'Should I try commuting again?'

Once when I was about 13 years old, I rear-ended a pickup truck. I was on my bike waiting for a crosswalk signal. I made a split-second decision to occupy myself by chasing after a sparrow across a parking lot (because sitting still and waiting 30 seconds for the signal was unthinkable).

While keeping my “eye on the sparrow” (as advised by a TV theme song of the day), I smacked right into the back of a pickup truck that was backing out of a parking space. I hit my head hard, and ended up under the truck. The driver heard the loud thud of my hard head hitting his tailgate, and he stopped backing up.

And that, fortunately, is my only collision I’ve had with a car as a cyclist. Lightweight stuff. I biked home.

So it’s hard to put myself in the position of someone who has been in a serious bone-breaking accident.

Mangled Bicycle
Photo: antlered (Flickr)

A reader named Rob sent me this message, asking, ‘Should I try commuting again?’

I started cycling a few years ago to supplement my running and fell in love with the sport. I race a lot and do group rides on the weekends when not racing. Last year (2010) I decided to try commuting to work–22 miles each way–which I can do in a little over one hour. To me it was a fantastic way to get some quality miles in during the week with minimal impact on my time with my family.

I live in central North Carolina where pickup trucks, fried food, and motorized wheelchairs for the morbidly obese at Wal-Mart are the rule. I lost 100 lbs. a few years ago so I have “dropped out of the club.”

Last May, coming home on a Friday at noon, a 20-year-old woman ran a stop sign (while texting) and hit me broadside; totaling my bike and putting me in the hospital with three broken ribs and some internal damage. I am fine now. The driver was ticketed. Insurance paid for a new bike, picked up my medical bills and gave me $1000 per rib for my troubles. (Not worth it!) This was a residential area with a 25mph speed limit.

I’m thinking about trying commuting again. I bought a Trek 520 that I will “dedicate” to commuting – with reflectors, fat tires, flashing lights, panniers, reflective tape and a rear view mirror. I ride much more defensively now even when racing and training. I would likely avoid the kind of accident I had. Now I would slow down in the intersection and prepare to stop when I didn’t see her eyes.

The majority of my commute is rural two-lane roads of 45 to 55mph speed limit–this was where I had my biggest concern because of the speed limit is even higher than where I had my accident. But this road I’ve never had a problem.

I would like some advice about what kind of equipment works for people and what the best accident avoidance strategies are. How many lights on the front? How about rear view mirrors? What is the best in terms of visibility? Does somebody make an “air horn” for a bike?

Frankly, the more I ride my bike, the more I dislike cars and trucks. Reading this site, it sounds like others have similar experiences – most drivers are OK – some are just stupid (texting, etc.) and some are downright hostile to cyclists. My wife is very nervous about this and I have assured her as much as I can, but I am honestly having some misgivings. My ’88 Honda CRX gets 45mpg so I am not motivated by fuel costs; this is solely for my health. Getting run over is not healthy.

I’ve heard several stories of dedicated riders who give up cycling entirely after a bad experience. I’m not sure what to make of these stories, because I don’t have their experiences.

So how was I to reply to Rob, who had serious injuries after an encounter with a car?

My gut reaction was that you rarely (or never) hear of a motorist who needs to be coaxed back into using cars again after an accident. You do, however, hear of motorists who become much safer drivers after an accident. Why should cycling be any different, except that we tend to consider car use as obligatory, and bike use as optional?

I referred Rob to How to Not Get Hit by Cars, and I offered to put his question out to our readers.

Use the comments for your words of encouragement, words of realism, words of caution, words of experience.

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26 thoughts on “'Should I try commuting again?'”

