How To Ride A Bike Safely In Traffic

How to stay alive on two wheels in traffic.

I’ve heard it said that if you can survive the first two years of riding a bike, you’ll be OK. I think this is a very dangerous statement, and anyone believing it is putting themselves and those around them at risk.

The fact is that it’s dangerous full stop and once a rider realises this he or she is in a much safer place than the rider who doesn’t think about and actively look for the dangers.

The keyword here is LOOK. Riding bikes is done with the eyes. These are the instruments of information gathering, they let you judge distances and speeds, and tell you when someone is going to turn across your path, step out in front of you or open a car door for you to crash into.

I believe in a thing called a ‘Lethal Act’ and I’m constantly on the lookout for one, they are always on my mind when I’m riding. A lethal act is where there is no warning, and no reason for someone to drive in a way that will kill, mame or just plain separate you from your saddle. I like to think they are normally perpetrated by someone who has taken leave of their senses and acted without the restraint of engaging brain first.

With this said, I don’t drive like a sissy, I like to go fast, and living in London, have got used to riding round traffic, filtering, overtaking etc. If I can overtake, I will, even if there’s a red light up ahead and I know as soon I’m past it’s time to slow down. This gives me a freedom, this way I’m not just following, and it keeps my attention focused on staying alive. It means I get a better look at the road, and the idiot (potential idiot) is behind me.

There are certain Lethal Acts which can’t be avoided, they happen just too quickly and in such an unexpected and unpredictable way that there just isn’t time to react.  We all know people who have had an accident ‘he just pulled out in front of me, there was nothing I could do’. However, I believe that if you learn well the discipline of using the eyes effectively, processing the information right and having the discipline to always act on that information, you can almost (not completely) negate the chances of falling fowl of a Lethal Act and therefore greatly increase your safety while riding a bike, giving you a chance to do something about it.

When riding along a city road or street, if there’s a car waiting to pull out from a turning, how do you know he’s seen you? Are you sure the driver is aware that you’re there, coming his way, ready to cut his car in half with 200 kg of powerful bike and fly over his roof like a rag doll, sending his no claims bonus 10 years into the future? Ruining your life and his day – No? Then don’t go past him, slow down until you are sure, stop if you have to. I’ve done this many times, and every time been glad to do it. OK he may have seen you, but now at least he knows that I don’t think he’s seen me, and that cost him another 10 seconds while he had to wait for me to go past at a greatly reduced speed.

You will recognise the driver who doesn’t want to stop at the junction and keeps his wheels rolling waiting for you to go past, I slow down and often stop for them as well, have a good look at them, and hope they get the idea that they’d have been able to pull out earlier in the long run if they’d just stopped. I like my life as it is thanks, I’m not letting an impatient idiot ruin it for me if I can help it.

Just because the idiot has his face turned towards you, doesn’t mean he’s seen you or is aware that he’s seen you. Learn to see it in the eyes, once you’ve seen the recognition in his or her eyes, then you only have to trust him not to let his foot slip off the clutch.

My friend Alistair who’s an awesome rider, really, can do things on a bike that I can’t dream of doing in this lifetime or the next, (he’s a stunt rider) has a theory that I think is a good one, as used by fighter pilots, and called the ‘corridor’. The pilot will have a smooth approach to an attack, straight line, constant speed and attitude, and this makes him and his plane much harder to detect as it approaches – it’s just an object growing. So, Al does the opposite, he makes a slight weave as he’s approaching a turning where a car is waiting to pull out, not like a racer warming up tyres, just a slight deviation from the corridor, and that is enough to to get him seen, really seen.

Good one Al, hope you don’t mind me sharing your gem here. 

Don’t rely on this on its own though, be sure by looking in the eyes, really try, it will become second nature and automatic.

A good thing to practice is the opening up of the vision, using peripheral vision, it’s like having lots of pairs of eyes, all working on gathering information at once.

I am always keeping at least a portion of my attention on the road surface ahead, London is in a crap state roadwise, they take all the road tax money and spend it on everything but mending potholes. It’s important, to know what you’re going to be riding over in 3 or 5 seconds time. At the same time, I need to be checking out whether the driver ahead is about to pull out, there’s a foot I’ve just seen under the bumper of a van parked ahead, and break lights are going on as well. That’s a lot of information to take in, and if your eyes are focused on one thing, like the road surface ahead, you’ll miss one of the important clues to answering the question ‘is it safe to proceed at this speed?’

The more you can use peripheral vision, the more information you can process, the better equipped you are to make decisions, the safer you are.

Shadows, reflections, looking through vehicles pedestrian behaviour, animals, birds, all these could be lifesaving tell tale signs of what’s about to happen. Eyes need to be constantly scanning the picture ahead, every element tells you something, every moving thing taken into account and analysed what’s it doing, what’s it going to do?

