The Ultimate Cyclists Guide To Road Safety
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.
Why Practice Bicycle Safety?
This section isn’t intended to scare you, but scary things can happen 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 killed throughout 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.
When and Why do Bicycle Accidents Most Frequently Occur?
It was reported that 80% of cycling accidents occur in 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 Cycling Accident Causes
- Motorist emerging into path of cyclist.
- Motorist turning across path of cyclist.
- Cyclist riding into the path of a motor vehicle.
- Cycling and motorist going straight ahead.
- Cyclist turning right from a major road and from a minor road.
- Child cyclist playing or riding too fast.
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 with head injuries, 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 not entirely prevent 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.
What Are the Official UK Road Laws for Cyclists?
Unfortunately, the official Highway Code (HC) is often confusing – because it is a combination of both mandatory rules and advice. Thus, some people may interpret the advice sections as mandatory rules, and vice versa, which can often lead to confusing traffic incidents. See a PDF of the currently regulations here (legislation.gov.uk).
However, just because the official law is split into mandatory rules and unofficial recommendations, does not mean you should look at it in black-and-white. The safest bet is to just pretend that it’s all mandatory. So we will show you the mandatory rules followed 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.
Mandatory Rules According to the Highway Code
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 the front of your bicycle, and a red light on the rear. They must be visible (not obscured), such as by a saddlebag. A torch mounted on your head does 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 have optional 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 as you have a primary white light also attached to the front. But, as we just stated, it may not be red, and you may also not attach a white light at the rear.
Lights are not a legal requirement during the daytime, 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. You cannot replace 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 pedals with reflectors, or only use your clipless pedals during the daytime hours.
It is an offence to ride your bicycle on public roads without 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”.
Cycling While Intoxicated
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 be in charge of a bicycle while intoxicated. Technically, this means that you cannot legally push your 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.
Red Lights and Advanced Stop Lines
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), cyclists may position 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, unless they are already so close to the stop line that stopping would cause a collision.
Cycling on Pavement
The legislation does not officially refer to pavements. However, a bicycle counts as a carriage. 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 is technically an 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.
Misc. Mandatory Rules for Cyclists
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 – she could sit 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.
Confusion on Riding Two Abreast
It is not illegal to 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 to assume that riding two abreast is illegal.
However, because it is an advisory in 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 this may cause 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.
Choosing Proper Safety Gear for Cycling
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 the bare minimum, but it is simply that – the bare minimum. There are a lot of other injuries that can occur besides simple head injuries.
Road rash is 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 are three types of road rash, being:
- Avulsion – The most common type, which is typically scraped skin. However, very serious cases of avulsion can expose layers of fat, muscle, and even bone.
- Open wound – Open wound road rash almost always requires stitches, and the most severe cases can require skin graft operations as well.
- Compression – This occurs when a part of the body is caught between two objects. Its more common to motorcycles, when a motorcycle can literally drag its rider with it across the pavement, and leads to bruising, muscle damage, and broken bones.
Essential Bike Parts
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.
- Mirrors: a mirror is absolutely essential if you cycle on roads or trails. Turning around on your bicycle to look behind you can have the unfortunate effect of reducing your steering, and in fact, many people unintentionally steer their bicycle in the direction they are looking! So when you look over your left shoulder, you may inadvertently steer your bicycle left, which can cause a head-on collision with objects or worse, oncoming traffic. Thus, rear-view mirrors can be affixed to your handlebars, but you can also purchase helmet-mounted mirrors.
- Gloves – Gloves will protect your hands not only from road rash or hand injuries when falling to the pavement, but will also prevent skin abrasions from holding the handlebars for extended periods. Many cyclists who do not use gloves find that they develop painful callouses and abrasions on their palms from gripping the handlebar, and thus, gloves are a preventative measure.
- Mouthguards – If you value your teeth, you should invest in a good mouthguard. However, mouthguards don’t only protect the teeth. Being struck on the jaw can transfer energy to your brain (which is often what causes knockouts in boxers) – thus, a mouthguard can stabilize your jaw. There are a lot of mouthguards out there, but the most comfortable are ones that are customized specifically for you, some as ones made from a dental fitting, or the “boil and bite” mouthguards. Some cyclists may find a mouthguard uncomfortable as it can interfere with mouth breathing, so you should look for a mouthguard which has ventilation specifically for breathing.
- Full Body Armour – This one is somewhat debatable. Much of the body protection armour on the market is designed to spread the impact of being struck by something sharp – but it can still prevent broken bones. Shin and knee armor, for example, can provide high-impact protection for high-speed collisions, and body armor can prevent rib or spinal injuries. (IMAGE: Knee armor, on person)
- Flags - One common cause of accidents involving cyclists and motor vehicles is that the vehicle driver simply did not see the cyclist – being a much smaller ‘vehicle’, bicycles certainly can be a bit harder to spot. Thus, all measures to make yourself more visible to motorized vehicles is of utmost importance, and this includes bicycle flags. You should purchase bicycle flags in bright colors, such as orange or white – perhaps even in reflective patterns. Some cyclists report that flags can cause a bit of “wind drag”, but unless you’re competing in a bicycle race, safety should take precedence over the need for speed.
