Finding a Sense of Safety While Riding Bicycles

On Monday, I wrote about some of the most common bike laws and shared a few safety tips. Helmets and lights are of course important safety tips, but I kept thinking, "But how can I really feel safe while riding?" How can I delve deeper into that sense and feeling of safety compared to the standard, almost-cliche' safety tips?

Riding bikes is one of my favorite things to do, but it seems like far too often, we read a tragic news story involving a cyclist, from hit-and-runs to other crashes, to more sinister situations. While cyclists have a right to ride in legal areas any time of the day, unfortunately sometimes others infringe on that right. What can you do to protect yourself?

I very rarely, if ever, ride by myself. I don't feel comfortable leaving myself vulnerable to things that can possibly happen. It absolutely sucks, because of course I would love to ride more often, either to the grocery store or to the gym, and maybe I'll work up to that level of defensiveness and confidence. But even though I'm always with my fiance' or a group of friends, I still watch out for my own safety.

I am constantly observing traffic, especially riding in higher-traffic areas like parking lot exits or residential cross-streets. Even if we have the right to cross a street or exit before a car does, that doesn't mean a car is going to automatically see us or stop. If I notice a car not looking my direction or like they're not going to yield, I simply stop and let them go. Better safe than sorry.

As a female rider, I feel better when I'm equipped with pepper spray. Knock on wood, I haven't encountered a situation yet, but I would rather have it than not.

Before you embark on a ride, always let someone know you are heading out. Document your most common routes and share them with someone close to you.

Always be careful in the dark. While traffic is usually lighter when it's dark, the drivers who are out can pose more of a danger. Bicycle lights may not always be effective. I cannot stress the usefulness of my fiance's LoudBicycle horn enough. While we use it in the city and not on back roads, it has helped to simply let cars know we are nearby.

I reached out to my friend April, a board member for Bike Lafayette, for her perspective on bicycle safety. She sometimes rides on her own, and often commutes to work via her road bike. She said her actions mainly depend on the time of day. During daytime, she'll ride alone more often, and be more likely to listen to music with her earbuds. At night, she's less likely to ride alone, and she will change her course so she rides down more well-lit neighborhood streets.

Beyond having bright working lights, April says to have reflectors on your front and back as well. It's important to be seen, especially at night.

Wear appropriate clothing for whatever time of day you choose to ride. Don't wear dark clothes at night. April told me how her father, living in a rural community, wears a legitimate reflector vest when he rides. It may be dorky, but it works, she says.

"No matter when I'm riding," April says, "I always work to communicate and make eye contact with drivers I encounter. I want them to know I see them, and I want them to see me and acknowledge when I have the right of way."

She also says that as a female rider, it's smart to be defensive, even if you're not alone. "Always be observant," she says, "And mentally create an escape plan. If someone would approach me, how would I get out of the situation?"

In that same vein, April also suggests traveling light and smart. When you ride, don't bring lots of important belongings, and keep your purse or backpack on you, rather than in a basket or pannier. (I'll share more tips on packing for a ride in next week's post on commuting!)

Look for routes that have space for cyclists, and try to avoid roads with little to no shoulder. Curvy rural highways are often more dangerous for cyclists, from encountering reckless to obnoxious to distracted to intoxicated drivers.

Because I do all of my riding within the Lafayette city limits, I reached out to my friend Donny, who is closer to Youngsville and those dangerous windy back roads. He explained how there's no bike lane or shoulder on Chemin Metairie, a road that leads to many neighborhoods, until you pass Highway 92, but there have still been a lot of accidents on the bike lane at the Savoy bend by the Youngsville sports complex.

"Beyond your normal safety measures, unfortunately you kind of have to throw out the rule book that says bikes have equal rights. You yield and constantly keep an eye out because the lack of lighting and car speeds on those roads are a dangerous combo," Donny told me.

When he rides for exercise, he avoids the larger highways with hazardous conditions and sticks to residential roads after dark. Sometimes you just have to adjust your routes to make them safer, from choosing better-lit roads to ones with sidewalks, bike lanes, or lower speed limits.

What are your suggestions or favorite habits for riding safely?

Up later this month, I'll be featuring a guest post from Monique Koll, veterinarian, badass, fox lover, and bicycle hit-and-run crash survivor.

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