  1. I’ve had crashes..some were my own stupidity and some not. I was run over by a VERY drunk driver on an Air Force base in Texas years ago..destroyed a new Schwinn. About four years ago, here in Charlottesville, Va..a less than 2 yr old LeMond road bike was trashed when I was sideswiped by a UVA commuter bus..driver turned right into my path and cut me off. I wasn’t hurt, thankfully. Just last April, a 21 yr old student was killed when a city truck turned right into the cyclists path as he was going straight , on a green light, across the intersection. The most common problems I see in my commuting in the city is that cars turn right on a green light into the path of a straight across traveling cyclist. Also, I’ve nearly been hit several times by cars running stop signs, and had car doors open directly in front of me as I traveled in bike lane. My conclusion is I’ll still commute by bike as much as I can except in very cold or rainy weather, but I try to be alert and realize a driver just might not see me.We need to look out for each other whether we drive or bike…

  2. Adah says:

    Two reasons I thought of right away:

    1) Cars feel safer. You’re more likely to get into an accident if you’re in a car, as opposed to on a bicycle, but you’re also more likely to survive that accident. Motorists are enclosed by at least two tons of steel and plastic that serves to protect them in an accident. And most of us have spent our lives riding in or driving cars, whereas many cyclists only returned to the bicycle (and only began riding in traffic) in adulthood.

    2) I heard about a study some time ago with regard to fear in surviving drivers in the wake of fatal accidents. The conclusion was that at-fault drivers tend to recover more readily because they have a better sense of control over what happened — they killed someone and it was horrible, but they know what NOT to do next time. The not-at-fault drivers, those who ran into a jaywalker or T-boned a red-light runner, had higher levels of driving anxiety because they saw the accident as unavoidable, something that “happened” to them. There was little to learn from. (I have personal experience with this. I was rear-ended at high speed twice in an eight-month period and still brace myself when I see someone approaching in my rear-view mirror. Curiously, I’m not afraid of this when I’m on my bike.) I think this could easily be applied to cyclists; we feel we have little control over the actions of motorists, particularly inattentive or hostile ones, and the perceived risk of being in an unavoidable accident that’s likely to involve serious injury is frightening.

  3. Rich says:

    I agree with Ted. Drivers never seem to go through this sort of angst when they have accidents. I was rear ended by a car almost 30 years ago. Broken arm and leg plus assorted internal injuries (torn urethra, how does that happen?). Once the bones mended I was back bicycling in no time. My parents died in a car accident when I was a child, so I’m not inclined to see driving as a safer alternative. Any choice has the potential to kill you. If I stopped to think about all the scary things out there, I’d never leave home.

  4. I’m glad to read Rob is considering returning to commuting by bike. I, also, ride on two lane rural roads without shoulders for part of my commute. My bike has reflectors all around plus good lights. I have a rear-view mirror which I feel is partially helpful but there are times it seems motor vehicles approach me from behind and are pretty close before I actually hear them. I think this is mostly related to wind noise obscuring the road noise of the automobiles. It just tells me I need to check that mirror fairly often. I believe the two primary factors that help me commute more safely are wearing very bright, attention getting clothing/helmet and riding very close to the right side of the road to give drivers as much room as possible. When I approach an intersection, I migrate to the center of the lane to avoid a right turning car cutting me off. I ride a bike that is pretty upright and both gives me a better view and gives drivers a better view of me. Also, drivers in my area are, generally, careful and give we wide birth when passing.

  5. matt says:

    Here are my safety tips. (Now that I’ve typed this up, I realize how long this is. sorry for that – I’ve done about 4000 miles since I started commuting 26m-RT a year ago, so this is a quick brain dump.)

    * Assume that few drivers are expecting you to be on the road and that most of them are talking or texting. Expect them not to look for you and not to see you. Yes, it’s annoying but there are enough bad apples out there — at least in Boston — that you have to make worst-case assumptions.

    * Reduce speed in traffic, particularly when there are gaps in a line of stopped cars. Often someone will try to turn across the lane and smack you if you’re trying to file past a line of cars and there’s a gap at an intersection.