When you’re riding around in the traffic, there are cars around, going this way and that, mostly they behave in a predictable manner, doing what  you’d expect. To be safe, a motorcyclist must not rely on this predictability – If you are just looking at the car, you are relying on only a small portion of the available information to keep you safe.

Get inside the car and the head of the person driving it, and read their minds. To do this, you have to have a good look at them, read who they are and what they’re up to, how much attention are they paying the road? Are they aware of you? Are they on the phone? are they chatting, laughing with their mates, showing off to a girl, in a hurry or a bad mood? Are they old and possibly not capable of the sort of awareness you’d like from other road users? Do they look like an idiot?

Now you have some more information to go on, it takes microseconds when you get used to it to gathering this information, and it will save your life again and again.

This also helps develop a sixth sense, like a subconscious filter, this can have you reacting to things you’re not even aware of having seen.

Now you’ve had a look at them, read what they’re planning to do, are they looking at the queue of traffic ahead and getting fidgety? If so, they may suddenly pull out for the right hand turning 50 yards up ahead, or swing a Uturn in front of you.

If there’s a right turn ahead, and you’re about to overtake a car, have a look, is his right hand on the left hand side of the wheel with his elbow up? This is a sure sign that he’s about to turn right, you can spot this behaviour up to a few seconds before it happens, and take evasive action. There are many signs that you can pick up on, so many in fact that to start going into them here would keep us both up all night. You may only have a split second to read these signs, the guy sitting in a parked car whose hand suddenly darts down towards where the doorhandle is -guess what he’s likely to be doing??  you may have to read them over the drivers shoulder, so start practising, thinking like this will make you much safer as you get more awareness.

This gets harder when it’s raining and dark, it’s harder for people to see out of cars, and it’s harder to see through a visor which is covered in raindrops, then through a rained on car window, but you have got to do it, your life depends on it, unless you want to swap your bike for a wheelchair.

There are days when it all comes together, and riding a bike is fantastic, the gaps all open up for you, the lights are in your favour, there’s not too much traffic, and things flow nicely, dry tarmac, sun, and all your favourite corners are free for you to lean into when you get there! These days are great, and I love riding on days like this, they are what make getting cold and wet worth it.

There are also days when things don’t seem to go as well, there’s too much traffic, meaning that the gaps aren’t there for you, the tarmac seems dry in places, but in others you can’t be sure, the lights are against you and the drivers all seem to be in a hurry and in an inconsiderate mood towards bikes, you in particular. My advice is, don’t try to turn this type of day into the other, the one where it’s all coming together – it won’t work – on this type of day, just settle in behind the car you can’t get past, and stay safe. You may find that you can filter  up at the lights, and from then on it eases and you can flow, or it may not, it could just stay frustrating. Some days that’s how it is. This is the discipline, stay within your safety zone.

I’ve seen traffic volumes more than double, probably triple – since I’ve been riding, I did 4 years as a despatch rider in London – cars are everywhere, so many of them that in really heavy traffic there may be few bike sized gaps, drivers are getting stupider as well, they are on the phone, now we have tape, CD, mp3, sat navs I’ve even seen people watching TV as they’re driving, they jump the lights like you wouldn’t believe, it’s like the rule of the car in front, if they get through, I can make it too, and you sometimes see half a dozen cars race through a red light. What I’m saying is that it’s getting more dangerous, cars are faster so can accelerate away from lights so fast that you’ll find them right on your tail after only 100 yards – the sound systems in them are getting better, and bikes quieter so that we’re harder to hear. The people in them are less considerate, they don’t care if you come off your bike, they’re concerned only with themselves, and getting where they’re going as quick as possible, (even if it means the back of the next queue of traffic – it often is) Scooters scooters everywhere- it’s got better, when the scooter explosion happened 10 years ago, there were suddenly masses of people on two wheels who had no idea of safety, road craft or of etiquette – it made riding a bike much more frustrating and dangerous almost overnight. Ride in a way that takes these factors into account.

This has turned out longer than I intended, and not said as much as intended, it’s a huge subject. Having ridden bikes for the last 33 years, in London, on motorways, fast A roads, B roads, small country roads and tracks, I do feel that I know what I’m doing, and know how to read the signs of what’s ahead. Every now and then I come across a situation I haven’t seen before and nearly get caught out, have a near miss and my confidence takes a hit. I worry about myself, am I really safe? Cold wet dark winter mornings riding 25 miles into work…who knows, I hope I never get complacent, because that’s the day it could go wrong – no one is too good at this, and no one is 100% safe. It’s like a game of chess played at high speed, thinking as many moves ahead as there’s useful information. Keep learning, keep safe.