Melbourne sans car #3: Bicycling Melbourne safely

A common misconception about cycling is that it’s dangerous. Well, getting on a bike may expose you to some danger, but so does doing anything. Bicycle Victoria has an article comparing cycling to other activities and the likelihood of injury to put it into perspective. It also talks about the dangers of “not cycling” if you have a sedentry lifestyle. What about the danger of not having the fun of cycling in your day? You might explode. That’s dangerous. But seriously, the benefits far outweight the risks, and the more cyclists there are out there, the safer it is.

Cycling in a safe way (no, not the supermarket) will ensure that any risks you take getting around on two wheels are dramatically reduced, and this blog entry aims to cover the ways to do this.

Road rules

The most important thing to ensure safety of yourself and others is to know and follow the road rules. The road rules have been written to ensure the road is shared between all users in a way that prevents the accidents.

The sub-set of road rules that apply specifically to cyclists can be found here (PDF).

This is just a subset specifically for cyclists, so if you haven’t read the full set of road rules recently, make sure you do that as well.

Some road rules that get broken a lot by cyclists include riding without lights at night, talking on your mobile when riding, and not indicating.

Your phones ringing while you’re out riding? Easy. Indicate you are stopping with a hand signal. Move off the the left as much as possible. Get out of the bike lane or off the path if possible. Get off your bike. Now, answer your phone. Don’t answer it until you are off your bike, out of the way of others, and are aware of your surroundings. Weigh up missing a call against causing injury to yourself or others. Don’t ride while holding your phone up to your ear. This is dangerous to you and those around you, and against the road rules.

Always indicate, even if you think no one is around to see it. If you’re in a bike lane and you need to stop unexpectedly, always indicate you need to pull over to the left with a hand signal or yell ‘Stopping’ if you aren’t able to take both hands off the bars. This way you give someone behind you a chance to slow down or overtake, and no crash into the back of you. Whenever you need to stop move off to the left as much as possible or off the path / on the footpath as a courtesey to other road or path users.

Obviously, wearing a helmet is a must. Head injuries aren’t nice, so make sure you’re well protected up top in case of falls. Read Bicycle Victoria’s article on helmets for more information on the right fit.

Defensive Cycling

The next most important thing to be safe out there is to ride in a defensive way. This means you ride as if everyone else out there is unpredictable, can’t see you, and that you don’t presume others follow road rules. This technique isn’t just good practice for cyclists, but but to all road users (pedestrians, motorcyclists, car drivers). Basically, its about being alert of what is going on around you as much as possible, and as much as you can putting yourself in a position (whether it be your road position or how easy it is for you to jump on the brakes) where if someone does something unexpected or silly out there, you can prevent an accident or save yourself from injury.

Some examples of defensive cycling:-

  • Always check both sides of an intersection for red light runners when you take off on a green light.
  • Do a quickly check of the car beside you when you are about to pass a side street, if there’s a possibility they might try to turn right onto you.
  • If a driver appears wreckless, dangerous, or ‘dodgy’, trust your instincts and give them a wide berth – don’t put yourself in harms way when something seems fishy.
  • Watch for pedestrians stepping out without looking, pedestrians stepping out behind buses or large vehicles, small kids near schools or playgrounds…
  • Don’t ride with tunnel vision. Make the best use of your peripheral vision by always scanning across side to side as your ride. This allows you to see things earlier, giving you more time to take evasive action.

Don’t cycle in a cars blindspot for long periods of time, wherever possible. Riding in the blindspot is when you ride beside a car, behind the front window, so that a careless driver who only checks their mirror and doesn’t do a shoulder check, might assume no one is there beside them.

Riding through the CBD and other areas where there is a lot of parked cars makes cycling more challenging because drivers sometimes open car doors without looking first. Cycle one metre out from parked cars wherever possible and look for heads in cars and for faces in rear-vision mirrors to predict car-doors opening. When you see a car door crack, get right on the brakes straight away, don’t swerve out into traffic (that is more dangerous) and yell out “DOOR”.

