The first thing to remember is that cycling is not a dangerous activity. Statistics from the Department of Transportation show that, per billion miles travelled, more pedestrians are killed than cyclists – and we wouldn’t consider walking a dangerous activity.
But fear of road traffic is still a major deterrent for a number of people when it comes to cycling, even if the objective risk is quite low. A greater understanding of how to stay safe while cycling is empowering and can provide that confidence boost to go out and enjoy all the benefits cycling brings. And there are a lot.
Cycling is a great form of exercise and as such lowers your risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes – to name but a few. Exercise is also linked to improved mental well-being as is getting outside in the open air, so cycling is something of a multitool when it comes to your health.
If you are swapping out your car journeys and cycling instead you will also succeed in reducing pollution, helping out the environment globally and improving local air quality.
Let’s now take a look on how to cycle safely. This list is not exhaustive, and for more information you can check out Cycling UK, The Highway Code as well as other sources for further information.
How to ride safely
You shouldn’t ride too close to the kerb, as riding in the gutter puts you at risk from slippery manhole covers and road debris, the latter of which can puncture your tyres. It also leaves you with nowhere to go if a pothole suddenly appears in your path.
Riding slightly further over, approximately where the left-hand tyres of a car would be, makes you more visible to other road users and gives you room to manoeuvre if there are any obstacles in your way.
Sometimes it is safest to move into the centre of the road, called ‘primary-position’, if it would be dangerous for a driver to overtake you at that moment. For example, if you’re coming up to a traffic island there would not be space for a driver to safely overtake, so you should take primary-position to indicate this.
For anyone using the roads, it is important to be on the lookout for potential hazards. Identifying these early on gives you time to safely respond to them. Many of these are the same as when driving: keeping an eye out for for cars pulling out of driveways and when approaching junctions, although some others have special significance for cyclists such as potholes, fallen branches and puddles.
If you are cycling in a group, it is helpful to call out – or point to – any hazards you notice. Many eyes are better than just one set, and it will mean any manoeuvres to avoid the hazard can be taken safely by everyone.
Another hazard particularly relevant to cyclists is people opening their car doors into the road. When cycling past parked cars, it is safer to move out little further into the road so you are out of the range of any doors, should they be suddenly opened.
It’s important to make your intentions clear when you want to turn at a junction. First, look behind you to check for any hazards, then signal the direction you wish to turn with one hand. If you’re not confident with either looking behind you while cycling or taking a hand off the handlebars, you can practise these on a traffic free cycle path.
When turning right, make sure not to move so far over to the righthand side of the lane that motorists will be tempted to undertake you. Moving over to where the right-hand tyres of a car would be is an appropriate amount. Then, complete the turn when it is safe to do so.
This is a good way of ensuring you have been seen by other road users, whether it is motorists at a junction or pedestrians on the pavement. If you haven’t gotten a reaction from the person, it is best to proceed under the assumption that they haven’t seen you and be ready to steer or brake as necessary.
Filtering through traffic
Filtering is when you move past slow or stationary traffic. This is perfectly legal in the UK and it enables cyclists and motorcyclists to keep moving when other vehicle cannot, improving traffic flow.
Contrary to what some people believe, it is legal to pass vehicles on both the right and left-hand sides. However, passing on the left is riskier because you will be in the driver’s blind spot and if they move a little to the left – or make a left-hand turn – you are likely to be hit. Longer vehicles such as lorries or buses should not be passed on the left unless they are completely stationary and will remain so until you have passed.
>>>Read: Best road bikes
Make sure your equipment is safe
It’s always worth giving your bike a good once-over before you set off for your ride. The most important part to check is that the brakes are working properly and will bring you to a stop.
Making sure that the tyres are properly inflated and that any rattly loose bolts are tightened up needn’t add much time to the start of your ride, but it will make you safer and less likely to run into any mechanical problems.
>>>Read: Bike maintenance—pre-ride bike check
There is no law that compels you to wear a helmet while cycling in the UK.
Mandatory helmet laws are associated with falls in the number of people cycling – which can be detrimental to cycling safety due to the ‘safety in numbers’ effect. A quick glance across the North Sea to the Netherlands shows how safe and ordinary it is to cycle without a helmet.
However, when mountain biking or road cycling at high speeds, it is advisable to wear a helmet, and most organised club rides and cycling events will require that you were a helmet.
>>>Read: Best road helmets
Between sunset and sunrise you are required by law to have a white light on the front and a red light on the rear. Daytime running lights can help to increase your visibility to other road users, although these are by no means a requirement.
When cycling at night, it is a very good idea to have a spare set of lights in case the first set fails. This doesn’t have to be as fancy as your first set – lights can be quite expensive – but any kind of back-up would be a lot better than nothing.
>>>Read: Best front and rear bike lights
As with daytime lights, there is no obligation to wear reflective or hi-viz clothing. There are studies which suggest that hi-viz increases your chances of being seen, but other studies show that hi-viz has little to no effect on cycling safety – being seen and being safe are (subtly) different things.
The take-home message is that cycling is already a very safe activity and your garment choice doesn’t have a large effect on this, so you can wear what you want to wear.
>>>Read: The best cheap cycling kit