Room for everyone: How to share the road safely with bicyclists

From the very first automobile crash in U.S. history (New York City, 1896, when an automobile hit a bicycle rider) autos and cycles have been at odds. The road can be a dangerous place for cyclists -- because if a bicycle and car collide, the consequences are usually far worse for the person on two wheels.
In 2008, more than 700 cyclists were killed on the road, and an additional 52,000 were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Sixty-nine percent of cyclist deaths occurred in urban areas. The most fatal time of day was the evening (between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.), and the most fatal months were June and September. Sadly, one out of every seven cyclists who died in traffic accidents in 2008 was a child between 5 and 15 years old.
Obviously, no driver wants to add to these numbers. So, what can you do to keep cyclists safe? The Wisconsin Department of Transportation recommends the following guidelines:
  • Give bicyclists at least 3 feet of clearance whenever you pass.
  • When you make left turns, be mindful of oncoming cyclists and yield to them, just as you would yield to a car.
  • Especially when you drive through residential neighborhoods or near schools, be aware that children on bikes may dart out in front of you.
  • Look out for cyclists when opening car doors or pulling out from parking spaces.
  • If you're behind a bicycle and plan to make a right turn at the next intersection, do not try to pass the bicycle. Pulling ahead of a bicycle and then suddenly slowing down to make your turn could lead to a crash.
Cyclists also are responsible for their safety. Minnesota's bicycle safety program, Share the Road, offers these safety tips for cyclists:
  • Cyclists have the same right to be on the road as cars do. But they also have to follow the same rules. Bicyclists are required to ride in the same direction as traffic, obey the same traffic control signs and signals, and yield the right of way to other bicycles and motorists.
  • When it's dark, use a headlight and wear reflectors and light-colored clothing. The front headlight should be visible from one city block away.
  • Always signal your turns.
  • Be sure to wear a helmet.

Given the fact that the roads can be dangerous for cyclists, some might wonder whether it would be safer for them to ride on the sidewalk instead of on the street. The answer might surprise you. A 1996 Transportation Research Record study cited by Minnesota's Share the Road program found that bicyclists suffered far more accidents and deaths for every 1 million kilometers traveled when they rode on sidewalks and unpaved trails than when they rode on streets. According to the study, bicycles are 25 times more likely to get in accidents when riding on a sidewalk than when riding on a major street.
Although they're out of the path of cars, cyclists riding on sidewalks are far more likely to crash into pedestrians or other obstacles. Moreover, according to the study, motorists pay less attention to cyclists when they're on the sidewalk -- and aren't prepared for them when they enter a crosswalk.

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