How to be safe around cyclists

Gull (Larus), near the Ottawa River

In my own experience, the situations that endanger cyclists and the operators of other vehicles near them usually arise because of a lack of awareness about making movements perpendicular to the flow of traffic. In front of a cyclist, imagine a cylinder projected forward, with a length corresponding to the distance it would take that cyclist to stop safely. If you move into that cylinder, there is likely to be a collision.

To avoid this, I suggest two basic practices:

  1. Move in a clearly signaled and predictable manner. When making turns, always signal them. Do not make turns from lanes where it is not allowed. When opening a car door beside traffic, do so slowly. When changing lanes, signal and do it in a smooth and controlled way. When entering the flow of traffic, do so in a controlled and visible way.
  2. Check your blind spots, whenever moving more than half a lane to the left or right. In particular, make sure to check the blind spot to your right when you are making right hand turns (even if you are in the rightmost lane) and make sure to check your left blind spot when opening a car door beside traffic. Those two habits can help you avoid the two most common cyclist fatalities: the ‘door prize,’ which occurs when a car door gets opened in front of a cyclist and they collide, and the ‘right hook,’ where a vehicle makes a right turn in front of a cyclist and they collide.

None of this is to say that cyclists are not responsible for safety, as well. Indeed, all the behaviours above apply to cyclists dealing with other cyclists.

In addition to these, cyclists should be highly visible, signal clearly, obey traffic rules, and move in a clear and predictable manner. Don’t cycle within door range of parked cars and, if safety requires it, feel free to occupy a whole lane. Cars behind you might start going nuts, but it is a smarter option that cycling on some marginal pavement or in an unsafe position. For example, there are a number of roads in Ottawa where the pavement on the rightmost extreme is in a very bad state of repair – so much so that it might make you fall or force you to swerve. In these situations, I find it sensible to make sure there isn’t a car just a couple of feet to the left of me.

Going back to the safe stopping cylinder for a moment, it is true that a cyclist can stop very quickly if absolutely necessary – though the process is chaotic and unpleasant. It consists of braking so hard you lock your front wheel, then going flying over your handlebars. It is better than colliding with a car, but it is far from pleasant and can generate other unexpected movements or collisions. Helping cyclists avoid these kind of stops is one of the more important things you can do as someone sharing a road or path with them.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

22 thoughts on “How to be safe around cyclists”

  1. The Wild Bunch

    Published: March 6, 2009

    SOMETIMES, when I am biking, I remember the ’80s, and I shudder. I remember, in other words, when biking was an extreme sport, when, if you were a biker, you had a lot of locks and a lot more nerve.

    Just the other day, when I was enjoying the bike lane down Clinton Street in my neighborhood, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, I stopped at a red light. And after the crossing guard smiled and chatted with me, after the cars pulled up alongside me and did not honk, I experienced a flashback from 1987: my regular trip from West 113th Street to Central Park, navigating honks and taunts, the mayhem that was then on Cathedral Parkway.

    Which brings me to four sure-to-be-scoffed-at suggestions for better bike P.R.:

    1. Stop at major intersections.
    2. Don’t go the wrong way on one-way streets.
    3. Stay off sidewalks.
    4. Signal before turning

  2. As someone who is usually a pedestrian, I would really appreciate it if cyclists always stayed off the sidewalk. They are often quite reckless and dangerous there, and seem to expect others to get out of their way, even though they are the people in the wrong place.

  3. March 10, 2009
    Better bike P.R.

    Robert Sullivan’s piece in the New York Times is getting a lot of attention from bike blogs for its four suggestions to improve the image of cyclists (it’s also a great description of what it’s like to bike in New York City)…

    These suggestions strike me as incredibly modest and probably already followed by everyone who reads this blog.

  4. The 20 month year old I am babysitting is very excited about this seagull. He exclaimed, mouth full of grapes and crackers, “BIIRRRRRR!!”

    I also showed him the goose head, and he was far less impressed.

  5. As someone who is usually a pedestrian, I would really appreciate it if cyclists always stayed off the sidewalk. They are often quite reckless and dangerous there, and seem to expect others to get out of their way, even though they are the people in the wrong place.

    I can appreciate this sentiment, but it is occasionally unavoidable. On my commute, there is a 2 block portion where not going on the sidewalk would mean a detour of another 4 block lengths. I am aware that I’m not exactly legal, though, and I’m careful to yield to pedestrians.

    In Vancouver, there are certain areas where the bike routes do not connect to each other. One area is Southbound of the Cambie bridge to the 7th ave and also 10th ave routes. The sidewalk here is also virtually unavoidable.