    * Put a Third Eye mirror on your helmet. Mine glues to the side and is adjustable. It is always there and oriented with my line of sight, unlike the bar-end mirror I used to use. I tried the type that connects to my glasses, but it needed too much adjustment.

    * In particular, use the mirror to avoid getting right-hooked at intersections. As you approach the intersection, glance in your mirror to see if anyone is directly behind you.

    * An AirZound is an incredibly loud horn and will get the attention of most motorists. They may honk back at you, but you’ll know that they know you are there. Bells are only useful for the small % of pedestrians who aren’t wearing earbuds. Everyone else needs a toot from the AirZound.

    * Wear bright colors, even during the day when it seems “safe”. I picked up a reflective construction-worker jacket at Work’N’Gear for $15. I put it over everything unless I have a reflective jersey.

    * Put a red blinky on the back of your helmet and leave it on day and night. Ditto with a white blinky on the front of your bike. Batteries are cheap. Carry spare batteries (AAAs don’t weigh much).

    * Get some motion-activated valve covers (I picked up a pair at Wal-Mart for $5). These flash red and you don’t have to remember to turn them on.

    * Get a SpokeLit for your front wheel and use it on at night (not flashing). turns your front wheel into a neon sign basically – is brighter than the valve covers above – and helps to ensure that people can see you from the side.

    * Make sure you have a front headlight that is blindingly bright (or can be). I have a $30 blinky and a $90 MagicShine in front – the MagicShine is unbelievably bright (yes, I know about the battery recall). The MagicShine taillight is also quite bright but drains the battery, so I recommend a PlanetBike SuperFlash (which is almost as bright) unless you have a commute of a half hour or less.

    * If you want to clip in, use “campus” pedals (flat on one side, clips on the other) instead of pedals that have clips on both sides. Otherwise you might be reluctant to unclip at a stoplight.

    * Always always always cross railroad tracks at a 90 degree angle.

    * When you are holding up a bus or a long line of cars, pull over when there is an open spot and let them pass. Sure, you may feel you are “within your rights” to make them wait, but they will treat you with more respect if you wave them on. Also, wave and say thank you when cars let you pass. It’s all about building goodwill.

  6. buster mcfly says:

    I am struggling with this also. I had two last fall. One with a car swerving into my turn lane and clipping my front wheel. Threw me down hard, but I was okay. Then a month later a semitruck crepped onto the shoulder and if it wasn’t for my mirror, I would have been crushed by the rear wheels of the truck. I jumped myself and bike over the guard rail and down a balckberry bush covered hill. Dislocated shoulder, bruised hip, blood everyhwhere crushed helmet, black eye… One night in hospital and 2 weeks to recover from the bruises.

    Now I have three different types of lights – blinky, solid and more blinky read. Two headlights, one helmet light (forward) 2 blinky helmet lights (rear facing). High Vis vest, gloves… I have gone crazy. New commuting bike. Everytime I go to the bike shop I hit the lights section, hivis clothing and flag section. Bike is ready, I am not. Struggling, I blame it on weather, but it is my head. Once I get back on, I am sure the reason I ride will be remembered. Right now all I remeber is what happened. Going to venture out on my commute again starting next week (I hope). Damn the fear.

  7. Greg says:

    I’ve been commuting to work for about 8 years now. I’ve been “doored” once, and had 4 or five other close calls.

    The key to NOT being doored is to always ride BEYOND the reach of car doors at ALL times. Trust me on this one – or at least trust my scars.

    The secret to avoid those OTHER accidents where cars just don’t see you is to make yourself very visible. Most car drivers just don’t see you on that bike – you just blend with the background.

    I always commute wearing a lime-green wind-breaker and a white helmet. If it is dawn, dusk, or night-time, I use a BRIGHT headlight on my handlebars, a KNOG FROG blinky light (small led light) on my helmet, and a Planet Bike Superflash tail light. Don’t forget to refresh the batteries frequently to keep these lights obnoxiously bright.

