Being Safe by Being Confident

For years, I accepted the conventional wisdom that riding a bike was inherently dangerous. I figured that sitting on my ever growing backside on a bus was probably worse than the considerable risk of getting run over, and chalked up my continued safety to a run of good luck.

Photo of a bike in traffic

The biggest factor in riding safely may well be confidence. Photo by radcliffe dacanay.

After tens of thousands of miles without even having a close call with a motor vehicle, I’m no longer buying the assumption that getting hit by a car is an eventual certainty. There are many tools in my safety tool kit, and today I’ll write about the single most important one: confidence.

Confidence means having “faith in one’s power powers without any suggestion of conceit of arrogance” (Merriam Webster). It is a simple assurance that you can perform, and this assurance can go along way toward securing respect and deference from other users of the road. In my experience, bicycling confidence comes from four sources.

Confidence comes from good technique

If you know that you can deal with road hazards, if you have got down cold the ability to look over your shoulder for a lane change and still go travel in a straight line, if you know how to merge with traffic, and if you know how fast you can stop and start, you will tackle the challenges of even busy streets with confidence.

Perhaps the most important technique for having and demonstrating confidence is knowing how to clearly communicate with other road users. This means being predictable and clearly communicating your intentions by signaling turns; using your voice, bell, or horn to let others know you are there; and making eye contact. Uncertainty is dangerous, and if you make others guess what you are planning to do, they will sometimes guess wrong. You have the responsibility to make your intentions clear.

Confidence comes from good equipment

When your brakes are no longer up to snuff or your chain is stretched out and falls off at random moments, you will not have the confidence to ride in traffic or take your turn at a four way stop. Don’t ride with lights that have half dead batteries, or with out reflectors (you need to know you can be seen). Don’t ride with gear shifters that are out of tune (you don’t want gears to shift by themselves when you need power). Don’t ride with brake pads so worn that you can pull the lever all the way to your handlebars (you want to be able to stop). If any piece of equipment makes you say to yourself, “I wonder how well I can (fill in the blank)” stop! Get it fixed.

Confidence comes from knowing the rules

You may be reluctant to take the lane to avoid parked cars, debris, or ice on the shoulder if you don’t know that you have a right to ride in traffic. “Do I have to stop for a school bus?” and “who has the right of way at this intersection?” are great questions, but the time to think about them is not when you the school bus stops in front of you. Check out the League of American Bicyclists for information on riding right.

Confidence comes from having the right attitude

Bicycles are not second class citizens and they are not “alternative” transportation. As a bicycle rider, you have both a legal and moral right to use the road. (Don’t you believe it when people say roads are paid for by gas taxes, most road construction and maintenance is paid for by general funds.) Don’t be conceited or arrogant, but define and claim your space, whether it is in a lane of traffic or on the shoulder.

Being timid doesn’t serve anyone–it will just slow us all down and spread frustration and ill-will. Have respect and accept respect. You are an intentional commuter; you have taken control of your daily commute, now take control of your spot on the road.

  • BluesCat

    Your points are good, but I would caution that none of the four areas of confidence that you mentioned are a substitute for a fifth one which is just as important:

    Confidence comes from knowing how vulnerable you are out there.

    In Phoenix, when the bike lane ends two or three car lengths before the intersection, no amount of confidence with good technique, or having good equipment, or knowing the rules, or having a good attitude will protect you from that motorist who is going to zoom ahead of you and kill you when he right-hooks you.

    Knowing how you will never win a chicken contest with a couple of tons of steel isn’t fear, it’s the ultimate in defensive driving … or “defensive riding” in this case.

    • http://twitter.com/Biketoworkblog Biketoworkblog

      Yup. Nothing like thinking through the outcome of a car-versus-bike contest to give you a healthy dose of humility!

  • http://www.artsandsphotography.com Art Sands

    Good advice – would also add that choosing safe routes is also advisable……makes for a longer ride sometimes but that’s not all bad is it?

    • http://kwinpeterson.com/ Kwin Peterson

      My city’s strict grid system makes all routes about the same length. But I recently started going two blocks out of my way to avoid six to eight stoplights – longer can indeed be better.

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