Bicyclist Myths

Myth: Riding toward traffic is safer

I ride towards traffic because it lets the cars see me better.

I can see the cars coming.

Reality: Riding toward traffic is a bad idea

  1. Heading toward traffic increases the closing speed between you and oncoming cars. This means things happen much faster and you have less time to react. And, if you do collide, the risk of serious injury is much higher.
  2. You cannot see road signs, signals, or warning signs because they are facing the other way.
  3. You will endanger other cyclists who are going the correct way and have to dodge around you to avoid hitting you. You’ll also make them real angry.
  4. Motorists do not expect you to be going the wrong way down the street, and will not be looking for you. They may not look in your direction when pulling out of a street or driveway, because they do not expect anyone to be coming from the wrong direction.
  5. It is against the law.

Myth: Running red lights and stop signs is safer/faster

I slow down and look both ways before entering the intersection, so it is safe.

I think is it safer to get a head start on the cars before the light changes.

Reality: Running red lights, and failing to stop at stop signs is a bad idea

  1. Running red lights and stop signs will not actually make you significantly faster. Most commutes only include a few minutes of stop time due to red lights and stop signs. Running red lights doesn’t make you faster, being faster makes you faster.
  2. When you run a red light you are not just breaking the law, you are breaking a social trust.  The stop sign or the red light doesn’t physically cause vehicles to stop, the inherent trust that everyone will follow the rules does. Think about that next time you go through a green light: you are putting your trust in hundreds of strangers every day. Trusting that they will not run through the red light and strike you. When you violate that trust the system breaks down. This is why people get so mad at cyclists for running red lights.
  3. Most people claim that the reason they go through a red light is because they feel that starting at the same time as the cars is dangerous. This may be because they feel slightly wobbly as they first take off, or they feel that having everyone start at once is dangerous because of the size/speed difference between the vehicles involved. If you proceed through a red light, you may avoid starting at the same time as the cars, but they will soon catch up with you, the difference being that when they pass you further down the road they will be traveling much faster.
  4. Stopping at red lights and stop signs is an excellent place to meet other cyclists, practice track stands, and to show off your toned biker calves to the people in cars.
  5. It is against the law.

Myth: Riding on the sidewalk is where bikers are supposed to be/safer

Get on the sidewalk! (motorist to a cyclist)

I ride on the sidewalk because I am worried that riding in traffic is dangerous.

Reality: Riding on the sidewalk is a bad idea

  1. Bicycles are legally vehicles; as such, bicyclists have the full LEGAL right to use the road. This includes using the ENTIRE lane if they need to for safety reasons. Bikes are not holding up traffic, they are traffic.
  2. Riding on the sidewalk might seem safe because there are no cars, but consider what is on the sidewalk. Opening doors (cars and buildings), people pulling out of driveways, turning cars that can’t see you (because when you are on the sidewalk you are often shielded from view by trees, parked cars, and other objects), pedestrians, skateboarders, strollers, dogs on leashes, bumps, roots, gaps, curbs, little kids, cats – the list goes on and on. All these hazards can lead to a much less safe cycling experience.
  3. If you are cycling on the sidewalk you should be going as slow as the slowest pedestrian.
  4. It is hard to get going fast enough on a sidewalk to feel that good breeze. Why spend your whole time dodging fire hydrants when there are miles of road waiting to be ridden on?
  5. In many places in Massachusetts it is actually illegal to ride on the sidewalk. So if someone passes you in a car yelling “get on the sidewalk”, it might be the same as screaming “break the law”! To find out if it is legal for you to ride on the sidewalk in your area, contact your local government or police official.

Myth: I should ride my bike as far over to the right as possible

I don’t like being in the travel lane with the cars.

Isn’t it the law that I have to stay on the far right?

