Cycling Safely and Road Safety with Bicycling Magazine
Cycling is one of the fastest growing lifestyle sports in South Africa and cyclists are taking to the tar throughout the country, either to train or to compete on the weekends in the more than 1000 races on the calendar. There are more than forty thousand competitive cyclists, and at least one hundred thousand recreational cyclists that regularly use public roads and trails.
Cyclists are extremely vulnerable road users and are often the victims of road rage and carelessness. Although cyclists can substantially reduce the risk of accidents by adopting some basic safety measures regarding the equipment they use, and their own behaviour, the most important factor in improving road safety is to create and nurture an attitude of mutual respect and awareness of both cyclists and motorists.
Position on the road
The law says you must ride on the left of the road, but that does not mean on the very edge of the road. You should ride about one metre from the edge of the road/pavement to ensure that motorists can see you. If you ride too close to the edge, they generally try to squeeze past you, but if you ride one metre away, they will need to wait until it is safe to pass before trying to do so.
Riding with a front and rear light will make you more visible, especially in the early morning or evening. Use a flashing red light at the rear and a solid beam white light at the front.
The front light helps you see the road ahead, but is actually more relevant in letting motorists see you approaching. A flashing red rear light, even in broad daylight, also helps motorists see you. Buy the most powerful lights you can afford and change batteries regularly.
Reflective bands around your upper arms are at a good height for normal car headlights to catch in their beam and allow motorists to judge your maximum width. Reflective bands around your ankles are attention-grabbing since they move as you pedal. You can also apply strips of reflective tape to your bike to make it more visible, especially from the side.
Wearing brightly coloured clothing will enhance your visibility on the road, and will also be much cooler in summer. Light colours like yellow, orange and green are most effective. If you ride in the rain make sure your wet-weather gear is as bright as possible, as visibility is reduced. A dayglo vest over your cycling jersey improves visibility during the day too.
Don’t pass cars on their left-hand side. Motorists don’t expect anything to interfere with a left turn from the left lane and seldom check there in their mirrors before turning. Cars often tend to hug the left of the road, leaving cyclists little space to ride.
Control over your bicycle
This is often directly related to how well you fit the bike, your choice of equipment and how well you maintain it. Worn tyres and poor braking power can be controlled, greatly reducing your chances of equipment failure and a crash. Most cycling-related deaths are directly related to head injuries, so wearing a helmet at all times is an absolute necessity.
Types of bike
Mountain bikes and hybrids are generally more suitable for city riding because they offer an upright sitting position and are easier to manoeuvre than road bikes. BMX bicycles ridden by children also offer this benefit. Although they are more efficient, road bikes with drop handlebars put the rider in a more crouched, head-down position, making control considerably more difficult.
Size and Fit
No matter what bike you ride, you should make sure it is the right size for you and that it fits you. Usually the frame measurement will determine size, and adjustments to the stem, seat height and saddle position will ensure that it ‘fits’ you. If you are not sure, take your bike to your local bike shop and ask them to make sure your size and fit are correct.
In order to see and be seen, lights are essential, especially when riding in poor light conditions. Have at least one front white solid beam light and one red rear light.
Choose the best lights you can afford and change the batteries regularly to ensure maximum effectiveness. A flashing rear light is very effective in making you visible to motorists.
All bikes should have a front and a rear brake to provide maximum stopping power when needed. Brake levers should be positioned so as to make it easy to reach them from a normal hand position. Brake pads should be checked often (at least every week) and replaced when worn. Since brake cables ‘settle in’ after a while, you should adjust them regularly. If you are not sure how, ask your bike shop staff to show you. Some bikes have a coaster or back-pedal brake in the rear hub. These make it easier for small children to apply but are less effective than calliper brakes.
