How to Prevent Another Cyclist's Death

11/23/2012 05:15 EST | Updated 01/23/2013 05:12 EST
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VENICE, ITALY - AUGUST 28: Silhouettes from bicycles are seen during sunset ahead of the 69th Venice International Film Festival on August 28, 2012 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Five people have died riding their bikes in Toronto this year. You can debate what the causality is in each incident. It doesn't change that they'll never ride again. It doesn't change that there's been too much blood in these streets.

Now is not the time for rhetoric. Now is the time to realize that being on these streets goes both ways. As cyclists we must respect drivers. And we must respect how hard cyclists are to see at night. In practice, safety on the bike is the rider's responsibility. No matter how much you separate bike lanes, or plan a city centre for cycling, your decisions as a cyclist are the ones that make you safe or not.

This is particularly relevant as days get shorter and most commuters must ride in the dark during winter. Worse, inclement weather makes riding inherently dangerous. Factor in slick manhole covers, street car tracks or even leaves and ice, and commuting all winter can be daunting. However, as a cyclist you can make choices to mitigate these risks and arrive safely at work and home each day.

The single most important decision is to wear a helmet! You can debate the stats all day, or fuss over messed up hair at the office. Just slap that syrofoam on your head before you ever get on your bike.

The second most important thing is to respect red lights! Too many cyclists casually breeze through intersections because they think no one's coming through. Remove that decision altogether and just stop. You'll always be safe that way. Besides, most lights are controlled enough that you will be stopped at an intersection at some point. Running reds will expose you to more risks than gain you time on your commute. Outside of this, you should stop because you expect other users of the road to stop as well.

Use more lights than you think reasonable. I use one blinky on my bag, and one on my arm. Both at driver's eye height. Lights hanging off your saddle or seat stays are too low to be seen by drivers. Always consider how high a driver is in their car and mount your lights accordingly! I use a white KNOG-off blinky from MEC on the front, but wish I had another on my helmet. In addition, my commuter bike has the police mandated reflective tape on fork blades and seat stays. You must be visible to stay safe.

Ride in the middle of the lane you're in. Or at least as far left as reasonable in the bike lane. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, this does not put you in harm's path. It makes you easier to see by placing you in driver's sight lines. It also prevents having to merge around obstacles and gives you space to bail left or right in case of trouble. Most importantly it prevents cars from trying to squeeze by you. As a cyclist it's your right to decide when to share!

Corollary to this is to avoid passing slow or stopped cars on their right side (i.e. between a car and the curb). Everyone does it, but cut it out at night. It won't speed up your commute that much. Besides, drivers can't see you there, and it massively complicates the merger required for drivers turning right. I prefer to roll up and stop behind a vehicle in the middle of their bumper and let my white blinkie flash through the rear window. This way there is no confusion where you are, and if they're turning right, you can pass safely on their left without any guess work. When driving, don't be afraid to merge directly into the share road or bike lane when turning right. It's why the lines are dashed! Both these strategies greatly reduce the complexity regarding decisions made by cars turning right.

The most important thing about riding at night/winter is to take it easy! In the dark you're competing with lights way brighter than you, and driver's eyes are constantly resetting their dynamic range. Consequently you are easy to miss, and decision making becomes compressed due to late sighting, or fails because you are invisible. Even with blinkies, you're hard to see and it's hard to judge your speed, so just be easy during these winter months. Make good decisions and don't ever press the situation.

What I'm saying is, never ride full tilt in the dark and err on the side of caution. Especially in the winter. Operate with at least a 10 per cent buffer on your bike skills (i.e. evasion, braking, cornering, acceleration). Avoid sprinting for yellows near dawn/dask or at night. Cars turning left cannot see you well. Just wait for the next light. Don't rail that corner. Don't pin it on each straight away. Always give yourself a place to go, whether that's left, right or straight ahead. However, riding within your skills and capabilities is critical for giving you some space to manoeuvre.

I've been riding winters for a while. It used to seem insane and a little frightening. However, by making conscientious decisions I've been able to make commuting in the winter safe and fun! For me, there's almost never a reason to hop in the car or TTC, I can always be free on my bike.

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