact that many motorists believe they have enhanced rights over cyclists (they don’t),and therefore believe that cyclists should ride in single-file formation to avoid delaying motorists.
Safety, of course, is the primary consideration in context, and not whether cyclists riding abreast are causing a minor inconvenience to motorists.
When it comes to cycling safety equipment, we of course might think of a helmet, elbow and knee pads, and perhaps reflective vests. A helmet might be thebare minimum,but it is simply that – the bare minimum. There are a lot of other injuries that can occur besides simple head injuries.
Road rashis a common injury as well, and it isn’t limited to a few scrapes on your arms from tumbling over the pavement.
In fact, there arethree types of road rash, being:
With that in mind, there are some essential bike parts and safety equipment you should be aware of that will make you safer on the roads.
Wearing a helmet is of course mandatory, but thetypeof helmet you wear is equally important. There are helmets designed specifically for mountain biking, commuting on the roads, or BMX-style stunt riding.
Glad you asked! In fact, there’s a wide range of bicycle tires to consider, as far as safety and usage is concerned. It basically boils down totire tread – more tread means more surface grip, but more “rolling resistance” (which means less speed).
Slick – Slick tire tread is intended for roads. The tires will appear smooth, and have almost no perceptive tread pattern – these tires are designed specifically forsmoothsurfaces like asphalt, slickrock, and groomed single-tracks. Of course, some slick tires may contain v-shaped grooves, which will improve your cornering ability on wet, slippery roads. (IMAGE 8: Slick tire tread)
Semi-slick – These are intended for road usage but also have increased treading for off-road purposes. Thus, semi-slick tires are a good choice of balance for a cyclist who may find themselves switching from pavement to rural roads.
Inverted tread – These tires will offer more grip and rolling resistance, but not as much rolling resistance asknobbies. These tires are usually intended for roads that contain a lot of ruts and potholes, and uneven surfaces.
Knobby tread– Knobby itself is an umbrella term, as there are various types of knobby treading. It really boils down to trail conditions. (IMAGE 9: Knobs Tire Tread)
For mountain biking, you should consider having a different tread on the front versus rear wheels. This is because front tires are designed for front-end traction while corning, while rear tires give power transmission and rear wheel control. Thus, when purchasing mountain bike tires, they may actually be labeled for front or rear wheel usage.
Road tires, of course, are not as complicated, because front and rear wheels are often sold in sets. So typically, front and rear road tires will typically have the same treading.
Being comfortable can also be an important factor in bicycle safety. If you find yourself constantly adjusting your seating position, or you’re fatigued after long commutes, this can serve to distract you from paying attention to the road. You should be as comfortable as possible on your bicycle, while still being alert and able to approach different situations.
For starters, you should adjust your seat. If your seat istoo low, this can give you sore knees (also known as tendonitis of the patella or quadriceps). Whereas if your seat istoo high, this can cause your hips to sway too much from side to side, and cause lower back pain.
If your seat istoo low, you need to try pedaling backwards in a stationary position (have someone hold you upright), until one foot / pedal is at the lowest point. At this lowest point, your heel shouldbarelybe touching the bottom, when your leg is fully extended.
If your seat istoo high, such as your feet not touching the pedals at all at their lowest rotational point, then of course you should lower it until your heel barely touches the bottom, as described in the procedure for a seat that is too low.
Your bicycle saddle, of course, plays an important role in your comfort. You need a saddle that has the proper width for your “sit-bones”. This has nothing to do with the actual width of your buttocks, but more to do with the soft tissue between your sit-bones. Many bicycle shops offer a “try before you buy”, but if you’re ordering online, you should at least know the different saddle types.
There's a huge range of bike saddles for all different purposes.
“Racing” saddles are often long and narrow, which shift you forward and aid in faster, continuous pedaling.
“Comfort” saddles have a wider design, and can be designed for both genders’ anatomy (this is more important than you might think). “Comfort” saddles can be used for long-distance tours, and are designed to absorb some shock and impact from rural roads.
“Cruiser” saddles are a good in-between. They are designed for “cruising”, which means you’re generally just letting your full weight rest on the saddle, while coasting along on your bicycle without doing much pedaling.
For a very comprehensive explanation of all the various saddle types, including the types of materials and shapes, see thisGuide to Bicycle Saddles.
What About Hand Signals?
It is an unfortunate fact that vehiclehand signalsare taught to us at an early age, usually in grade school, and we’ve forgotten them by the time we’ve graduated. And even if you remember all the hand signals, the motor vehicle driver next to you might have no idea what you’re signaling. Still, it’s a good safety measure to know the proper hand signals.
Of course, hand signals can vary by country – cyclist hand signals in the UK, for example, may not exactly be the same as hand signals in the United States. Here we will describe some of the common hand signals for UK cyclists, but its worth learning the hand signals of your country, or a country you intend to visit and go bicycling around.
This hand signal indicates you intend to slow down, or a significant change in your speed, such as preparing to brake. You will face your palm down with arm outstretched and simply move your hand up and down to indicate a change in speed.
For this signal, you will raise your hand above your head, with fingers pointed upwards.
For indicating a turn, you should raise your arm outstretched in the direction you will be turning. You should also quickly look behind you, to make sure that drivers behind you understood your indication to turn.
To see additional hand signals for both motorized vehicle drivers and cyclists alike, see the “Signals to other road users” page on the official Highway Code section of Gov.UK.
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A new word is needed to describe those who ride bicycles for transport, according to dame Sarah Storey.