Studies have shown that the wearing of a helmet will greatly reduce the chance of head injuries in a crash. Your helmet should have a sticker inside that indicates it has been approved by recognised international safety standards associations such as ANSI or SNELL. Heads are not all the same size so you should buy a helmet that is the correct size. Helmets should also be adjusted to fit properly and not move around on the cyclist’s head, and so that all straps are snug around the ears and under the chin. Only dedicated cycling helmets should be worn for cycling.
If you need to transport groceries or clothing when riding in traffic, use a backpack or a bike-mounted pannier-style bag. These will allow you to carry goods while keeping your hands safely on the handlebars. Don’t use a plastic shopping bag draped over one side of the handlebar as this will cause instability and could lead to a loss of control.
Tyres & Tools
A puncture at speed can lead to a loss of control and an accident. Your tyres should be replaced when worn – preferably before the canvas shows – to ensure maximum grip on the road. They should also be inflated to the pressure that is recommended on the sidewall of the tyre for optimum control and comfort. Tyre liners can be useful in helping prevent punctures, as can tyre sealant and puncture-resistant tyres. Always carry a spare tube, a puncture repair kit, tyre levers and a pump for puncture repair. Also carry a bicycle-specific multi-tool for minor adjustments and repair work.
Bells & Mirrors
A bell is unlikely to be heard by a motorist but is a useful warning device to alert pedestrians or other road/trail users of your presence. Your best form of warning in these situations is your voice but always try to shout without causing offence, if possible. A helmet- or handlebar-mounted rear-view mirror is useful for detecting approaching vehicles from behind, but never let the mirror replace a look over your shoulder, as all mirrors have blind spots.
Ideally, you should cycle in a straight line, but various factors make this impossible, so the next best thing is to ride a predictable line. This will help motorists to understand where you are going and make the relevant allowances timeously.
Follow this sequence:
- Ride along a painted line on a traffic-free road or car park.
- Vary your speed and stay as close to the line as possible.
- Look back over one shoulder, look forward, look over the other shoulder and then look forward again.
- Note that while it is a useful aid, a rear-view mirror does not replace the need to look over your shoulders.
There are really only two hand signals for cyclists. The signal that you’re about to stop and the signal that you’re intending to turn (see diagram). Always make these signals well before you stop or turn, not only when you think it is necessary. Obviously, by making a hand signal with one hand, you will be left controlling the bike with just one hand, so practise one-handed riding along a painted line to ensure you minimise or eliminate any wobbling.
Make hand signals a habit – the motorist does want to know what you are doing next!
Follow this sequence:
- Look over your shoulder towards the right (or left in some cases).
- Execute the hand signal.
- Return both hands to the handlebars.
- Look over your shoulder again.
- Turn or stop if it is safe to do so.
The front brake of a bicycle accounts for 80% of its stopping power because the forward momentum puts most of your weight over the front wheel. Practise stopping from different speeds in an empty parking lot to improve your distance/speed judgement abilities.
Follow this sequence:
- Stand on the pedals and apply the rear brake hard, but avoid skidding.
- Keep your bike and body vertically aligned and focus on a stopping point ahead.
- Apply the front brake (about 70% of full power).
- Straighten your arms as you shift your weight back off the saddle with your pedals level.
- Keep shifting your body further back while increasing braking force until you come to a stop.
In wet conditions, allow for around double the stopping distance and softly feather both brakes to remove excess water off the rims before following the above sequence.
Easy gears should be used when riding at low speeds. Always shift to an easy gear (small chain ring on the front, large cogs at the rear) before you stop. This allows you to pull off without straining, which often leads to wobbling. As you gain speed, shift to harder gears that offer a more comfortable cadence (70-90rpm is the ideal range). Using your gears correctly when riding will allow you to ride further without tiring, and tiredness often leads to losses in concentration, which can lead to crashes.
Rule No. 1 for turning is to keep the inside pedal up so it doesn’t connect the road. As you progress, practise turning at different speeds and both directions so that when you’re in traffic, you will be able to accurately judge speeds and distances required. When turning at speed, lean the bike into the corner slightly more, placing force on the outside pedal and outside handlebar.
