By Bruce Cohen - August 1, 2015
As we head into the Fall and the peak season for bicycling events, take the time to freshen up on some safe cycling tips:
We all see them: the salmoners. These are the people going against traffic and draw the ire of bicyclists and drivers alike.
Salmoning (or biking against traffic) is dangerous and does not help our image of bicycles as a vehicle. While head-on collisions are rare, drivers at intersections and parking lots are not looking for a vehicle traveling the wrong way. If they are turning right, they look left to check for oncoming traffic in their lane with maybe a cursory glance right to check for pedestrians. Drivers may not be aware of the salmoning bicyclist traveling towards them, and right or wrong a bicyclist will always lose in a collision against a car.
There are reasons why bicyclists salmon that those of us in the bicycle community must address. First, they may simply be ignorant of how you are supposed to bicycle. They are following the counter-flow traffic pattern that pedestrians are supposed to adopt when walking in the street. These people have simply not been given the opportunity to learn. The second reason salmoners exist are gaps in safe infrastructure. They may know that they have to bike with traffic, but for whatever reason they feel that salmoning is the safest avenue available for them. Are they not able to make a left turn across a busy road? Is this a low-traffic one-way road with high traffic on the correct direction roads? In this case, salmoners are a symptom of a bicycle network that is lacking.
Now, since I’m on my soap box I will link you to a short little youtube clip reminding everyone to drive on the right!
Yes, you’re going straight through an intersection and have the right of way, but you see a car edging further and further out in the lane. They should see you (you’re lit up like a Christmas tree with flags, plus you’re a 6’7″ line backer on a high wheel bicycle) but the driver is acting squirrely as you approach. It’s a good idea at this point to start feathering your brakes and slowing down so if that driver cuts you off you are prepared to stop and avoid collision.
Yes, it is frustrating but it is what we have to do when our number one priority is not being right, but being alive and well. When you are driving you also have to be aware of erratic drivers, and insurance companies love to hype “defensive driving.” This defensive driving is not about being right, but being prepared for another driver violating your right of way in order to avoid a collision. Being prepared to stop as you enter intersections and other high-traffic incident areas is simply “defensive biking” and is a good way to avoid injury.
Of course, if you cannot stop or do not stop, and a driver hits you, that is still their fault. Defensive biking is not about victim blaming, it’s just a good practice for avoiding dangerous situations.
Common road hazards that Maryland bicyclists deal with include potholes, parked cars, downed branches, sudden gravel, and, of course, storm grates. We also get a lot of traffic calming devices that squeeze the lane and force bikes off the shoulder and into the car lane with little to no warning. These road hazards can be anywhere from mildly annoying to downright dangerous, so keep vigilant and aware.
While biking it is safest if you can maintain a constant line, which means it is a good idea not to be swerving around the road. Being predictable to drivers goes a long way in allowing them to safely pass you and courtesy. This means that it is not always a good idea to ride in the shoulder or as far right as possible. Road hazards are generally on the right side of the road and can spring up with little warning (a hole might be disguised from a distance and glass oftentimes sneaks up if there is no sun to make it shine). You need to ride defensively and ride as far to the right as it is safe for you to do so, which does NOT mean as far right as is possible at that very moment. It is also not safe to repeatedly merge in and out of traffic as the shoulder or road debris allow.
Here is a helpful explanation for why cyclists should not ride as far to the right as possible. It references Florida law but Maryland law on this topic is similar. Here is a review of Maryland laws for bicyclists and drivers.
While we cannot control a driver and force them to look for bicyclists, we can take efforts to make ourselves more noticeable and visible. This includes wearing bright colored clothing and running front and rear lights both during the day and night.
Wearing bright colors is a good idea, but it is not required and no cyclist or pedestrian should be shamed for wearing a certain color while biking or walking. Fluorescent colors are no guarantee that a driver will see you, and you have the right to wear whatever you want. Our policy is that bright colors are a good idea.
Remember, daytime lights should be bright in order to compete with the sun and be noticeable. At night most lights will be visible because of the contrast with the darkness. I personally try to run two rear lights at a time, one steady and one blinking in order to help drivers at night with depth perception. In Maryland, bicycles are required to have rear reflectors at OR have lights that act as reflectors. Lights are legally required in low-visibility conditions (think about when you would turn on your headlights in the car, the same applies for bicycles).