Bike Riding Safety Tips for New and Experienced Riders

How to stay safe and protect your health while cycling outdoors

person riding bike on bridge Photo: Getty Images

When the coronavirus hit and Americans locked down, there was a distinct drop in automotive traffic. As spring 2020 turned into summer, people turned to cycling in record numbers, whether riding as a cost-effective, social distancing method of transportation or just a way to get out and exercise.

Now, as the nation has reopened and people practice varying degrees of social distancing, both automotive and pedestrian traffic has returned to near-pre-pandemic levels. This means it’s important, especially for people who took up cycling on streets that were almost deserted, to be safe when heading out on two wheels.

There’s a reason “it’s as easy as falling off a bike” is an adage. Getting injured while cycling is always a possibility, even if you aren’t traveling at Tour de France speeds. Now there is more motivation than ever to take precautions. As COVID-19 ebbs and flows in various parts of North America, you may run up against an emergency room that is backed up with coronavirus patients, meaning it may take a long time for you to be seen by medical staff.

MORE ON Getting Around During the CORONAVIRUS

The initial spread of COVID-19 severely curtailed vehicle traffic. Passenger vehicle traffic overall in the U.S. was down 48 percent for the week beginning March 21, 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, according to Inrix, a service that collects traffic data.

But a lot has changed almost 20 months later. Traffic volume has increased to the point of being near or at pre-pandemic levels. According to the Department of Transportation, traffic volume increased almost 55 percent in April 2021 compared with the previous year, when the U.S. was in the midst of lockdowns.

The DOT data show that traffic volume increased in August 2021 by 21 billion vehicle miles, or 8.3 percent, compared with August 2020, when lockdowns had been lifted and people were spending more time outside of their homes. For all of 2021 through August, the most recent data available, total vehicle miles increased by 224.4 billion miles over the same period in 2020.

This means that the empty or near-empty streets that you may have been bicycling on during the height of the pandemic are, once again, filled with vehicle traffic. But don’t be dissuaded: You can reduce your chances of being injured while cycling with some preparation and riding etiquette.

Pandemic Safety

People who initially followed the shelter-at-home mandate and could exercise outside only now have other options, depending on where they live. Nationwide, gyms opened up as infection rates slowed and vaccination levels increased.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection still recommends that people in most of the country—even those who are vaccinated—should still wear a mask in indoor public spaces

Overall, exercising outdoors is still a safer bet. This is one major reason many people are maintaining their cycling routines.

It’s always important to follow personal hygiene practices. Johns Hopkins University says that while “the virus isn’t spread through perspiration, items touched by many people could pose a risk.”

If you are using short-term bicycle rentals, make sure to carry wipes to clean off the handlebars, seat, brakes, and any other commonly touched surfaces before you ride. As a precaution, try not to touch your face while riding. Use hand sanitizer right after you ride if you have it. And wash your hands at a sink as soon as you can.

Just as it was pre-pandemic, when you’re done exercising make sure to shower and clean your clothes, including any cycling-specific equipment such as gloves, sunglasses, helmet, wind jacket, and other wearables.

Preride Safety Check

Of course, you need to make sure that the bicycles you and your family are riding have been maintained and are in safe working condition. But you also need some specific safety equipment.

In the majority of bicyclist deaths, the most serious injuries are to the head, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. This highlights the importance of wearing a bicycle helmet. Helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of head injury by 50 percent and the odds of head, face, or neck injury by 33 percent.

But helmets don’t last forever. “We recommend replacing a helmet every five years, immediately if you’ve taken a spill and hit your head while wearing it, or if the helmet shows damage like cracking or delamination of the shell or inner foam layer,” says Peter Anzalone, who oversees helmet testing at Consumer Reports. If you’re unsure of the age of your helmet, or if it has been a while since you’ve bought a helmet for your kids, check out CR’s bicycle helmet buying guide and ratings.