Follow this sequence:
- Check for traffic and execute the relevant hand signal.
- Using your brakes, temper your speed as you approach the corner and shift to an easier gear to help you accelerate once out of the corner.
- Lift the inside pedal and lean into the corner.
- Put force on the outside pedal and handlebar to control your centre of gravity.
- Begin pedalling once you’ve passed the apex of the corner and stay on the left-hand side of the lane/road.
Most cyclist/motorist accidents occur at intersections.
Follow this procedure:
- When approaching the intersection, choose the lane with the arrow that points in the direction you want to go.
- Ensure you are away from the pavement in order to increase your visibility.
- Watch out for vehicles turning across your path and prepare to avoid them.
- Enter intersection directly in front of or behind the vehicle in your lane so that they can see you.
- Make eye contact with motorists to ensure they have seen you.
- Always stop for an orange light.
Making a right turn
Right turns are the most dangerous to make since you are crossing the line of oncoming traffic.
Follow this sequence:
- As you approach the intersection, look over your right should for traffic.
- Signal your turn and, when clear, move over to the right hand side of the lane or to the right-turning lane on a multi-lane road.
- You should be positioned so that cars going straight (from behind you), cannot pass you on your right.
- Yield to oncoming traffic before turning.
- If you need to wait for a gap, stop and put one foot on the ground to steady you, and then pedal through quickly when it is clear, always checking for oncoming cars.
Surface hazards – Avoid riding over potholes, broken glass, stones, etc by looking over your shoulder to check it is clear and then gently easing around them. If the traffic is too close to you, rather slow down or even stop and wait for a gap before avoiding the hazard. Sometimes contact with the hazard is better than contact with a fast-moving vehicle. Never swerve into the traffic to avoid a hazard.
Parked cars – Ride no closer than one metre from parked cars to avoid being hit by an opening door. When riding, glance to see if a vehicle has an occupant, which will alert you as to whether or not the door might open.
Passing on the right – When overtaking slower moving traffic, you must pass on their right and should allow at least one metre of clearance.
Passing on the left – Motorists find it irritating when they’re stopped at a red light and cyclists pass them on the left as they then have to re-overtake the cyclists further on.
When not to pass on the left:
- When traffic is moving.
- When there is a street, driveway or parking space a car can turn into.
- When motorists have moved right to go around you.
- When there is less than 1.5m of space between the traffic and the road’s edge.
Buses and trucks
Large vehicles have large blind spots. If you cannot see the driver in his rear-view mirror, then he cannot see you. Avoid riding in these blind spots and only pass slow-moving vehicles on the right. Be careful of left-turning trucks and buses as they often move right first to prepare the turn. Never pass these large vehicles on the left. Be aware that some trucks may have multiple trailers and that you should only move behind the truck once you are sure all the trailers have passed you. And then be careful of the powerful draft effect the truck creates as this can pull you off balance if you are not prepared.
Cross railway tracks carefully. Uneven grooves can catch or puncture your wheel so always stand when crossing railway lines to keep your weight on the wheels as light as possible. Try to approach railway lines at a perpendicular angle (traffic permitting) to avoid getting your wheels caught in the grooves.
In wet conditions, always beware of slippery road surfaces and adjust your speed and cornering angles accordingly. Avoid puddles since they may hide potholes.
Traffic light sensors
Some traffic lights operate on a demand system, and the lights change only when they sense metal over the sensor embedded in the road. Often bicycles don’t activate them, so when stopped, lean your bike down to offer more metal surface.
Cycling on pavements
It is not recommended that you ride on pavements. However, when riding slowly with children, this is often a safe place to ride. Just be aware of cars turning in and out of driveways. At an intersection, push your bike across if you’ve reached it on the pavement.
