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Bicycle Blunders and Smarter Solutions

by Fred Oswald, LCI #947

2.  Blunders in Teaching

“Bike Safety” is typically taught by well-meaning but uninformed authority figures (parents, school teachers or “Officer Friendly”).  The teaching generally consists of repeating advice that sounds good — but it is often wrong.  Some of this advice is intended to give children a “good scare” so they will stay out of the way of cars.  Unfortunately, fear of traffic leads to dangerous mistakes on the road and it makes learning safer methods much more difficult.

Almost everyone knows to operate motor vehicles according to a uniform set of rules of the road.  We realize that if drivers operated according to conflicting rules they would be likely to drive into each other.  But this knowledge does not extend to bicycle operation.  Analysis of car-bike collisions demonstrates that over half of them are caused by the cyclist failing to obey the standard principles of traffic operation [1].

Bad Advice

Why the Advice Is Wrong

“Stay out of the way of cars.” There are situations where it is safer to obviously be in the way.  If the travel lane is not wide enough to share with passing traffic, move LEFT so following drivers are not tempted to “squeeze by”.  At intersections and driveways, cyclists who try to stay out of the way by riding on sidewalks may “appear out of nowhere” and get hit.  Experienced cyclists, who stay near the middle of the lane, are easily seen and avoided.
“You could be dead right.” This is often part of a fear campaign [2].  You are more likely to be “dead-wrong”.  We don’t teach swimming by frightening new swimmers.  You are much better off riding predictably and acting like you know what you are doing.  When you have the right of way, use it.  But also drive defensively — anticipate and avoid mistakes of other drivers.
“Ride as far right as possible” This is misquoting the law that actually says ride as near to the right side as practicable (practice+able).  Often “hugging the curb” is less safe, such as where the lane is not wide enough to share with a passing vehicle or if there are hazards at the edge of the road, or where other drivers can see you better if you move left.  Maintain a safety zone to your right.

Confusing Cyclists with Pedestrians

Many people think a person on a bike is some kind of pedestrian.  Wrong!  A bike can easily go 4 or 5 times as fast as a person walking.  And even faster downhill.  A bike cannot stop in a stride; it has brakes like other vehicles.  It cannot turn in place or step sideways like a pedestrian either.  These are a few of many reasons why riding on sidewalks is much more dangerous than driving your bike on the roadway.  And why mixing cyclists and pedestrians is dangerous for both.

Compare bike safety teaching from untrained and uninformed authority figures to swimming lessons given by a certified Red Cross instructor.  A Red Cross instructor candidate must be a proficient swimmer, passing both a written and swimming test just to get into a 36 hour instructor class.  Then the class includes several teaching skills to be mastered, ending with another written and swimming test.  Finally Red Cross instructors work from a carefully prepared syllabus rather than making up advice as they go.  In a swim class, children are taught to relax and NOT TO FEAR the water in order to swim effectively.

Another common blunder involves over-emphasizing a minor skill and then ignoring the really important information.  Children are taught to signal turns as though it is a religious duty.  But they are not taught to look for and yield to any traffic that has the right of way.  You can see an example of this blunder in the otherwise rather good (but bizarre) 1963 ‘bicycle safety’ video One Got Fat.  Notice in the first of several simulated “crashes” (at about 3:20), the message seems to be that giving a signal overrides traffic rules, or “It’s OK to swerve in front of traffic so long as you signal first.”  While it is doubtful the producer intended to encourage swerving without looking, this is certainly a bicycle blunder.

You can read more about teaching blunders and how to avoid them in Let’s Stop Miseducating Society About Cycling.


[1] John Forester presents an extensive analysis of bicycle crashes in his book Bicycle Transportation, MIT Press, 1994.

[2] For another perspective on risk — perception vs. reality, see an article by Mighk Wilson: “Freedom From Fear”.  Mighk has a very good discussion of the excuse “I didn’t see you” (about 2/3 down from top).

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