    This setup works wonders in greatly reducing the number of times where cars just don’t see me.

    My final recommendation is to bike commute at a DIFFERENT time than the peak vehicular commute. If I leave 30 minutes before the crazy peak automobile traffic time my commute is incredibly less stressful. It’s worth getting up a bit earlier for the lack of stressful traffic AND the reduction of “near misses”.

    Keep on riding, but change your approach.

  8. Dave says:

    Matt has a lot of good suggestions that coincide with my own philosophy: be seen, be heard, don’t be a jerk.

    I will only add two things, as they are the greatest lessons I had to learn about cycling in my city (a suburb in northeast Houston where most drivers think bikes are only for recreation on the bike and hike trails):

    (1) Ride with confidence!

    We have all heard that we need to “claim the lane” and other such cliche bike safety catch phrases. The simple fact of the matter is that most drivers in my town are unfamiliar with proper “etiquette” toward bicycles on the road. I have found my self in countless situations where a car behind me will not pass me even though the lane is plenty wide enough to do so. So traffic builds up behind me and sooner or later someone gets fed up which does nothing but make the situation more dangerous for everyone.

    Claim the lane, but wave people around you on streets with higher speed traffic if someone slows down and is unsure if they should pass you. It lets them know that you are aware of your surroundings, that you are in control of your vehicle (because that’s what it is!), and you are comfortable handling your smaller, lighter vehicle in the midst of heaver, faster traffic.

    When you ride with confidence, it lets drivers know that you are in control and that you are comfortable – hopefully indicating to them that they should drive as normal and pass you as they would pass other slow moving traffic (assuming drivers are as focused as they should be).

    (2) Drive your bike.

    Obey traffic law as much as possible – especially when there is a large amount of traffic on the road. In my mind, safety on the road is all about predictability and moving with the flow of traffic. Wait your turn in line at the stop sign as opposed to riding up the side of the street to the front of the line. Stop in the middle of the lane at a red light, not next to a car.

    In the same vein as that, remember commuting is transportation, not exercise, although you are getting exercise by commuting by bike. Your commute to work is not the time to do intervals and otherwise take extra steps to increase your fitness. It is about getting to work safely in a healthy and environmentally/economically friendly way.

    Mirrors are nice, but don’t live by them. Check them often, but just like your car, check your blind spot. The downside to bar-end mirrors: increased maintenance. Check the nuts and tighten as needed before and after every ride.

  9. jeff says:

    i got hit by a left turning lady on Christmas eve and broke several bones in my foot. i got 1 more week till i go back to work. i can’t want to be back on my bike. i rode every day to work 18 mile round trip. i have found it easier to ride my bike than drive a car. the only thing i will change is all my lights on all the time. so keep on riding it better for you than driving.

  10. Josh S says:

    Great advice. Why would a car accident be any different. My only accident was similar to what you described except the motorist came from the left, and if I’d been sitting in an ’88 Honda CRX I would have been crushed and trapped. As it was, the bike was totaled, but I bounced off the hood and windshield with minor injuries. The point is that either way, we need to get back in the saddle (or car seat).
    You’re also right on to look for a good headlight. get one that is blinky and can be seen from a wide angle so that cars from side streets see you coming. Also ride further to the left in your lane so that people see you when the do look (since they’re looking for cars).
    Definitely use a mirror; if nothing else, it’s a great confidence builder. I use one attached to my brake hood and like it very much.
    So I guess the only unique advice that I have (being in Michigan) is to use lithium batteries in your lights. They operate in lower temperatures so you can count on them even on a chilly morning, and they last a really long time.
    Don’t give in to fear. You can do it!

  11. Johnny K says:

    To commute or not to commute is the question?? This is hard to answer because it is such a personal thing. IMHO only if you are confident. If you are second guessing yourself than I personally would not. All I can say is be super careful out there and if you are on the road the commute should come first so set aside everything else. You are operating a vehicle after all which has the potential of getting people or yourself killed. People operating all kinds of vehicles on the roads today do not pay enough attention.

