Bike Skills

Basics of Traffic Cycling

The law of the road concerning movement of vehicles says that bicycles are vehicles. This means that for the most part you should operate your bicycle like a driver of a vehicle. The rules are the same. You are a part of traffic and you have a right to expect to be treated as other drivers are. Ride as if you belong on the road. Trying to be out of the way of cars all the time makes you less safe. Here are the basic principles.

1. Go with the flow
Riding against traffic puts you in a collision path with vehicles entering the street, drivers will be looking for a break in traffic coming from the other direction. You also cannot see traffic lights and are directly in the path of oncoming bicyclists. Sidewalks are designed for pedestrians, not vehicles. At intersections, turning traffic may not see you coming off the sidewalk until a collision is unavoidable (and doubly so if you are riding on the sidewalk against the direction of traffic).



Figure 1: Wrong-way bicyclists get hit because they are not where drivers are looking, primarily at intersections.
Note that the wronway cyclist is outside of the field of view of both driver A and driver B. 

Figure 2: Sidewalk cyclists get hit by cars emerging from driveways or alleys. Drivers don’t look for anyone coming faster than a pedestrian on the sidewalk. Sidewalk bicyclists also get hit when riding across crosswalks.



2. Yield to traffic on bigger streets
When exiting a driveway or a small street, give way to traffic on the main street. Stop signs and traffic lights clarify who has the right of way. Don’t imitate the many bicyclists who run red lights: it’s dangerous and rude.

3. Ride in a straight line and yield when you must deviate from that line
What happens if you see a double-parked car or a pothole ahead? First look over your shoulder for traffic. If you see none close, move far enough left to avoid the obstacle ahead. If there is overtaking traffic, either slow and wait for it to pass, or, if traffic is steady, point left with your left hand. When the approaching driver slows, it is safe to move left. If the first motorist ignores you, try the next one.

4. Pick the correct position at intersections
Most car-bike collisions happen at intersections or driveways. Just as when you are driving a car, you must pick your lane depending on where you are going (right, left, or straight through). Since you are slower than other traffic, pick the rightmost lane that serves your destination if there is more than one. One more complication: since a bicycle doesn’t occupy an entire lane, you must carefully choose your position within the lane. Here’s the rule: if the lane serves only one destination, ride on its right side; otherwise, ride on the side closer to your destination. For example, ride on the left side of an unmarked lane when turning left, but ride on the right side of a left-turn only lane.

If there is heavy right-turning traffic and you are going straight, move towards the center of the lane to prevent being “hooked” by a right-turning motorist. If you must pass on the right in congested traffic, do so slowly and carefully, and never where a motorist can turn right. Stop behind the first vehicle in line at a traffic light-you never know if someone is going to turn right without signalling. Beware right-turning trucks.

To position yourself for a left-turn, follow the principles in #3 above, and start a block early. If you have to cross more than one lane, do it one lane at a time, looking and yielding each time.

5. Lane Positioning Strategies 
Normally, ride on the right portion of the travel lane, being sure to allow 1′ of space from the edge of good pavement, 2′ from a raised curb, and 3′ from a parked car whose door might open. If you are moving as fast as other traffic (on congested streets or steep downhills), move towards the center of the lane and pass slower traffic on the left. Ride in the center of a lane that is too narrow to share, or you will be squeezed out by motorists passing too closely.

Figure 3: Ride a safe distance away from hazards along the edge of the road such as drain grates and debris.



Figure 4: Ride a straight line. Don’t weave around parked cars.



Figure 5: If the lane is too narrow to share with a car, ride in the middle of the lane.


These concepts may sound tricky or dangerous at first, but with practice they become natural. Since they are not different from what you do when you drive a car, you already know the basic ideas. The best way to learn these principles and skills, and to develop your confidence in traffic, is to take a class. The Bicycling Skills program offered by MassBike teaches safe and efficient bicycling techniques with classroom instruction, parking lot practice, and on-road coaching. In addition to the traffic skills above, having a bike in good working order, a well-fitting helmet, and gloves to protect your hands from scrapes are essential for safe cycling.

Don’t Get the Door Prize

One of the most under-appreciated dangers that bicyclists face is a suddenly opening door of a parked car. These collisions can be very serious. However, there is a simple solution: never ride within a door’s width of a parked car. If you could touch the car you are definitely too close.

Beginner bicyclists like to stay on the far right side of the street, even when there is on street parking. Sooner or later they will win the door prize. Even experienced riders often ride too close to parked cars in urban Massachusetts because riding further out would prevent motorists from overtaking without changing lanes. Don’t let other’s impatience make you ride dangerously! Although motorists may tell you to get off the road, the risk that a driver or passenger of a parked car will open a door in your face is much greater than the risk of a driver deliberately running you over.

Road Hazards

Many of the injuries that happen to bicyclists are the result of falls, and these are often caused by road surface problems. (You can read more about crash statistics). Learning to identify and avoid hazards on the road will greatly reduce your chance of injury. Some of the more common hazards are parallel-slot drain grates, wet leaves, sand and gravel, and potholes.

Steel Plates
These temporary covers for road work are a major hazard. First, they are extremely slippery when wet. Do not ride over wet steel plates. If you didn’t see the plate in time to steer around or stop before one of these nasties, just coast over it (no braking, pedaling, or steering). Riding up along the side edge of one of these plates could cause you to have a diverting fall. Metal-decked bridges can also be very slippery when wet. Get off and walk if you think a metal bridge surface may be wet.

Railroad Crossings
When railroad crossings are perpendicular to the road, they’re just bumps. But when they’re diagonal, they could cause you to fall. Maneuver so you can cross them as close to a right angle as possible, making sure that any overtaking traffic knows what you are doing. Trolley tracks, by contrast, run parallel to the road, and prevent you from making a left turn or even from passing.