  6. I think it’s worth pointing out that all the things you suggest above are part of what competent drivers should be doing anyway in order to comply with the law and to avoid colliding with cars, motorcycles and pedestrians. The problem is not so much that cyclists have specific behaviours that drivers need to understand, but that a very large number of drivers are reckless, incompetent or both. Every time I’ve been hit or nearly hit by a car when walking or cycling it has been because the driver failed to look for other traffic before making a manoeuvre, or because they drove illegally through a stop sign or red light.

  7. I certainly agree with the tips posted here. The only particular point I would take issue with is the idea that cyclists should avoid cycling close to parked cars. Especially on Bank Street it is impossible to avoid parked cars. As well these parked cars often create defacto bike lanes as cars can’t use the lane. This in many ways makes it safer for cyclists.

    As an added note, car drivers are the ones who have the legal responsibility to make sure, when they open their door, to avoid cyclists.

  8. As an added note, car drivers are the ones who have the legal responsibility to make sure, when they open their door, to avoid cyclists.

    While this is true, it isn’t much comfort to you in the hospital. It’s better to assume that at least some drivers neglect this responsibility.

  9. As the victim of being doored twice (and injured badly once) I would encourage cyclists to keep a distance away from parked cars. (Doored is an expression for a cyclist hitting the door of a parked car opened in front of her) . Because even in Vancouver with its better weather for cyclists, the cyclists is still a small minority . Drivers simply do not expect us when they open the door. When I am a driver in a car, I also forget to check for cyclists when opening the door after parking. I suggest the safest course is keeping a safe distance.


    When I visited Oxford (which is where I think you may be writing about Bank Street) , there seemed to be more cyclists per minute than in any city I had ever seen. In that setting, motorists may check more because the cyclist is more common.

    This may change for us as cyclists are more common.

    I was pleased to see that all three bike racks in our building were full for the first time ever in my underground parking when I came to work.
    A string of good weather helped.

    Happy and safe cycling to all.

  10. The only particular point I would take issue with is the idea that cyclists should avoid cycling close to parked cars. Especially on Bank Street it is impossible to avoid parked cars. As well these parked cars often create defacto bike lanes as cars can’t use the lane. This in many ways makes it safer for cyclists.

    If it isn’t possible to cycle out of door range from parked cars, I will take a full lane. It might push drivers into a mad fury, but it is safer than trying to scan the inside of every car you pass, while also paying attention to the general road situation. I really don’t think the space between parked cars and the rightmost traffic lane can be considered safe or a de-facto bike lane, given the dangerous trade-off between anticipating door openings and paying attention to everything else that is going on.


    In urban areas where a curb lane is too narrow to share safely with a motorist, it is legal to take the whole lane by riding in the center of it. This action is safer than riding near the curb, which may encourage a motorist to squeeze, by where there isn’t sufficient room. If you are uncomfortable in the center of the lane, take an alternate route. On high-speed roads, it is not safe to take the whole lane.

    Education and Safety

    Cyclists should ride far enough from the curb, to travel in a straight line and avoid sewer grates, potholes, debris and the doors of parked cars. If the lane is too narrow to share safely, it’s legal to occupy the whole lane. Although courtesy should prevail, cyclists should not compromise their safety for the convenience of motorists. It may be safer to take a different route. Increasingly, bike lanes are providing a good alternative.

  12. I read up a bit on the helmet/no helmet debate, and the no helmet side seems to be relying very heavily on this statistical research that cars pass more closely to cyclists wearing a helmet. Ideally then, we should wear helmets that make it look like we aren’t wearing any. Does anyone know if this already exists?

  13. Summit looks to improve biking in the city
    Monday, 01 June 2009
    By Geoff Ives

    More than 150 people offered ideas to improve cycling in Ottawa, from introducing bike licences to simply having more bike lanes, at a summit in St. Giles Presbyterian Church in the Glebe.

    Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar hosted the event and offered his own personal ideas for improving the infrastructure.
    “We need to fill in the gaps [in service], particularly in the core and particularly in Centretown,” he said, “We have a wonderful opportunity to promote cycle-tourism.”

    Ottawa cyclists hold summit, consider lobby group

    By Vito Pilieci, The Ottawa Citizen
    May 31, 2009

    OTTAWA — More than 100 avid cyclists descended on a Bank Street church Saturday to discuss the creation of a lobby group to represent cyclists in the capital.

    The meeting, facilitated by Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar, was scheduled after cyclists showed a groundswell of support for some offhand comments Dewar made at a press conference about a year ago.

    At the time, the MP argued that federal infrastructure payments should allocate money specifically for bike paths and roadways used by cyclists.

    Cities made for cyclists

    For residents of Copenhagen, Denmark, up to 60 per cent of trips — errands and commutes — are made by bicycle. In most Canadian cities, residents use a bicycle for only about one or two per cent of trips.

    The Ottawa CitizenJune 2, 2009 7:16 AM

    The difference? There is a culture of cycling in Copenhagen that makes riding a bike “like brushing your teeth,” as one municipal official there has put it. That culture exists thanks to the infrastructure and planning that makes cycling in Copenhagen accessible, convenient and safe.