If you have a close call, you might like to move off the road, take a few deep breathes to calm yourself down and introduce yourself to the driver with your first name (don’t go right up to them. Keep a bit of the car between you and them if possible, but close enough to talk in a normal voice) before saying “Just wanting to remind you that the road rules say you must not open your door to cause a hazard, so you need to check your mirror and do a shoulder check anytime you open you car door. Otherwise you could really hurt someone”. Do not speak to the driver if you are still visibly angry or shaking or they look dangerous. Your aim is to convince the driver you are a friendly person who is giving them a reminder so they don’t open there door on a cyclist in future. You don’t want to appear as an angry person who wants to hurt them out of revenge. If you yell or appear angry they won’t be receptive to what you say at all; they’ll be too busy yelling back to think about what just happened and not do it next time. You only need to say that one line. Hopefully they’ll understand, and even apologise. If you are being friendly and they have a go at you, leave it be (say no more and be on your way) but jot down their number plate (or store it in your mobile) to report them for dangerous driving (don’t make it obvious or confrontational).

If you do have a close call and get shaky, make sure you get off the road and have a sit down or walk your bike for a while to calm your nerves. You don’t want to let someones neglect ruin your whole ride.

As a last point on defensive cycling, I recommend you refresh your defensive riding knowledge by reading this article.

Courtesy

Being aware of other road users needs can lead to a safer and more enjoyable trip for everyone. Letting someone in, and not blocking intersections, as well as friendly waves and thank-yous when other road users show courtesy your way, are all small things to do but can have a positive impact on how other road users see you and other cyclists in the scheme of things. Unfortunately many drivers see a bad cyclist doing something wrong or being discourteous and small-mindedly place all cyclists in the same category. The more of us doing the right thing out there and having manners will show road users the majority of cyclists act the right way, and this will impact on how courteous and patient they are in return.

Knowing that car drivers need to know what you are doing (use hand signals), they need you to ride in a predictable way (following road rules) and they need to be able to see you in poor light (wearing bright clothing and having lights fitted to your bike) are all ways you can show courtesy to drivers, so they may do so in return.

On the topic of courtesy: something I see often on the way to work is the push-in-line cyclist. That’s when you stop at a red light and a slower cyclist you just overtook rides past you in the line to push-in. There is no reason to push in front of another bike waiting at a red light unless they are turning and you are going straight, or you KNOW you ride faster and will overtake them in a few metres anyway. Often you’ll see people you just overtook 500 metres back in the bike lane, push in front of you at a set of lights. When they do this you shake your head because you know you’ll just have to overtake them again. This is stupid, and the unnecessary overtaking is a risk – a risk they shouldn’t need to take if slower riders just used their brain. Don’t be one of these people who ‘pushes in’. I don’t know what they are thinking when they push in like this… it is kind of primitive. Why not just wait in your place in the line unless you are certain you are going to be faster off at the lights?

Bike Lights

Buy the best set of lights you can afford, and invest in some rechargable batteries and charger so you can have a ready supply of fresh batteries (carry charged spares with you). Take lights with you when you leave your bike so they don’t get stolen, or superglue the lights on if you prefer, but only if you can still replace the batteries easily.

You can’t just rely on reflectors to be visible. You need lights at night as not everything that needs to see you will shine a light on your reflectors!

According to the Victorian road rules (PART 15—ADDITIONAL RULES FOR BICYCLE RIDERS):

The rider of a bicycle must not ride at night, or in hazardous weather conditions causing reduced visibility, unless the bicycle, or the rider,
displays—
(a) a flashing or steady white light that is clearly visible for at least 200 metres from the front of the bicycle; and
(b) a flashing or steady red light that is clearly visible for at least 200 metres from the rear of the bicycle; and
(c) a red reflector that is clearly visible for at least 50 metres from the rear of the bicycle when light is projected onto it by a vehicle’s headlight on low-beam.

Speaking personally, I think the flashing light settings are better that steady as they tend to be more visible to drivers and the batteries last longer on this setting. But when you are riding in dark spots you might need to switch to steady to see better.

If you regularly ride in very dark spots you might like to get yourself another light with a powerful beam for those areas, so you can see where you are going.

You can also have more than one set of lights on your bike, or wear one set on your helmet or bag and the other set on your bike. This increases your visibility and ensures you have spare lights if one stops working.