  12. Ted Johnson says:

    I want to echo the advice about a helmet-mounted rear-view mirror. The few times that I’ve ridden without one in the last ten years were the times that I felt the least safe on a bike.

    Also: Don’t keep your eye on the sparrow.

  13. Chrehn says:

    First of all, I’m glad you are in one piece and can count all of your digits. Secondly, I say, Yes! Get back out there and ride, you will remember why, when you get back on your bicycle. I empathize with your type of traffic problems. I live in a rural area where every third vehicle seems to be a diesel pickup with extended mirrors pulling a horse trailer or a Recreational Vehicle with extended mirrors pulling a 2nd vehicle, boat or horse trailer.
    Finally, here is my wacked-out idea for the day. Is it to crazy to have two small video cams mounted on a bicycle helmet. One cam with a front view and one with a rear view. At the very least the recordings should be good for some laughs and maybe some teaching experiences on how to handle traffic situations better. Worse case scenario, my surviving family members could use the recording to show that I was riding safely and legally at the moment of…

  14. Well there is no doubt at all in my mind, of course you should try commuting to work on your Bicycle, the benefits are too many to mention here in such a small box, But believe me, once you’ve started again you won’t want to stop. Think of all the traffic your going to wizz past, Nothing beats cycling around your home town when you ever get the chance. Do It !

  15. BluesCat says:

    I have helmet mirrors on ALL of my helmets, and I ALWAYS wear a helmet. Since my main ride is a recumbent, I MUST have a helmet mirror to see behind me, there is NO way I could spin my head around (a la Linda Blair in The Exorcist) to see what’s happening behind me.

    The only advice I can add to the excellent advice given by the others is something I learned years ago when I was riding motorcycles, and something which has become my Number One Rule: ASSUME YOU ARE INVISIBLE BECAUSE, TO THE VAST MAJORITY OF MOTORISTS … YOU ARE!!!

    In the 2+ years I’ve been commuting on my ‘bent, I’ve had several close calls. If I had been minding Rule Number One, I wouldn’t have even had any close calls!

  16. Lynn says:

    Get a mirror. I love my helmet-mounted mirror. It makes traffic so much more manageable, because cars can’t sneak up and surprise me.

    I don’t look for eye contact anymore. I watch their wheels.

    I know several people, including my mother, who have had serious driving anxiety following a crash. After being in a car that was rear-ended 3 times in 3 years, I’ve developed a bit of anxiety myself! I think that most drivers “get back on the horse” because they have to; for example, my mother lives in a rural area and has no alternatives to driving. I think that those of us who live in town and can bike or take the bus take longer to get over our driving fear.

  17. Moby says:

    were you inspired by Jeff’s blog. He’s been doing mounted cameras on his bike for a while and he has gotten great videos:

  18. Chrehn says:

    Thanks got the tip on helmet mounted cameras/video.

  19. Peter says:

    Many great tips here.

    I would add that if riding in low-light conditions a helmet mounted headlight can be invaluable. Not just to point to where you want to go, but can be really handy to alert inattentive drivers.

    Having been hit a few times in more than 40 years of riding I can also say it just takes time to get over the fear and anxiety that a really bad collision creates. Be kind to yourself and know that it will take a while.

  20. Bill says:

    I didn’t read all the comments but my first priority is to convince myself that no one sees me when they are turning into my traffic pattern. I ensure that I make eye contact and ride the brakes until they stop completely.

    I would rather slow down and have to speed up again than end up in the predicament Rob did.

    Never been hit and trying to keep it that way.

  21. Rob ("The Rob") says:

    Ted – I want to thank you for elevating my question to receive the level and type of response that it did. Thank you to all who have responded – I have read all the posts and links you have left.

