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Bicycle Blunders and Smarter Solutions

by Fred Oswald, LCI #947

8.  Smarter Solutions — Education and Advocacy

We need to educate society at all levels to overcome the misinformation that has been dispensed for several generations.  Educational measures include:

  1. Public service messages
  2. Posters & fliers
  3. Newspaper articles
  4. Web pages (like this one)
  5. Bicycle driving classes
  6. Public officials setting good example
  7. School programs with knowledgeable instructors
  8. Appropriate questions on driver license test
Widespread teaching of Vehicular Cycling has not been tried and found difficult.  It has been thought difficult and not tried.

P.M. Summer, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton

One of the most dangerous and common mistakes made by cyclists is riding at night without the proper lights — often without any lights.  It is for good reason that all states require a headlight on a bicycle used at night.  Note in the top photo the bike headlights are plainly visible but otherwise, the two cyclists are inconspicuous despite several reflective items on their bikes and clothing.  Unfortunately, most night-time cyclists do not know enough to use lights.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission is largely to blame for this problem because they mandate a set of reflectors for bikes but they do not mandate lights, a standard mounting system for lights or even a hang-tag to warn consumers that lights are needed at night.  Only one of the required reflectors provides a significant safety benefit (the rear one) and that one is not nearly as bright as a standard SAE auto reflector.  The other reflectors are nearly worthless.

Most states’ traffic laws mandate these nearly-useless reflectors.  Novices are misled by all the reflectors, which seem to serve as safety equipment.  Bicycle manufacturers lobbied for the reflector requirements, rather than lights.  Therefore the manufacturers are also culpable for the low usage of proper lighting.  For more information about lights and reflectors, see Cycling at Night by Steve Goodridge.

Even in daytime most people who use bicycles do it badly.  Earlier, we showed how nearly everyone has been exposed to misinformation about cycling.  We have a huge problem to overcome.

People in our society must understand that bicycles are vehicles that should be operated on the same roads, by the same rules and with the same rights as other vehicles.  Horsepower and speed do not confer superior rights.  Using pedestrian methods (unless limited to pedestrian speeds) is extremely dangerous.  The standard rules of the road were developed to allow safe and efficient travel for all.

Transportation engineers and planners whose work affects cyclists must understand the best methods of bicycle operation.  Their designs must encourage — and certainly not discourage — these best practices.

Teaching Children

One popular means for teaching children is at a bicycle rodeo as shown at right.  If the community has a police bike patrol, the officers should be involved.  Rodeos can be beneficial as small part of a larger program if the people teaching are knowledgeable.  Perhaps the best benefit of a rodeo is it may offer an opportunity to reach the parents and distribute a parents’ guide.

A much better way to teach children [1] is to train several instructors in a certified program and then use them to teach groups of children through a school or youth organization.  The instructors must be thoroughly trained in bicycle driving so they avoid the usual mistakes.  We should emulate the Red Cross water safety program, which employs well-trained instructors who work from a carefully designed syllabus instead of untrained authority figures who make up advice as they go.

Cycling advocacy organizations must work to disseminate information widely to overcome dangerous myths about bicycle operation.  One way to teach society is a series of well-written and frequently played public service announcements in the media (radio, television and newspapers).  We must also reach authority figures, police, teachers and police so they stop spreading misinformation but instead begin to encourage the proper techniques.

Ultimately, parents must learn to appreciate correct cycling techniques so they do not miseducate their children or oppose efforts to provide proper lessons.  This means society at large must have a basic understanding.  As soon as a child learns to steer and balance a bicycle, parents should start teaching the basics of bicycle driving.  With competent teaching, children of about age seven or eight can ride safely on residential streets.

The seven year old in the photo at right is demonstrating correct technique to prepare for a left turn — scan, yield and left merge.  She is on a quiet street suitable for her age.  By about age ten, she should be ready for four lane streets with moderate traffic and by twelve, for nearly any road.

This author has a Slideshow for parents that you can access on the LAB Reform Cycling Education Pages.  The show can help you teach your children the best and safest practices.

Teaching Adults

The most thorough bicycle driving program ever developed for either adults or children, is Effective Cycling training.  This was based on the book Effective Cycling [2].  Although these classes are not currently being offered, the shorter 9-10 hour Smart Cycling “Traffic Skills 101” course [3] was derived from the original 30 hour course.  A better training program was recently developed: Cycling Savvy.

For less extensive training, there are many good videos and articles available from CommuteOrlando.  Recommended sources include Smart Moves and Mythbusters on Highway 535.

If we are to get people to cycle effectively, we must teach them the “secret” of good road position.

We need to reach everyone with the essential message that bicycles are vehicles that should be operated on the same roads, by the same rules and with the same rights and responsibilities as other vehicles.  If we can get this message broadly distributed, then there will be far fewer bicycle blunders and people will be more receptive to the idea of bicycle driving lessons.

Traditional “bike safety” teaches cyclists to stay out of the way of cars.  This miseducation is based on the widely believed fallacy that cyclists’ greatest duty is “staying out of the way.”  When other drivers pass too close, cyclists need to know to move left (further into the traffic lane) to show passing motorists to use the next lane.  If you “hug the curb” like a gutter bunny, you tempt them to “squeeze by”.  This can lead to sudden braking or lane changes that put everyone at risk.  But of course, the cyclist is most at risk from squeeze-by passing.

A more assertive lane position, where appropriate, benefits all road users including motorists.  On a road with narrow lanes, ride no further right than the right tire track, as demonstrated in the photo at right.  There is a very good discussion of the “normal” position near the center of the lane in the book Cyclecraft, by John Franklin.

Riding further left has other safety advantages as well:  (1) The cyclist is where other drivers are looking for traffic, thus more likely to be seen.  (2) Staying further left maintains a safety zone to the right.  (3) The road surface is usually in better shape away from the edge of the road.  (4) If the cyclist does need to dodge a road hazard, there is room at the right rather than swerving into the path of passing traffic on the left.  (5) Sight triangles to intersecting traffic are better from near the middle of the lane.

You can read many more good ideas in the article The Confident Cyclist and read the interesting idea that Bicycling in traffic is a dance you must lead.

Beneficial Advocacy

We have sharply criticized “bicycle advocates” for ulterior motives in promoting bicycling.  Their misplaced advocacy makes cycling more dangerous and more difficult and it threatens our right to use the roads.  Not only do they fail to promote best practices, they spend money that could better go to education and indeed, they discourage assertive cycling, which amounts to “anti-education.”

As far as advocacy goes, bicycles need no advocates; they are only machines.  Bicycles are not concerned whether communities are “bicycle friendly”.  However cyclists do need Critical thinking and holistic problem-solving by knowledgeable friends who will teach the best practices, reform bad traffic laws and protect their rights.

Helping cyclists report road hazards is a very useful project for a local advocacy organization.  It is even better if the group collects reports, passes them along to appropriate government officials and maintains a list of reported hazards (in case a hazard is not fixed and someone gets hurt).

There are organizations that provide beneficial advocacy.  We list a few below.


[1] LAB Reform has an extensive Educational Section that offers many ideas and materials for teaching both adults and children. [2] Effective Cycling, MIT Press, 1993 [3] See the list of Certified Cycling Savvy Instructors, to arrange a course or to learn how to become certified yourself.

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