See Bicycle Victoria’s Which Bike Lights? for more information.

Reflective / visibility gear

One option here is to just wear clothes that are light or bright colours – such as yellows and whites, and buy some reflective stickers for your bike and helmet. This makes you a lot more visible than those wearing black.

A better option that isn’t expensive is to buy a hi-viz (aka construction worker) vest, which can be bought for around $10. They are usually either yellow or orange and have thick 3M reflective tape on them, and velcro instead of buttons to keep the vest on you. The benefit of a vest is you can put it on over the top of your normal clothes (and even your raincoat) when riding, its small enough to chuck in a bag (or lock to your bike) when you get to your destination, they’re quick to put on and take off, they don’t get too hot in summer months, and the reflective tape makes you a lot more visible to cars at night. Some cyclists get large or XL size vests to wear over their backpack as well.

If you have more money to spend, most bike shops have a good range of jackets, vests, reflective stickers, and there are even wearable devices that glow. Other reflective things like tags for your bag and anklets and arm bands also contribute to your visibility on the road.

It’s best to be ‘360 degrees visible’ (not just on your back). Get some plastic yellow reflectors on your wheels (or get reflective tyres such as the Schwalbe Marathon Plus which are also very puncture resistant) so cars can see you from the side. Make sure your bright and reflective clothing can be seen well enough front the front and when you have a bag on (or put reflective stickers on your bag).

Carrying tools and spares

Carrying a small set of tools for fixing likely problems is a good thing to do. It will mean you can fix a problem and get on with riding, instead of being stuck somewhere, or worse, trying to ride on with the broken bike. Generally, a little puncture repair kit, tire levers, a small adjustable wrench, a flathead screwdriver, a phillips head screwdriver, a couple of the common-size allen keys, and maybe a spare tube… will cover most fixes. Learn how to fix a puncture and how to fix other common problems that might be encountered.

Brakes

If you feel like your brakes aren’t working as well as you’d like, make sure you fix them or get them fixed as soon as you can. The last thing you want is for them to fail when you need them.

Bell

The road rules in Victoria state you need a bell or another similar device on your bike. You can’t just use your voice, so make sure you have a functioning bell fitted where you can ring it easily. Bells are useful for letting people know you are there, or letting them know you are passing. When passing someone (always on the right) its a good idea to also say “passing” so the know what the bell was for. Whenever you hear a bell for passing, move as left as possible on the path or lane.

Safe Routes

Some roads in Melbourne are safer for cyclists than others. Wherever possible, find routes where there are marked bike lanes or dedicated bike lanes, regular lightpoles (less dark roads), and roads which have space for cyclists (even around parked cars).

Refer to resources such as VicRoads interactive map and VicRoads downloadable maps, Bikely, Google Maps street view and Bicycle Victoria’s page on Metro Routes. Also, you can ask other cyclists what they recommend and look for where there are lots of cyclists riding.

Mirrors, and looking behind

Mirrors can be useful to increase your awareness of what is going on behind you without looking around so much, but all mirrors have blind spots so make sure you do a shoulder check to ensure no one is driving or riding beside you before you make a move.

Bicycle victoria has a video clip on how to look behind you safely here.

Learn how to do your own bike maintenance

You can save money and help ensure your bike stays road-worthy by learning to do your own bike maintenance. There are several options to do this:

  • Get a bike maintenance book out of your local library.
  • Visit SheldonBrown.com
  • Invest in a good bike maintenance book. One with steps and illustrations, with a focus on your type of bike (style of bike and its age) so it covers what you need to know.
  • Join CERES Bike Shed for access to tools and so you can ask volunteers advice.
  • Do a bike maintenance course, such as those run by human powered cycles.

Other resources

If you have any other tips, or stories to share about Melbourne sans car, please add to the comments.

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This post is the third of a series of posts about Melbourne sans car.
1. Benefits of not owning a motor vehicle
2. Getting some wheels… Bicycle wheels
3. Bicycling Melbourne safely
4. Keeping your bicycle yours (anti-theft)
5. Shopping by bicycle
6. Commuting by bicycle
7. Maintaining your bicycle
8. Exploring Melbourne by bicycle

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