10 Practical Tips for Bike Safety

In the summer we all want to spend more time outdoors. One of my favorite outdoor activities is bicycle riding. As an Atlanta personal injury and wrongful death lawyer and occasional cyclist, I can’t help viewing the risks of injury along with the benefits of exercise.

Maybe that is why most of my biking is on the Silver Comet Trail and other designated bike paths.

When we do ride on busy Atlanta streets, there are some practical bike safety tips we should keep in mind:

  1. Protect yourself from head injuries.  One study reported that 97% of people killed in bicycle accidents were not wearing helmets. Wear a properly fitted bike helmet that has never sustained a crash.
  2. Make yourself highly visible to drivers at all times. Never assume that just because you can see a car, the driver can see you.  Even if they are not talking on a cell phone or texting, they probably don’t see you unless you make yourself conspicuous. Assume the worst.  Any time you as a cyclist share streets with motorists, day or night, use powerful head and tail lamps, reflectors and light colored or reflective clothing.
  3. Ride as far as possible to the right side of the road-with the traffic flow, not against it.
  4. Obey traffic signs and signals just as if you were driving a car. Bikes must follow the same rules as  motorized vehicles. Obey all traffic signals and signs, and visually confirm an intersection is safe before entering it.
  5. Use correct hand signals when making turns.  But visually confirm it is clear to make your turn, as too many drivers won’t notice the hand signal, won’t understand it or won’t care.
  6. Use bike lanes where available — which is unfortunately rare in Atlanta.
  7. Yield to Pedestrians and stay off the sidewalk (except for children). But I admit that when biking to the YMCA before dawn, I have sometimes chosen to go slowly on a deserted sidewalk rather than riding in a busy traffic lane with no paved shoulder or bike lane available.
  8. Don’t weave in and out of traffic.
  9. Don’t wear earphones while riding 
  10. Know your own capabilities.  For example, until you are accustomed to clip-on pedals, be extra cautious about clipping in to your pedals when riding on a street with car traffic.

According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, 19 Georgians died in bike crashes  in 2012, compared with only 13 bicycle deaths in 2011.
While Georgia is behind some other states in promoting bike lanes, and Atlanta does not even make the list of the top 50 bike-friendly cities,  we are making progress.  We anchor one end of the Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga trails, a 95.5 mile paved path on a converted railroad bed linking Smyrna, GA, and Anniston, AL.  The PATH Foundation and Atlanta Bicycle Coalition are working to link together fragments of bike routes. In 2012 Atlanta made the Beltline Eastside Trail and 5th Street “green bike lane” open to cyclist wishing to escape the hub of traffic.

The importance of using bike paths and lanes is highlighted by the fact that none of the bike fatalities in 2012 occurred while the cyclist was in a bike lane that was separated from the road. These “cycle tracks” or “bike lanes” have been popping up all over the United States in big cities such as Chicago and New York.

Still, bike lanes practical for safe bike commuting are far too rare in Atlanta.  Over the past year, I have tried to find  a safe, practical way to commute by bike from my home in Sandy Springs to my office in Midtown Atlanta, other than just biking to the MARTA station nearest my home and then riding the train.  I found a convoluted route that would limit mixing with heavy traffic by roughly doubling the distance traveled. But there are just three places to cross Peachtree Creek, all on extremely busy streets without bike lanes. It’s just not worth it for me.

Looking forward, Georgia is looking into a project that would create safe bike lanes for cyclists. These lanes would be physically separated by planters or raised curbs and could dramatically affect the risk of bicycle injuries and deaths. The GDOT has adopted a “Complete Streets” Policy which calls for the construction teams to consider all modes of transportation a person might take including cycling and walking.

Along with planning for long-range changes to the road systems, Georgia has made progress over the past two years regarding bicycle safety laws.  In  2011 a “Better Biking Bill” was enacted by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Deal, including a requirement that states there must be at least three feet between a vehicle and a bicycle and increasing penalties for violations. Fines were raised to $250 for a first time violation, and a second violation gets a $500-$1,000 fine and 10 days to a year in jail.

But this brings to mind something my grandmother taught me: “He was right as rain as he sped along but he’s just as dead as if he had been wrong.”  It is good to have a law requiring drivers to give space to bikes, but it does not help the bicyclist who encounters a driver who ignores it.

There have been too many incidents of bicyclists with the right of way struck by cars and trucks – in Marietta in April 2013 , in Bartow County in November 2012 and others.

Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition,  worries about the risks of hit and run accidents

“Hit-and-runs are more likely to result in the vulnerable user – the pedestrian or cyclist – becoming a fatality, because no one was there to call for help,” Serna said. “While crashes can happen to anyone, leaving the scene of a crash turns it into a crime. We are calling on all Georgians to drive or cycle with care and attention, and to always stop to render aid when they see someone in need.”

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Ken Shigley is past president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12), double board certified in Civil Trial Advocacy and Civil Pretrial Advocacy by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification, and lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice.  His Atlanta-based civil trial practice is focused on representation of plaintiffs in cases of castastrophic personal injury and wrongful death.