    I successfully completed my first commute yesterday (42 miles round trip) since my encounter with a car in 2010. Although I have been on many group/charity/training rides, this “felt” different and I was definitely nervous.

    It was dark when I left the house, but I had 4 flashers on the back (seat, each bag, helmet) and a 300 lumen light on the front. Someone from work passed me about 6:30am and told me later he could see me from a mile away and was well prepared to pass. He didn’t know it was me but made the comment “that’s the way to ride in the dark”. That made me feel really good. I also had a rear view mirror – that was a great tip as well and has already helped me.

    While unfortunate, getting hit last year has definitely made me a safer cyclist. On my Sunday training ride I came very close to the “right cross” (pass with an immediate right turn) type accident, but I saw the driver in my rear view mirror signaling right and driving close to me and and knew what he was going to do so I was already slowing and easily avoided the accident. I also don’t every hammer it through and intersection when I have the right of way – even when I am pulling on a group ride.

    I plan on commuting every day I can. I’m trying to get a few people here at work to try it that live much closer than I do (at least I mention it every time I hear someone grumble about how much it costs to fill up their Suburban). The helpful information you’all have provided here has already helped and I will share it with as many cyclists as I can.

    There are many reasons why we ride. The most important to me is that I never want to weigh 270lbs. again. I am a better father, husband, and employee when I am fit and healthy. There is no question that I would rather live this way than slowly die while “safely” sitting on my couch watching TV like so many people do these days.

    Take care,

    Rob Greer
    Lexington, NC

  22. N.O. Louis says:

    Reading your story and seeing the photo of the damaged bike by reminded me of a faded memory. The time my face was used to remove a truck mirror from its’ mount during the hit and run. Concussed, stitches in my mouth I got back on another bike as soon as I could and never looked back. Like I said, It’s a faded memory now. Great cycling memories since are fresh.


  23. Adventure Cyclist says:

    I realize you are in NC, but this program fits the bill (and we had attendees come from Connecticut last weekend):

    CyclingSavvy – education program of the Florida Bicycle Assocition

    Check out the information and animation posted online…

  24. Niki says:

    I live in San Diego and I ride a lot in crowded urban areas. I’ve had quite a few close calls mostly from drivers in larger vehicles who can’t see me. The area I live in has a lot of lifted trucks and Suburbans.
    I am really particular about my lights and reflectors. And I wear a helmet even though I know if a car hits me at 30 mph it won’t keep me from getting injured. Being exposed makes an accident more raw. The places where I’ve had close calls make me more defensive. I have a lot of friends who ride motorcycles and they told me they drive like no cars can see them. They anticipate that people in four wheeled vehicles are going to cut them off not pay attention when they are turning and cutting them off or pulling out and almost hitting them. And that’s helped with how I ride. I may not be able to prevent every accident but using a little more caution than I would when I drive my car makes me feel a bit safer.

  25. Balance Bike says:

    * Rob

    Hey congrats on getting back out on the road. I’m sure there was a lot to consider before making that decision. I have a 50 mile round trip commute and have often considered getting on my motorcycle to ride, but just feel there’s too much danger with a city/highway commute.

    I can definitely see how you’d have to think through the decision to tackle it on a bicycle. I’m going to stick with recreational riding myself, but wish you a safe commute.

  26. Jon Webb says:

    You can learn defensive riding, and it sounds like you are doing that. “Effective Cycling” may be helpful here. I take the vehicular cycling stuff with a grain of salt, but some of their ideas are very useful.
    In the particular case of your accident, you should never assume someone is going to stop — but it is very easy to make that assumption without thinking about it. My only accident that was not my fault occurred when I was riding downhill past a line of stopped cars. There was a gap in the line, and suddenly, a car pulled through directly in front of me. I wasn’t seriously injured, but could have been. And I could have avoided the accident entirely if, after noticing the gap, I had thought about why there would be a gap, instead of assuming it was for no reason of importance to me.

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