    A cycling summit organized by Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar at St. Giles Church in the Glebe last weekend was supposed to begin the process of taking Ottawa in that direction. The summit reflected a trend across Canada, a willingness to view cycling as more than just recreation. Many urban planners say the time has come for governments to take cycling seriously as an alternative to cars. The City of Toronto took a major step in that direction recently when it proposed the removal of a whole traffic lane on downtown Jarvis Street in order to accommodate bikes.

  14. Wake up, cyclists: Canada is no bike-lane utopia

    Drivers, riders are stuck with each other and have to make it work

    Marcus Gee
    Last updated on Thursday, Sep. 03, 2009 11:12PM EDT

    At a party the other night, someone I respect more or less said that the bike courier who lost his life on Toronto’s Bloor Street this week had it coming. The Michael Bryant incident has exposed the tension between cyclists and motorists on the streets of Canadian cities in a most horrible and shocking way. A long-running, undeclared war has broken into the open.

    Cyclists are feeling threatened, vulnerable, angry. They believe they are under attack by heedless, arrogant drivers who think they own the streets. Motorists are just as mad. They think they are being demonized by a militant minority of hard-core cyclists with no respect for the rules of the road.

    In Toronto the cyclists call for more bike paths, more sanctions on negligent drivers, a Toronto made safe and secure for what they consider a superior mode of transport. The motorists want an end to the so-called War on the Car, an imaginary conspiracy by bike-loving city officials.

    Neither side is going to get its way. There are no winners in this war. The idea that Toronto can be transformed into a kind of Scandinavian paradise for cyclists – Copenhagen by the lake – is a fantasy. Toronto’s crowded main streets, where much of the jostling between bikes and cars happens, already have to accommodate car traffic, bikes, buses, streetcars, parked cars and crossing pedestrians. Even with the fortune it would cost, creating a whole network of dedicated, segregated paths with their own rules and traffic lights is not practical in this city.

  15. What threatens it for both sides is a tiny minority.

    On the biking side, they are the hell-for-leather types who weave in and out of traffic, blast through red lights and bang their fists on cars that get in their way. They give civilized cyclists a bad name.

    On the driving side, they are the clueless ones who park in bike lanes, swing open their doors without looking, travel along with their tires almost hugging the curb and honk or holler at you for daring to block their sacred progress for a millisecond.

    But most of us have found a modus vivendi . All it takes is a little mutual respect. Motorists need to look in their side mirror when they turn right, check before they open their doors and keep in mind that they are sitting in a ton of hurtling metal. Cyclists need to ride sensibly instead of recklessly, wear lights after dark and try not to break every traffic law on the books.

  16. “Toronto cycling activists were gnashing their spokes and rending their spandex after city council voted to kill the Jarvis Street bike lanes on Wednesday. Put in only last summer, the curbside lanes are to be pulled right back out again by the end of next year. It looks like a huge step backward. In fact, it could turn into a big win for cycling in the city.

    Almost lost in the hubbub over Jarvis was the fact that council also voted to push ahead with Toronto’s first network of separated bike lanes. That means cyclists will be able to travel on lanes that are not just painted lines on the asphalt, like those on Jarvis, but fully separated from car traffic.
    Council voted to build separated lanes across the Bloor Viaduct, to start design work on separated lanes for Sherbourne, Wellesley, Harbord and Beverley and to look into separated lanes on Richmond and Peter or Simcoe. The result would be a system that would take cyclists smoothly and safely from, say, the Danforth to the financial district or from the University of Toronto to the waterfront without having to fight their way through mixed traffic.”

  17. Trucks can be made safer for cyclists, study shows


    It’s a debate that’s gone on for years: Should truck drivers be forced to install side guards to help prevent pedestrians and cyclists from being crushed under their rear wheels?

    To families and friends of the victims, it’s a life-saving measure, a position reinforced after the tragic death of a cyclist in Toronto last week. But the trucking industry and the federal transportation regulator argue the evidence of the side-guard’s effectiveness isn’t clear.

  18. Next, consider the Dutch approach to bicycles. Dollops of funding on bike-friendly infrastructure makes pedalling safer in the Netherlands. So does an inventive rule, codified in 1994: in a collision between a car and a cyclist, motorists are assumed to be at fault unless they can prove otherwise. Only truly reckless cyclists are made to share the blame. Dutch drivers thus treat bike-riders as if they were carrying an infectious disease, giving them the required wide berth. Better yet, whereas motorists in other countries furiously object to new cycle lanes, Dutch ones welcome them, since segregating two-wheelers reduces the chance of a costly accident. Rates of cycling in the Netherlands have increased sharply—and deaths-per-mile-pedalled have plummeted.

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