Placing yourself properly along the road is one of the best ways to stay safe in traffic
You’ve seen the road signs: a car and a cyclist peacefully sharing the pavement. Those signs generally serve as reminders to motorists, but cyclists need to take heed too. When you ride on the roads, you need to follow the rules of the road, same as you would if you were behind the wheel. First and foremost, that means riding in the same direction as traffic, so on the right-hand side in the United States. (For a more comprehensive look at how to safely take to the road, check out Selene’s book.)
Some riders mistakenly believe they’ll be safer if they can see oncoming cars by riding against traffic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Riding against traffic is dangerous and a leading cause of bike-related accidents. Why? Physics. Let’s say you’re riding along at 15mph and oncoming traffic is flowing at 45mph. The combined speed that you and any given car are approaching each other is 60mph. That leaves very little reaction time for either of you should something go awry (like you swerve to miss a pothole).
Now turn yourself around and ride the right way with the flow of traffic. Cars are now approaching you at just 30mph. Drivers have more time to see you and maneuver around you. You’re also a more predictable part of traffic flow. Statistically speaking, getting struck from behind when you’re riding with the flow of traffic makes up a small percentage of bike accidents. When you ride predictably, cars can accommodate you.
So you know to ride on the right. But how far to the right? That depends. If there’s a bike lane, that’s your best bet (though realize that sometimes you’ll need to leave the lane to avoid obstacles like parked cars). If there’s no designated bike lane, ride on the shoulder to allow cars to pass freely with a good bit of buffer room. If there is not much shoulder, you should ride a bit more into the lane rather than trying to squeeze onto two inches of pavement.
Think of it this way: If you cram yourself onto the edge of the road, 1) cars will squeak by you too close for comfort, and 2) you leave yourself no bailout room should you need to move to miss an obstacle. By riding a bit more in the lane, you have a little bail-out room on the right and you’re making cars perform a clean pass around you, which results in there being more space between you.
This isn’t too difficult on country or low-traffic roads. Riding in the city or on more turbulent streets takes a bit more finesse. These tips will help you flow with heavier traffic.