Drive predictably, drive defensively, whatever your wheels

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June 5, 2013
By: Hilary Reeves
Hilary Reeves

In the last few years, bicycle lanes have more than doubled in Minneapolis and more people are bicycling. You might think with more kinds of drivers on our streets, the number of bicyclist-motorist crashes would go up. But, the opposite is true. As bicycling has increased, the number of crashes has not increased, according to a City of Minneapolis analysis of crashes from 2000-2010. Other cities have found the same — that there is safety in numbers.

But, while safety is trending up along with bicycling, crashes do happen. Each year the city averages 270 motorist-bicyclist crashes, with 87 percent including injury to the bicyclists and zero percent including injury to motorists. These stats are also from the Minneapolis report. Note: in traffic safety lingo, the word is “crashes” not “accidents,” because crashes have causes that can be addressed. 

This summer, there are efforts underway to encourage safer behavior from everyone. One is a new bicycle safety campaign launched by the City of Minneapolis with funding from the Bike Walk Twin Cities federal nonmotorized transportation pilot program (which also funded many of the new bike routes and Nice Ride Minnesota bike sharing, among other projects). The other is Traffic Safety 101, a course from the League of American Bicyclists, offered locally by the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota. 

Drive predictably

Can you guess the three things bicyclists do that are most likely to cause a crash? What do you think are the most dangerous behaviors from drivers of automobiles?

The city’s analysis of 10 years of crash data shows that bicyclists and motorists are about equally at fault, though, as noted earlier, bicyclists are very likely to be injured in a crash, while motorists are not.

Both motorists and bicyclists have big problems with two basic rules of the road: failure to yield right-of-way and improper lane use. Next worst for motorists is, you guessed it, distracted or inattentive driving. And for bicyclists, you guessed it, too: ignoring stoplights and stop signs (“disregarding a traffic control device”). 

To help everyone remember that crashes can be avoided, the city rolled out for May-June of this summer a bike safety campaign featuring four basic messages: safety starts with all of us; ride predictably; look for bikes; and more bikes means safer streets.

These friendly messages are located on bus shelters along high-traffic streets where crashes most frequently happen. They remind cyclists to ride as traffic, that is with (not against) the flow of vehicles. They remind motorists to slow down and look for bicycles, especially when making turns. They remind everyone to follow all traffic laws, be cautious at intersections, and ride predictably. 

Defensive driving for bicyclists 

A web search of the term “defensive driving” produces a roster of driving schools, as well as several online courses. Drivers who have received a ticket are sometimes required to take these classes and some insurance companies offer discounts for taking them.

Wikipedia defines defensive driving as “a form of training for motor vehicle drivers that goes beyond mastery of the rules of the road and the basic mechanics of driving. Its aim is to reduce the risk of collision by anticipating dangerous situations, despite adverse conditions or the mistakes of others.” The US DOT definition is similar: “The defensive driver tries to recognize potentially hazardous situations sufficiently in advance to allow time to safely maneuver past them.” 

Traffic Safety 101 provides this training for bicyclists. For all those who feel they already know how to ride a bicycle, this course teaches ways to avoid risk. The course also re-emphasizes the rules of the road and how to make sure your bicycle is safe to ride.

The course includes bike handling skills that improve a bicyclist’s ability to react to dangerous situations. The Rock Dodge is a fairly simple maneuver to avoid minor obstructions on the road. Rather than swerving to miss a rock or crack, the cyclist is able to protect the front wheel and maintain a straight, predictable course. Another maneuver, the Quick Stop, is the bike equivalent of slamming on the brakes, but with a few essential skills to help keep you from flying into or over your handle bars. When there’s no time to stop, the Instant Turn uses steering (including counter-steering!) and body weight to increase chances of avoiding a crash or reducing the severity.

Once learned, these skills require practice so that they are part of muscle and mind memory when the need arises. Traffic Safety 101 also helps make bicyclists comfortable with riding in some of the most intimidating motorized traffic, including multi-lane intersections, busy streets, and alongside big trucks and buses. Visit www.bikemn.org/education/courses/ to find out when Traffic Safety 101 will next be offered.

With greater friendliness on the roadways and a healthy ability to drive defensively, whatever your wheels, everyone can play a role in keeping our roadways safe.

Hilary Reeves is communications director for Transit for Livable Communities.