‘When riding in traffic, it’s important to ride defensively’. We’ve all heard this said, but what does it actually mean, and why should we do it?
To ride defensively is to cycle as though every other road user is attempting to decouple you from your bicycle. In short: ride with suspicion, act like everyone wants to knock you off.
Admittedly, this sounds like a rather negative mind-set to adopt when heading out for what should be a pleasant spin between your home and destination, but it doesn’t mean you need to ride along scowling at anyone that dares to come close. You don’t have to expect the worst to happen to prepare for it. Riding defensively just means keeping your wits about you and riding in a way that will allow you to react more quickly should you be put at risk by someone else.
It’s all very well understanding the concept, but if you don’t know what to look out for, you won't know when to raise your shield.
Here are some of the ways you can ride more defensively...
Give yourself extra space
Firstly, don’t rely upon other road users to give you space when you need it. Instead, make sure you leave space for yourself to maneuver when you need to. Most of the time, this means riding around 1 metre from the curb, so that should you find a pot hole or obstacle in your path, you’ve got space either side to move around it. The suggested distance - 1 metre - is a rule of thumb, adjust it as you see fit, but don't put yourself 'in the gutter' next to the edge of the road. This is called the ‘secondary position’, in that you’re still giving way to allow drivers to overtake easily.
At other times, you can choose to take the ‘primary position’ – this is in the middle of the lane, taking your own space in the stream of traffic. You’d do this when it’s not safe or easy for a driver to overtake you. For example, when riding down a narrow road, when traffic is slow and you’re moving at the same speed, passing a traffic island, or when approaching a roundabout or junction.
You should also move out further when passing parked cars – leaving enough room for a door to open fully without obstructing your path.
One really important element of giving yourself space is making sure you never put yourself between the edge of the road, and a vehicle that could be turning left at a junction or traffic lights – particularly a larger vehicle with a greater blind spot. You’re completely within your right to filter down the right hand side of traffic (where there is space to move if you need to), but if you’re not comfortable doing that, wait behind the stationary vehicle. This applies even if it’s not indicating left – because part of riding defensively means knowing that not everyone indicates.
Always look once, and once again - and indicate
The highway code considers a cyclist just as much a road user as a driver – and therefore there are plenty of instances where it’s your right of way, and technically no one should interfere with your safe passage past a junction. However, we don’t live in a technically correct world, and sometimes other road users will assume priority when it doesn’t belong to them. That, or they simply don’t look – but regardless a driver can still fail to stop to let you go when you ride across a junction or cut you up as you make a perfectly legal move.
Though in this case, the driver would be in the wrong, it’s you – the cyclist – who is more likely to come off worse in a collision. Therefore, it’s important that you take a second to look both ways before crossing a junction. Make sure no no one on the other side of the road is slowing down ready to turn into it, and that no one is planning on exiting the junction into your path.
When making your own manoeuvre – for example turning right or filtering onto a roundabout, always look once as you approach, indicate, and then look once again before you make your move to check that the road situation hasn’t changed.
Look out for wayward pedestrians
You’d think cycling in a straight line, a sensible distance from the curb, would be fairly safe. And it should be, but keep an eye out as you ride along the pavement for pedestrians (and their dogs!) who may unexpectedly decide to step out into your path.
When passing parked cars, slow down a little and scan through the windows – you never know who might be standing between two cars, ready to saunter into the road because they ‘can’t hear an engine’…
Make ready yourself and your bike
There are plenty of ways you can help to make you and your bike safer. Firstly, though it’s every road users responsibility to look where they’re going, saying ‘they should have looked’ isn’t going to repair your bike if you’re involved in an accident, so it is a good idea to wear bright clothing and use lights so that you’re hard to miss.
It is your responsibility to keep your bike in good condition – so that if and when you need to brake quickly, squeezing the levers has the desired effect. The same goes for the gears – though it’s not likely to cause an accident, you don’t really want to be madly spinning at 150 rpm on a flat road because you can’t change gear, and neither do you want to be crawling up a hill in the big ring for the same reason.
Stop and smile
Yes, we really mean that. Riding defensively doesn’t have to mean shooting evils at every other road user – it simply means keeping an eye out and preparing for the worst. One way to make sure drivers have seen you, and that they’re going to respect your space, is to flash them a smile. Doing this also dispels bad feeling, as you’ll have gone from being ‘a cyclist’ to being ‘a human being on a bike’.
This tactic is particularly smart if you notice the driver is clearly distracted – messaging on their phone at the lights or fiddling with a Sat Nav. Though at this point, you might choose to opt for the death stare over the smile, and give them a wide berth. Either way, make sure eyes have locked.
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