The Road Traffic Act 29 of 1989, Section 105, relates to cyclists, but is widely regarded as out of date. Here’s a summary:
- Ride in single file, except if overtaking another pedal cycle.
- Keep at least one hand on the handlebar of your pedal cycle at all times.
- Ride on a cycle path and not the road whenever there is a cycle path available.
- Keep all the wheels of the pedal cycle in contact with the road surface at all times.
- Ride a pedal cycle unless you are seated astride the saddle.
- Take hold of any other vehicle in motion while riding your pedal cycle.
- Deliberately swerve your pedal cycle from side to side.
- Carry another person, animal or object which obstructs your view or prevents you from having complete control of your pedal cycle.
Bicycling Magazine’s Top 10 Cycle Safe Tips
- A bicycle is classified as a vehicle, so obey all the traffic rules that motorists are expected to obey.
- Make sure motorists can see you at all times.
- Ride predictably and defensively, but not timidly.
- Anticipate by using your eyes, ears and instinct at all times.
- Use hand signals to indicate your intentions to stop or turn.
- Stay calm. Getting irate with other road users can cause you more harm.
- Ride in bunches whenever possible but consider other road users and ride in single file when the road is narrow or has only one lane.
- Always wear a helmet.
- Fit lights on the front and rear when riding in poor light conditions.
- Fit an ID band to your ankle or wrist that contains contact information of your family and your medical aid details.
Cyclists who lack the relevant physical conditioning required to cover many, or even a few kilometres, are more likely to lose concentration and are therefore at a greater risk of causing, or being involved in an accident, than their fit counterparts. Here are some basic tips:
Eat a balanced diet making sure you get the right mixture of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. This will ensure you have enough fuel to ride and enough nourishment to recover.
Try and do at least 10 minutes of stretching three times a week. Work on your legs, lower back, shoulders and arms. Stretching can improve your on-the-bike comfort and reduce muscle and joint injuries. Stretch while watching TV.
If you get something in your eye and your natural reflexes (blinking and tears) don’t dispel it, stop and wash it out with water from your bottle. If no water is available, pull your upper eyelid over your lower one, and then roll your eye. This often deposits the object on the lower lid. Wear sunglasses to feel fresher on longer rides. Squinting into the sun and wind taxes the muscles of your eyes and face, contributing significantly to fatigue.
To prevent numbness in the hands, cushion the pressure points. Padded gloves and new handlebar tape are helpful, as is frequently changing your grip position on the bar.
Getting your set-up correct and selecting a saddle that suits you will eliminate most saddle-related pain. Also wear a proper pair of cycling shorts with a soft, absorbent, padded liner. These are worn without underwear to eliminate seams, which lead to chafing.
At the first sign of foot discomfort on a long ride, slightly loosen the shoelaces and/or Velcro straps of your shoes, especially at the front of your foot. Feet tend to swell as your distance increases and restricted circulation is the cause of foot discomfort.
Always apply a layer of sun block to prevent painful wind and sunburn. Pay particular attention to your ears, neck and the tops of your forearms and hands.
The amount will vary from cyclist to cyclist, but the general rule is to drink about 500ml (one small bottle) of fluid for each hour you ride. On rides that last longer than 90 minutes, ensure you drink a sport-specific electrolyte-replacement drink.
To reduce back discomfort in the crouch position on a road bike, raise the stem so that the handlebars are just 2.5cm below the top of the saddle. If your tricep muscles become fatigued and sore, it probably means your stem is too long. Conversely, if it’s too short, your shoulder muscles will let you know. To prevent a sore neck, change your head position from time to time. Cock it slightly to one side for a while, and then the other.
Incorporate two or three weekly sessions of abdominal exercises to your daily programme. This will support your lower back and help add strength to your core muscles, where all your movements originate from.
Info provided by Sean Badenhorst (editor) and Tim Brink (deputy editor) for the Cycle Safe Campaign.
Cycling and Road Safety
Cycling Safety Suggestions for South African Conditions