You can find helmets at your local bike shop or order one online. If shopping locally, call the shop to see whether it is offering delivery or contactless pickup of helmets and other merchandise, and what their return policy is for items that you would try on at your home. If you already have one, check out how to make sure it fits properly. Before using the helmet, check to make sure that it meets standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

person standing outside wearing bike helmet and holding the clip

Photo: Consumer Reports Photo: Consumer Reports

It’s best to always use front and rear lights, even during the day. This isn’t to light your way; rather, it’s to make you more visible during daylight hours and especially at dusk and dawn. A forward-facing blinking white light will make you more noticeable to oncoming traffic, while a rear-facing blinking red light will make you visible to traffic behind you. But even with these lights blinking and strobing, assume motorists won’t see you—even if you have the right of way. If you have a need to ride before the sun rises or after it sets, you’ll need high-powered lights to illuminate the road.

Wear easily visible cycling clothing, such as a bright yellow, red, orange, or blue jacket or vest, to improve your ability to be seen. Think brighter colors rather than blacks or grays that could be easily overlooked or lost in shadows. Some cycling clothes also come with reflective strips. The key is to be visible by contrasting with your environment. It isn’t a rolling fashion show.

A good pair of cycling gloves serves a number of purposes. First, it helps you keep your grip on the handlebars even if you are sweating or riding in the rain. Second, in the event of a fall, gloves will protect your palms; it’s natural to put your hands out when falling, and the impact can scrape them up. Finally, gloves help relieve pressure from the palms and prevent blisters from forming. But it’s okay to ride without them if you’re more comfortable that way.

To protect your eyes from dirt, debris, and sun glare, you can wear safety glasses or sunglasses marketed and sold as cycling-specific ones. Clear (untinted) lenses are good when it’s raining because they’ll protect your eyes but won’t be too dark. Some glasses let you swap in different lenses, so you can choose the appropriate ones, depending on your conditions. You can also get prescription lenses made for these.

Out on the Road

Keep in mind that safety doesn’t just mean protective equipment; it’s also about how cyclists interact with motorists, pedestrians, and other cyclists.

Obey the law. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reminds cyclists that “a bicycle is a vehicle, and you’re the driver.” This means that cyclists have to follow all traffic laws and obey street signs, signals, and road markings. Ride in the same direction as traffic when cycling on roadways. Running stop signs and other traffic control devices puts you and other cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists in danger.

Stay alert. Remember that potholes, bottles, glass, curbs, and sewer grates pose a bigger risk to cyclists than they do to cars. Keep your eyes up and look far enough ahead of you to make an evasive maneuver or stop in time to avoid a crash. Anticipate that someone may open their parked car door when you’re riding past.

Use hand signals. The only way you are able to interact with traffic is by using hand signals. Both NHTSA and League of American Bicyclists say that it’s the law to use proper hand signals and that doing so communicates your intentions to turn or stop, making it safer for everyone.

Be predictable. Try not to weave in your travel lane. While it’s necessary to avoid obstacles, inattentive riding and random movements can confuse or unnerve drivers. They may slow and avoid passing you because they don’t know what you are doing. Or they may aggressively pass, putting them, you, and other traffic at risk.

Ride single file. Stay single file no matter where you are riding. This allows traffic to give you 3 feet of space when passing without having to veer into the oncoming lane and lets other cyclists pass you safely on the road. If it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk in your town or city, keep in mind that riding two or three abreast on the sidewalk crowds out pedestrians.

Skip the tech. Whether you’re commuting or interval training, keep off your phone. NHTSA says cyclists should never wear headphones because they hinder their ability to hear traffic. Plus, it can become a distraction if you need to take a hand off the handlebars to change the volume, choose another song, or accept/reject a call on your mobile phone. And just like driving, texting is a major distraction. One slight wobble and even the most experienced cyclist will go down in a heap. You can attach a small saddlebag under the seat or to the frame to stash a phone. This not only keeps it from being a distraction but also prevents you from accidentally dropping the phone.

Sharing the Road With Cyclists

Whether you’re a cyclist or a driver, there are several things to keep in mind when you’re on the road. On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports’ experts Mike Monticello and Jon Linkov offer host Jack Rico tips for drivers and cyclists to safely coexist.

Jon Linkov

I owe my career to two fateful events: my father buying a 1965 Corvette and my purchase of an Audi A4 rather than a Chevy Tahoe. The Corvette jump-started my love of cars, and the Audi led me to automotive journalism, track days, and amateur car repair. In my free time I cycle as much as possible, no matter the season.