Danger zone for cyclists - and tips on keeping safe

It was an incident in which everything changed in an instant.

As I went through the intersection, with the green light in my favour, the car on the opposite side of the road waiting to make a right turn across my path suddenly accelerated from a standstill.

Almost a decade on, I still have a scar on my shoulder where I hit the road after sliding across the car's bonnet. Mercifully, I was only slightly injured – although my bike was a write-off.

I was reminded of this event when a new study into cycling injuries was recently released.

In a survey of almost 200 seriously injured Melbourne bike riders, Monash University researchers found that one of the most common car-bike collisions was the type that I was involved in, along with cars travelling in the same direction that turn across a cyclist's path - as shown in the diagram below. 

graph

While the Monash University report focused on severe injuries, the places where vehicles cross paths or merge are well known as risky locations. 

"Crash statistics clearly show that the biggest threat riders face is at intersections," says Garry Brennan of Bicycle Network.

Often, these accidents occur when drivers just don't see cyclists, or anticipate their presence on the road. Indeed, numerous surveys have shown that motorists are far more likely to be at fault in car-bike collisions.

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So what can cyclists do to protect themselves around intersections? Here are a few suggestions.

Caution at all times

As I discovered a decade ago, having the right of way doesn't mean it will be respected – and a cyclist will likely pay the larger price.

"I ride in a manner that is assertive about my right of way, but I also ride so that if someone doesn't respect the patterns on the road, I'm in a position to do something about it," says Rob Berry, a cycling instructor and general manager of BikeWise.

Brennan agrees: "Even when you have the green you still have to be cautious because drivers who are doing a right turn might not be looking out for bikes. Assume every turning driver is careless, and ensure you can avoid them if they prove you right."

One of the keys is visibility, Berry says. "Put yourself in a position where you can see what's going on, and where people can see you."

In the Monash University report, the researchers note: "Cyclists may also be able to reduce the risk by using front and rear lights and wearing light, reflective clothing."

Hook turns

Making a right-hand turn can often leave a rider marooned in the middle of the road, with cars speeding past them on either side.

In a hook turn, the rider continues through the intersection on the left side, until reaching the far corner – then turns the bike 90 degrees and waits to cross in the new direction. (You can read more about hook turns here.)

"Such turns are legal for bikes in all Australian states and once mastered take a lot of the anxiety out of making a right," says Brennan.

Passing on the left

It's often misunderstood, but cyclists are allowed to pass a vehicle on the left, except when it is indicating and turning left. Caution should be paramount, however.

"If the car ahead is indicating to turn left, and its progress is unencumbered by traffic and pedestrians, always wait behind until it gets through," says Brennan.

When you are passing a line of vehicles and they start to move, you may find a vehicle turning across your path without warning.

"People often aren't expecting things to pass them on the left," says Berry, who says he prefers to be sure that he can make the front of a queue of cars before the light turns green, rather than have to merge back into the traffic flow if they start moving.

There is also a risk that there are gaps in a line of cars that another vehicle might pass through, not anticipating that a bike is passing on the left. 

As for cars that overtake you and then almost immediately turn left, I find myself giving a glance over my right shoulder or in my mirror as I approach an intersection, to check on any vehicles coming up behind me.

Communicate with drivers

When waiting at a set of lights, there's time to anticipate the intentions of the vehicles around you.

I always check to see whether the car behind or to the side of me has an indicator on – and will sometimes communicate with the driver with hand signals to check on their intended direction.

It may be that they've forgotten to put it on – and in the meantime, you've increased their awareness of your presence. 

Watch those side roads

While numbers are increasing, "cycling is still a marginalised transport option", says Berry – and drivers aren't always looking out for riders.

A driver in a side road intending to cross your line of travel will often look further down the road for cars, and not anticipating that a bike may be almost in front of them.

This can be exacerbated by sightline problems – such as the pillars connecting the roof of the car to the main structure, which can block a driver's view of a cyclist.

Items like tinted windows and sunglasses make it difficult, but it's always reassuring to make eye contact with a driver before crossing their line of intended travel.

Separate but equal

Of course, the ideal solution to all of the above is separated infrastructure, with signalised intersections that keep bikes and motor vehicles apart.

It's a future worth fighting for – but as a rider I expect to be sharing the road with motor vehicles for some time to come.

"At all times when I'm riding in the city, my fingers are on the brakes, I'm ready to stop all the time because … stuff happens," says Berry. "The vast majority of the time everything works as it should, with people following the patterns of the road - but be prepared for the times when they don't."

For me, that collision a decade ago was a mind-opener. I've been increasingly aware of things that can go wrong – and have avoided many potential collisions as a result.

As Brennan puts it: "If riders keep their wits about them, and carefully observe the approaching traffic and the signals cycle, there is a lot they can do to stay out of harm's way."

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

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