We help clients deal with the consequences of bicycle collisions. This page shares the safety lessons we see in our bicycle law practice and on the road.
After helmets, lights are the single most important safety tool for cyclists. They are legally required in low light or dark in Oregon and most other jurisdictions.
Make sure your bike is properly equipped. Most riders rely on lights more to be seen by traffic than to illuminate the path ahead. That means the light should cast a broad beam that projects plenty of light toward drivers at range of angles, rather than a tightly-focused spot beam.
Here in Portland, it is also important for the light to be waterproof. A number of manufacturers provide expedition-quality rechargeable models for $120 and up.
This Blackburn Quadrant headlamp is rainproof and provides a highly visible, broad beam. The convex front lens design means the light tends to get in your eyes. This rider has solved the problem with a section of mountain bike tube stretched around the front and trimmed to fit.
For price-conscious riders, the Blackburn Quadrant headlamp (pictured) is an excellent choice. We bought ours at Bike Gallery in a combo package that includes the also excellent Mars 3 tail light all for under $40, batteries included.
Downsides? Unless your handlebar is just the right diameter, you may need to put a strip of inner tube around your handlebar to make the Quadrant mounting bracket hold snugly. Make sure the light clicks into place or it will bounce off the bracket. Also, if you like to use the highly visible and battery-saving flashing mode (which is legal in Oregon), you may want to put a section of mountain bike tube around the front of the light so that it keeps the light out of your eyes. Trim it carefully to preserve the full range of visibility for drivers ahead and to the sides (see picture).
Check the angle of all your lights. Most lights are brightest within a fairly small "sweet spot." That means they are ineffective unless they are pointed directly to eye level. A headlight pointed down toward the asphalt probably isn't visible to drivers. Similarly, a rear "blinkie" clipped to a backpack is likely to end up pointing toward the sky, not toward the drivers who need to see it. Mounting your tail light to your seat post is usually the easiest way to keep it at the proper angle.
Finally, make sure your reflectors are clean and positioned to reflect light at drivers’ eye level. Generally that means front and rear reflectors should be vertical, not tipped up or down. Any bicycle that may be ridden at night or in low visibility situations should have a red rear reflector and a white front reflector. A red or colorless spoke reflector on the rear wheel, an amber or colorless reflector on the front wheel and pedal reflectors are also important. Remember, reflectors alone aren't enough. This is because they only light up for drivers whose headlights are shining on you. Even ambient street lights do not help reflectors show up.
When choosing your bicycle, helmet, clothes and accessories, choose white or another bright color to help motorists see you. In the event of a collision, the visibility of the colors you were wearing may even affect your legal rights.
Often the safest outer layer is a high-visibility yellow or orange vest or jacket. Vests are available in most bike shops. Large-size vests that will fit over a backpack are available online and from stores that supply safety equipment for highway or construction workers, such as Sanderson Safety Supply in Portland. Try out your vest to make sure it doesn’t interfere with riding.
This rider's white and yellow clothing greatly improves visibility in low light even when a car's headlights (or a camera flash) are not illuminating the reflective surfaces. Can't find white or light pants? These are baseball pants, widely available at sporting goods stores. They are cheap and can be tailored to fit if the available sizes are too short or baggy.
Wearing a helmet isn't enough. A helmet must be worn properly or it may not protect you. The most common critical error is wearing a helmet too far back on your head, as shown in the upper left illustration, below.
Take some time—plan on 10 to 15 minutes—to adjust your helmet straps carefully. Follow the instructions that came with your helmet. Generally, the ear and chin straps should meet just below your ear, as shown in the picture to the lower left. The helmet should cover your forehead, but not be so low as to get in your eyes. If the helmet has a plastic band around the inside, adjust it so that i t is snug but not uncomfortable, as directed in the helmet instructions.
The chin strap should be snug but not uncomfortable under your chin. When you are done adjusting the straps, the helmet should not wobble when you shake or turn your head. It should not move back or forward more than about an inch if you push and pull and jostle it with moderate pressure.
If you have trouble, take your helmet to a bicycle shop and ask if they have an employee who is experienced with helmet adjustments who can assist you.
If the straps cannot provide proper retention, get a new helmet. Many newer helmets have a plastic band around the inside and improved strap attachments. These features provide better retention and make it well worthwhile to replace an older helmet. Keep in mind that expensive models designed for aerodynamics or light weight are not necessarily safer than basic models in the $30 to $50 range. Choose white or bright yellow for visibility. Again, follow the instructions and warnings that come with the helmet.
Expert bike handler?
• Know your brakes. Generally, a bicycle’s front brake can provide more stopping power than the back. However, you need to be familiar with how your bike handles and how your brakes work to avoid losing control while braking heavily with your front brake. Often, the safest place to practice how you bike handles is a grassy field, away from traffic.
• Stay out of the door zone. The doors of a parked car, or a car stopped at a stop light, can open suddenly at any time. Ride far enough away from cars to avoid this hazard. If there is not enough space to do so, reduce your risk by riding very slowly or, even better, choosing a different route.
• Always obey the law, including obeying traffic controls and using arm signals. Most advocates agree that it is safer to signal a right turn with your right arm outstretched than with your left arm bent up at the elbow, which can be confused for waving. Most states permit this straight right arm signal for a right turn, just like you would signal left with your straight left arm.
• Ride defensively. Expect that motorists are not paying attention, especially drivers pulling out of driveways or turning across your path.
Take a Class
Ask at your local bicycle shop or advocacy group about classes that teach how to ride more safely. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland provides up-to-date information about classes. See http://www.bta4bikes.org.
Choose Safe Routes
Bicycle route maps including guidelines for safe and legal riding around Portland are available in many area book stores and from the Metro Government web site. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance offers excellent resources, as well.
• Get your bike tuned up. Make sure brakes are adjusted and axle bolts or quick releases are secure. If you are unsure how to close the quick release lever, ask a shop mechanic.
• Try a helmet mirror. Although some riders find them distracting, helmet mirrors can help you see what’s going on behind you without turning your head. Follow the instructions carefully when you mount your helmet mirror so that it is properly oriented. Riders who ride in a crouched position and/or wear a backpack may find a handlebar mirror provides a better view. Test any mirror in safe conditions before riding near traffic.
Help everyone ride more safely. Within the city of Portland, report roadway conditions that are hazardous to cyclists and pedestrians by emailing safe[AT]pdxtrans.org (We use [AT] here to discourage spam bots. You will need to replace it with the @ symbol.) Make a note to check on the status of your report a week or two later. Alternatively, to report a street sweeping, brush trimming, debris removal, or other minor bike lane maintenance issue in Portland, you can call 503-823-SAFE or the City’s 24-hour maintenance emergency line at 503.823.1700. For potholes and simple pavement repair needs you can call 503.823.BUMP. Report a car or delivery vehicle parked in the bike lane in Portland by calling the City’s parking enforcement line at 503.823.5195.
Working for Injured Cyclists
Our firm represents injured cyclists in Oregon and Washington, and in other states on a case-by-case basis. We provide free initial consultations in all injury and death cases.
We invite you to contact our firm if you would like to discuss having our attorney present to your group on a topic related to bicycle law, safety or injury prevention.
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