Trucks and Buses

Trucks and Buses are long and wide
When they pass you at high speeds the wind blast can cause you to lose control of the bike if you’re not holding on tight. Fortunately, most trucks are driven by professional drivers, and most of them are careful to give bicyclists sufficient room. Beware the U-Haul drivers.

Behind or In Front, but Never Beside
Large trucks and buses need to make wide right turns. You may be tempted to bicycle between the them and the curb. Don’t. If the driver decides to turn right, there is no way he or she can see you. As the vehicle turns, its rear wheels move toward the curb, potentially catching a bicyclist unlucky enough to be in the way. Such incidents can easily be fatal.

Use Lights at Night

To ride after dark safely you must be visible to both traffic approaching from behind and traffic in front of you that must yield to you. Many bicycles are not sold with equipment that makes them safe or lawful to ride after dark!

Motorists Must See You from Behind
Drivers must be able to see you at a distance to have sufficient time to avoid you. You should use a light and a reflector. Reflectors alone are often not bright enough, but are useful as a backup if your light fails. Mass. law requires a red rear light or reflector and pedal reflectors or ankle bands, all of which should be visible from 600 feet when in front of motor vehicle headlamps. Red LEDs are very visible and last many hours on batteries. With non-flashing (steady) LEDS it’s easier for approaching drivers to judge distance. A large, flat yellow reflector, available in auto parts stores, is much brighter than the nearly-useless reflectors which come with new bicycles.

Motorists Must See You Approaching
You need a headlight to be seen at night. In any situation in which motorists must yield to you, they must be able to see you, for example, when turning left, pulling out of a parking space or driveway, or at a stop or yield sign. Their headlights will not be pointing at you. You need a headlight to be seen. A front reflector is nearly useless. Mass. State law requires a white light visible from 500 feet.

Kids and Bicycles

Bicycles and children go together. Learning to balance on a bicycle is one of life’s rites of passage. Bicycling can increase the independence of older children. Bicycling can be a fun family activity.

Taking young children along
You may decide to take your child along when you bicycle well before they are able to ride the streets on their own. There are several ways to bring kids. A common method is to use a bicycle seat which attaches over a rear rack. Steven Olderr writes, “The safest rear child carriers have foot wells, a handgrip that goes across the lap, a shoulder harness, and a bar or molded back that goes up higher than the top of the head and wraps partway around the sides. It is unwise to carry a child that weighs more than 30 lbs. because the bicycle will become hard to control. Two people are needed to safely put a child in a rear carrier, one to hold the bike, and one to strap in the child. A kickstand cannot be trusted to hold the bike while strapping in the child” (from Bicyclopedia, A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Bicycles and Bicycling).

Bicycle trailers
Another option is a trailer, which is safer because it eliminates the possibility that the child could fall from a high place. Trailers have been known to flip over on rare occasions, but such accidents are more scary than dangerous. Trailers are more comfortable and fun for children than bike seats. Trailers can also accommodate two small children (giving the parent a great workout).

Tandems and trailer bikes
There are two options for kids who have outgrown a trailer but are too young to ride on the roads even with parents. A tandem bicycle with a special set of pedals and cranks positioned for children (a “kidback”) is the best but most expensive option. An old design recently revived is the “trailer bicycle,” a “half-bicycle” which attaches to an ordinary single bicycle, allowing the child to pedal but leaving the parent in control. A bicycle plus trailer bike doesn’t handle as well as a tandem, but it is much less expensive. Either the tandem or the trailer make it much easier to cycle with a child, since the child and the adult will be traveling at the same speed. It is also an excellent way to teach effective cycling techniques. For more information on tandems and trailers with kids.

Kid’s bicycles
Children should not ride bikes which are too big for them. They should be able to comfortably stand over the frame, reach the handlebars, and squeeze the brake levers (if the bike has hand-operated brakes). Department store bikes may be adequate for small children. However, buying from a bicycle shop assures you that the vehicle will be in good working order when new and of higher quality.

Where to Ride
Empty playgrounds are good for learning to ride and for riding with young children. Although suitable for beginning riders, sidewalks are not as safe as you might think, especially for older children who go faster and farther. When riding on the sidewalk, every driveway or intersection poses a risk of colliding with turning cars. It is illegal to ride on sidewalks in business districts.

Bicycle paths are a bad place to teach a child to ride. Paths can be fun for family riding, but they are not risk-free, especially when crowded. Teach your child the rules of the path: stay to the right; look behind for faster traffic before moving left to pass. Stop whenever the path crosses a road and cross only when there is no traffic approaching.

Helmets and bike safety
From the first time they ride a tricycle, kids should learn that wearing a helmet is part of the requirements of riding a bicycle. Make sure the helmet fits properly. Helmets are available for children of all ages, and some now have cute designs which children actually find cool. A helmet can be a lifesaver if a bicyclist falls and hits his or her head. Kids must have bicycles which fit and are in good shape, they must know how to handle their bicycles, and they also need to know the traffic rules.

Teaching traffic skills
Many of the car-bike collisions which happen to children are easily preventable. Common mistakes include riding out into traffic without looking, not stopping at stop signs, and sudden movements across the roadway. At a certain age, kids can learn the rules of the road, but they have to be taught. Focus on the first three of the basic traffic cycling principles (ride in the direction of traffic, yield when entering the street, yield when moving across the street). Teach one at a time on quiet streets. Practice checking for traffic by looking over your shoulder in an empty playground or parking lot.

A role model
By being a traffic-smart cyclist, you are in the best position to teach by example. Learn the principles of bicycling in traffic.

Graphics on this page are copyrighted by the State of Oregon.

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