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Technique: How to stay safe on your ride to work

By Dan Joyce & John Whitney | Thursday, April 28, 2011 7.00am

“You must be brave!” Cycle to work and someone will say that, or at least imply it, because cycling on today’s roads is ever so dangerous. Except, actually, it isn’t.

Per mile, more people get killed walking than cycling according to the UK's National Travel Survey and you’re more likely to suffer an injury requiring medical care while gardening than on your bike. Cycling is statistically safe. “Per year, there are 10-15 fatalities due to people falling off bikes with no other vehicle involved,” says safety expert and co-author of Health on the Move, Malcolm Wardlaw.

‘Around 200 under-65s each year die in falls while walking. I don’t remember the last time I read a newspaper report of a pedestrian killed falling down steps, yet far rarer cases of cyclists killed in falls get a lot of media coverage – together with whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet or not.”

Even when you throw motor vehicles into the mix, cycling remains stubbornly safe. It’s a little more risky than driving in the UK, taken as an average, but not much. And it’s not like UK cycle commuters are constantly running the gauntlet compared with their counterparts in the Netherlands. Malcolm Wardlaw says: “The difference in risk between UK cyclists and Dutch cyclists is less than the difference between French drivers and UK drivers. French drivers face higher long-term risks than British cyclists.”

So why are UK cyclists and would be cyclists so paranoid about safety? “Minority status generates fear,” he says. John Franklin, cycling skills expert and author of Cyclecraft, agrees that the perception of cycling risk doesn’t match the reality. “There’s nothing in life that’s risk free,” he says. “It’s about the management of risk, not simply the fear of risk.” As a cycle commuter, managing risk means being assertive, and behaving like traffic so that others will treat you as traffic.

“Cyclists need to learn how to influence others on the road,” says Franklin. “That’s largely determined by how and where you ride on the road. What you try to do is ride in a way that deters other people from starting to put you at risk. If you’re coming up to a side road where quite a lot of traffic turns left and there’s someone driving harshly behind you, there’s a good chance he’ll try to overtake and cut across you to turn left. So you ride in a way and place that if he does do that, he's forced to make a much wider movement to give you more space. And it makes the manoeuvre more difficult for him, so he’s less likely to do it.

“Good positioning is key. Position yourself as a driver with the rest of the traffic, not hugging the kerb. The ‘primary position’ is in the centre of the moving traffic lane. You’re obliging others to acknowledge you as another user of the road and not someone they can ignore. You’re causing them to think." Franklin recommends taking a skills training course. "When people take cycle training, fear is addressed in a rational way," he says. "It’s like removing chains from them.”

8 tips for safer cycling

Riding assertively and with confidence will make you safer too: riding assertively and with confidence will make you safer too

1 Learn the skills

Cycling training today isn’t aimed solely at kids. National Standards training is a three-tier programme covering everything from basic bike control to complicated urban journeys. To find out more or locate an instructor, see www.ctc.org.uk/cycletraining. The bible for safe, skilled cycling is John Franklin’s Cyclecraft (£13, www.tso.co.uk).

2 Get out of the gutter

You should always be at least 50cm from the kerb, and sometimes further. Positioning yourself in the middle of the lane is called ‘the primary position’ or ‘taking the lane’. It makes you more visible and forces cars to overtake properly or wait until it is safe to do so.

Get out of the gutter: get out of the gutter

3 Eyeball drivers

Eye contact with a driver lets you know they have seen you. Look purposefully right at them. Have they clocked you? Good. There’ll be no “sorry, mate, I didn’t see you” moment. It’s useful for almost any manoeuvre, whether you’re turning right or approaching a junction.

4 Signal like you mean it

Signalling broadcasts your intentions to other road users. You’re not asking their permission; you are telling them unambiguously where you’re going. Check over your shoulder early so you can change position smoothly and predictably. If there’s following traffic, eyeball the lead driver, signal clearly and begin your manoeuvre.

5 Magic roundabouts

Highway Code rule 62 says “you may feel safer keeping to the left”. Rubbish, you won’t. You’re less visible to traffic on or entering the roundabout. Take your lane as you approach. Take it on the roundabout too, even if you’re going left. Check, signal, then peel off the roundabout at your exit.

Magic roundabouts: magic roundabouts

6 Traffic light tactics

Don’t jump red lights. It infuriates drivers and you may get T-boned by someone accelerating for an amber. Wait, behind the advance stop line if there is one, and not in the gutter. Take your lane. That way nothing can squeeze dangerously past or left hook you.

Traffic light tactics: traffic light tactics

7 Filter tips

Overtaking on the right is best for visibility. Only filter up the inside if the traffic is stationary – watch for doors opening and pedestrians crossing – or moving at walking pace. Never go up the inside of a long vehicle: you could die. Once you’re past, get back in your lane.

Filter tips: filter tips

8 Safer slip roads

Where the slip road joins your road: cross carefully over to the slip road at the hatch markings before the slip road joins the main road, stopping if necessary, then follow the slip road onto the main road. At an exit slip road: take the slip road until you can carefully rejoin the main road at the hatch markings.

What else can be done?

While good cycling technique is a vital part of staying safe on the roads, it isn't the only answer. We asked three cycling advocates what they felt should be done to improve cyclist safety.

Phillip Darnton, former chairman of Cycling England

"Most people, when asked why they don't cycle, will say, 'it’s too dangerous'. The perception or the fear of danger on the road is the major deterrent to getting more people cycling. There's no one measure which can overcome this and CE has consistently explained that behavior change requires a whole range of interventions.

"It needs proper cycle training like Bikeability; it needs secure cycle parking both at home and at the end of the journey; it needs more consideration by motorists giving space to cyclists as vulnerable road users. It would also benefit considerably from a default speed of 20mph in urban areas – speed and volume of traffic are the biggest single deterrent to people taking up cycling, particularly women."

Jorren Knibbe, barrister and blogger, UK Cycle Rules

"For me there’s absolutely no question about this – cycling will only be safe enough when it's a normal mode of transport for everybody, and it'll only ever get there with a comprehensive network of fully segregated cycle lanes. When I lived in Germany I had no hesitation at all in cycling, didn’t even think of wearing a helmet, and I remember being outraged that the segregated cycle path I took to university cast me out onto the road at a junction for about 20 metres before starting up again. We need to create that kind of atmosphere – an expectation of excellent, continuous, segregated facilities and the safety they provide. I don’t believe a proper cycling revolution can happen in this country without that kind of investment."

Andreas Kambanis, blogger, London Cyclist

"We need to step things up when it comes to cycle training. This needs to be far more widespread and freely available. It drastically alters your riding style  on busy roads – for example, taking a primary position and not riding on the inside of lorries. I truly believe this would help to lower the number of cyclist deaths and injuries. Other than that I believe more effort needs to be put into creating on-road segregated cycling infrastructure.

"The [London] cycle superhighways, for example, could easily be segregated along much of the route. Finally, training also needs to be stepped up when teaching new drivers. This way the next generation of drivers on our roads will be more aware of cyclists. This could be phased into the driving test and potentially require a new motorist to spend part of their lesson on a bike to get a different perspective of the road and how you do feel vulnerable."

The new look Cycling Plus is available now, and this month’s issue features a free 36 page commuting guide full of features like this. To subscribe to the magazine, visit www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk/cycling/cycling-plus-magazine-subscription.

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