Feature

Cycling in the safe lane

G Magazine

Your two-wheeled journeys needn't be a risky prospect if you follow these tips for commuting.

Biking

Bicycles are legitimate road vehicles so, for the most part, cyclists need to obey the same laws as motorists: riding on the left-hand side of the road, stopping at stop signs and red traffic lights, signalling turns and giving way when required.

Credit: iStockphoto

- Advertisement -

It keeps you fit and healthy, saves greenhouse gas emissions and is often quicker than driving. So, what's the downside to cycling in the city? Fear of injury seems to be the main roadblock for some would-be cyclists, whose trips could really make a difference to the planet and their pockets.

Some high-profile incidents have upped the ante, like the death of an elderly pedestrian on Beach Road in Melbourne in 2006 after a bunch of cyclists went through a red light, and the injuries sustained by another group in Sydney after an angry driver slammed on his brakes in front of them. The perception is that group cycling is the problem.

Last November, NSW issued guidelines restricting groups of bike riders to 20. Yet there's no research to link group size to safety, says Marilyn Johnson, from Monash University's Accident Research Centre. She examined footage of bunch riders two years before and one year after the Beach Road death. Before the accident, groups broke the law, running red lights, riding more than two abreast and over two lanes - but after it they were much more law-abiding; not one had run a red light.

The paradox is that the more of us who ride bikes, the safer it will be. "The statistics show that as rider numbers are increasing rapidly, crashes are also increasing, but at a much lower rate," says Bicycle Victoria spokesperson Garry Brennan. "It seems that once bikes become a common sight on the roads, drivers expect to see them, and therefore, they look for them."

Another factor: more drivers are also cyclists. "Once they experience the excitement of a close encounter with a hooned-up V8 ute," says Brennan, "they rapidly develop a whole new appreciation of the vulnerability of a bike in traffic and adjust their own driving behaviour accordingly."

But facing the reality that there are some less than considerate road users, what can you do to avoid injury riding your bike?

Follow the rules

Bicycles are legitimate road vehicles so, for the most part, cyclists need to obey the same laws as motorists: riding on the left-hand side of the road, stopping at stop signs and red traffic lights, signalling turns and giving way when required. If you don't drive a car, it's a good idea to learn the road rules, so check in with your state or territory's traffic authority. If you can already drive, try taking an online driver knowledge test to make sure your awareness of the rules is up to date.

When it comes to biking-specific laws, Australia has uniform road rules for cyclists, though there are minor state variations; for example, some states let cyclists ride on footpaths. The Cycling Promotion Fund has fact sheets for each state's rules, as well as a lot of other good two-wheel info.

Although you should stick to the left, ride a metre or more away from car doors. Fiona Campbell, Cycling Transport Planner for the City of Sydney, warns that 40 per cent of cycling accidents in the CBD are due to 'dooring' (car doors opening into the path of oncoming bicycles). "Taking the lane might generate a bit more aggro from drivers, but it is safer and it's legal," she says.

Cyclists are permitted to ride two abreast on the road, but be aware that you must be no more than 1.5 m apart.

Cycling instructor Patrick Jones of Bikewise in New South Wales has trained hundreds of people to ride safely in Sydney's busy traffic. He teaches his students three core rules: See and be seen. Communicate. Be predictable.

See and be seen

Be aware all the time of other road users and what they are likely to do. In traffic, keep turning your head to see if vehicles are approaching. Make sure you're not in the blind spots of drivers, especially any who may be about to turn left.

When it comes to clothing, cycling gurus stress comfort and recommend wearing normal street clothes, but visibility is important too. "A black hoodie might be not such a great idea," Patrick Jones suggests. Fluorescent or reflective vests or strips can help you to be seen, and are vital at night.

When the sun goes down, you must have a white headlight, a red tail light and a red rear reflector. A steady white headlight lights the way ahead and may be worn on your head. A flashing tail light and the rear reflector help motorists notice you. Carry spare batteries if you plan on riding for a long way at night.

Communicate

When approaching side streets, make eye contact with car drivers to make sure they have seen you. If in doubt at any time, blowing an air-horn, dinging a bell or shouting "Oi!" is worth your while.

Fiona Campbell says countless times she's been approaching people in cars, and, "When I'm not sure if they've seen me, I give a couple of toots of the air-horn and I will see them surprised to see me. A smile or a wave, and all is OK".

Be predictable

Try to travel in a straight line. Don't weave back into the kerb whenever there are no parked cars. Make your intentions clear with hand signals, your body language and your road position.

If you are a fast rider, keep two metres behind the vehicle in front of you to allow for sudden braking.

Use extra precaution

Mirrors on handle bars can help you see what's coming up behind. Store your belongings on fitted racks or panniers, minimising the risk of losing your balance. Bells are compulsory and let you warn pedestrians on mixed cycle/walking tracks (an air-horn might startle them into your way). Helmets are also compulsory.
Only use your mobile once you've stopped riding. Don't be like the guy I saw once, texting two-handed while riding uphill in a bike lane against the flow of traffic in a one-way street!

Don't be an 'iPod zombie' either - you need your ears to be aware of what's going on around you.

Be gracious

In addition to his three main rules, cycling instructor Patrick Jones has developed another useful guideline: be a gracious road user and be prepared to forgive others.

"You're very vulnerable to feeling awful when people honk their horns. But if you're not so judgmental about others, and if you know why you do what you do, then it is not going to affect you so much when other people are unreasonable."

Basic tips

Check if the brakes are working and the tyres are pumped up. if you're new to cycling or a bit rusty, getting a lesson or two from an AustCycle certified trainer can do wonders to boost your awareness and confidence. Or you could find a bike buddy, join a bicycle-user group or travel in a 'bike bus' to develop your skills.

Resources

www.cyclingpromotion.com.au
www.austcycle.com.au
www.bicyclensw.org.au
www.bq.org.au (Queensland-based)
www.biketas.org.au
www.pedalpower.org.au (Canberra-based)
www.bv.com.au (Victoria-based)