- Bike Lights – While reflectors are mandatory according to UK law, and you should certainly have them, there is no better visibility than active lights. This means having the largest headlight you can purchase, and blinking rear lights that identify you as a bicyclist. Active lights may require some maintenance, but they are always worth it. (IMAGE 6: Headlight OR rear lights)
- Horns – Typical “bike horns” actually don’t improve your safety all that much, if at all. Its very easy for motor vehicle drivers to tune out the tinkling of bike bells, assuming it's coming from a street vendor, for example. Honk-style horns are only a slight improvement. Thus, if you want to equip your bicycle with a horn, it should be of the “ultra-loud” design, and perhaps one that mimics the horn of a motor vehicle.
- High Viz Cycling Vests – Again, it is mandatory to have reflective materials on your pedals, for example – but you don’t need to stop there. You can purchase reflective tape to be affixed to your helmet, the back of your vest, or other places you feel best. The idea is to make yourself as visible as possible, especially during evening hours.
- Clipless Pedals / Toe Clips – These may take some adjustment to get used to, but pedal clips can help prevent crashes that are caused by your feet slipping off a pedal at a bad time.
Types of Bicycle Helmets
Wearing a helmet is of course mandatory, but the type of helmet you wear is equally important. There are helmets designed specifically for mountain biking, commuting on the roads, or BMX-style stunt riding.
- Commuter cycling helmets – These are of course designed specifically for cycling on the road. They will typically have more ventilation than other types of helmets, to create more aerodynamics when road cycling – they’ll also typically be more rounded or ovular in shape, for the same reason. Road helmets are also typically lighter because heavier helmets will cause fatigue on your neck and shoulders after a while. You should choose a road helmet that offers a high level of visibility, such as one that incorporates reflective tapes into its design. Alternatives to reflective tape include K-star technology, which utilizes millions of tiny, mirrored glass beads along the helmet’s microshell, as well as integrated LED lights. (IMAGE 7: Road helmet)
- Mountain biking helmets – Helmets designed specifically for mountain biking may appear similar to road helmets, but they carry a few differences as well. Often, they offer more coverage for the back and side of your head. This is because if you should fall off your bicycle on a mountain trail, you’re likely to land on terrain which contains many objects such as stones, branches, tree roots, etc. Thus, mountain biking helmet designs try to take these elements into consideration. Mountain bike helmets also typically feature visors for additional face protection, such as blocking out sunrays that can impede your vision, or preventing splatters of mud from flying up into your eyes. However, mountain bikers will also typically wear goggles, since visors won’t completely stop dust and debris from making it to your eyes.
- Urban / BMX Helmets – These helmets are often very simplistic in design, and often look like a bowl strapped to your head. Because BMX and freestyle riders are mainly concerned about head injuries, and not all the requirements of a road or mountain biking helmet, these helmets really only exist to perform one job – protecting the head from serious injury. Of course, these helmets are often not as ventilated as road or mountain bike helmets – which means if you should try to wear one on a long commute, you may find your head a bit sweaty.
- Full-face cycling helmets – These cover not only your head, but your entire face as well. Its most common to see this style of helmet in extreme off-road cycling, such as downhill races or mountain courses. This is because crashing at high speeds while going downhill is very dangerous, especially on mountain trails with all the debris such as rocks and branches, and thus your entire face needs to be protected from injury. Full-face cycling helmets may typically appear similar to motorbike helmets, but they are much lighter. Often, they will also contain built-in chin guards, and full-over visors which keeps out mud and rain.
What About Bicycle Tires?
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 to tire tread – more tread means more surface grip, but more “rolling resistance” (which means less speed).
Types of Bicycle Tire Treading
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 for smooth surfaces 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 as knobbies. 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)
- Smaller knobs are faster and suitable for smooth singletrack.
- Taller knobs offer more grip in technical terrain like roots and rocks.
- Wider tires with sturdy paddle-like knobs are best for soft trail conditions.
- Knobs that are wider at the base will corner better on hardpack.
- Tires with tall, widely spaced knobs offer versatility in loose and hardpacked conditions.
- Tires designed for mud have widely-spaced knobbies so that mud sheds from the tire. (Otherwise you'll essentially be running slicks when mud gets packed between the knobs.)
Considering Front vs Rear 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.
Additional Cycling Safety Tips
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 is too low, this can give you sore knees (also known as tendonitis of the patella or quadriceps). Whereas if your seat is too high, this can cause your hips to sway too much from side to side, and cause lower back pain.
If your seat is too 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 should barely be touching the bottom, when your leg is fully extended.
If your seat is too 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.
What are the Various 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 this Guide to Bicycle Saddles.
What About Hand Signals?
It is an unfortunate fact that vehicle hand signals are 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.