How Nervous Bike Commuters Too Often Put Themselves in Danger

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

For inexperienced or nervous cyclists traveling on city streets with no bike lanes, the response to crazy or crowded traffic is often this: You shrink. You make yourself as small as physically possible, and you maneuver yourself all the way over to one side of the street. The instinctual response to cower in face of a threat is a natural one, and yet the underlying logic as applied to a bicycling context is somewhat baffling. Is the point here to scrunch yourself small enough so that you’ll somehow be too small for cars to hit you, or … what?

At the BBC today, writer Dan Whitworth touches on the complicated psychology of bike commuting through unfriendly city traffic — something that can be scary enough to begin with, but that becomes particularly intimidating after suffering an accident while biking, as Whitworth recently has. Ever since his accident, he writes, he has lost all the confidence he’d built up in three-and-a-half years of city cycling, and that lack of confidence was putting him in danger of creating another accident.

He quotes Daniel Dansky, of an organization called Cycle Training UK, who coaches bicycle commuters on how to travel safely on two wheels, and advises that the thing so many nervous cyclists tend to do — sticking as far to the side of the road as possible — is the wrong move. Do that, and “[d]rivers just ignore you,” Dansky tells Whitworth. “Pedestrians are more likely to step in front of you and drivers can open their doors in your path.” Instead, make yourself bigger, following the rules of the road but still being unabashedly annoying about ringing your bell or taking the lane. Make sure you’re seen, in other words, because now is exactly not the time to attempt invisibility.

Another issue here is that too many cyclists and drivers alike may not fully understand the rules of the road where bicycles are concerned. In New York City, for instance, cyclists are allowed to take the full lane — and indeed they should often do exactly this, according to Dansky’s advice, instead of trying to squish themselves as far to the right as they can. A study published last year found that a simple change in language to signs posted along roadsides — from “Share the Road” to “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” — is enough to clue people in.

As for the psychological notion the BBC story brings up — that when you are feeling nervous, you should fight the urge to shrink into yourself and should instead adopt the confident behaviors and postures of a more experienced cyclist — there’s an obvious metaphor for life in there somewhere, though I’ll leave that to you to figure out.