Reality: It is often dangerous to ride to the far right, and you are not legally required to do so

  1. When riding past a row of parked cars, you are far safer being 3-4 feet away from the parked cars (or even more – don’t underestimate how wide car doors can open). Drivers will often open car doors without looking behind them. If you are unlucky enough to be near the car when this happens, you will be doored, and it is not fun. The same goes for narrow bike lanes near parked cars. If you need to be outside of the bike lane to be outside of the door zone, that is OK. Bike lanes are to keep cars out, not to keep bikes in.
  2. The far right side of the street is often filled with debris, glass, and other bad things for bike tires. You do not have to ride in that stuff.
  3. Bicycles are legal vehicles, they have the full right to use the road, the entire lane if need be.  If there is a dangerous object (car, pothole, glass, etc) in your way you may and are encouraged to use the entire lane.
  4. Sometimes pedestrians forget to look both ways. If you are safely positioned away from the curb you will have more reaction time, and will not give a drive-by hug, which would be painful for all parties.
  5. Sometimes bicyclists will ride in the center of the lane to keep cars from passing them; this might be because they are about to make a turn, or the road may be narrowing, or some other hazard might be ahead. You are allowed to do this, and should do this for greater safety. Don’t worry about getting honked at, that is simply the driver’s friendly way of saying “I see you” and approve of your legal right to use the entire lane!

Myth: Reflectors are enough to keep a cyclist safe at night

My bike came with all these reflectors. That must be enough, right?

I wear bright clothing, so that combined with my reflectors will keep me safe.

Reality: Reflectors are not enough to keep you safe, and are in fact a poor choice for nighttime visibility

  1. Reflectors are passive – that is they only work when a light source shines on them.  Cars with the lights turned off and pedestrians (except for the rare pedestrians with laser eyes!) do not produce light and as such make reflectors worthless.
  2. Reflectors can become dirty, or may be angled the wrong way, making them ineffective.
  3. It is important to have both a front light and a rear light. The front light lets cars and pedestrians entering the street (driveways, crosswalks) know you are coming, while a rear light lets cars approaching from behind know you are in the street.
  4. Lights are cool! Disco bike ride! Massachusetts law actually says there are no limitations to the amount of lights you can wear. You hear that, MIT kids? Get on that!
  5. Cars need to have lights on at night, and so do bikes. State law says that you are required to have a white front light, and red rear light or red rear reflector. Tag team the lights with reflectors for maximum visibility and safety.

Myth: Breaking the law doesn’t matter

People in cars break the law all the time so who cares if I do it too?

My actions only affect myself so who cares if I run a couple red lights?

Reality: Following the law has far-reaching positive effects

Whether or not it is valid or fair, cyclists have a reputation for being scofflaws. This leads some people to assume that cyclists are jerks. They see bicyclists running red lights and not stopping at stop signs, and they build up a false image of cycling as a behavior characterized by rulebreaking jerks who simply don’t care.

This (rightly or wrongly) can discourage people from trying cycling (would you want to go ride around with a bunch of jerks?). They may also be discouraged by what they consider negative interaction with lawbreaking cyclists. There are other reasons they don’t try cycling, but we are talking about public perception here, not personal motivation.

If we can convince more people to join us on two wheels, we reap a lot of benefits.

  1. More bikers equals more political clout. This can lead to better infrastructure, better laws, and better treatment of cyclists.
  2. More cyclists means fewer motorists. It is much easier to ride your bike when there are fewer cars (incidentally, for the people still in cars this is also a benefit, which might lessen tensions further)
  3. Some studies have indicated that having more cyclists on the road actually increases the safety for cyclists
  4. Cities with lower traffic and pollution levels (from car exhaust) are much more pleasant and healthy places to live.
  5. As more people begin cycling, the need to follow a system of laws becomes even more important. It would be chaos if we had a large percentage of people cycling and not following traffic laws. Following the laws does not only affect you, it has far-reaching consequences. Following the law increases personal safety, increases road user harmony, and can lead to an increase in cycling which has positive effects on cyclists.