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With most Americans under "stay at home" orders and practicing social distancing, there’s been a distinct drop in automotive traffic. This is a positive for cyclists, whether they ride as a cost-effective, social distancing method of transportation or just a way to get out and exercise in spring weather. But be safe when you head out on two wheels.
There’s a reason “it’s as easy as falling off a bike” is an adage. Getting injured while cycling is always a possibility, even if you aren’t traveling at Tour de France speeds. Now there is more motivation than ever to take precautions. Not only will an injury that requires a visit to the hospital take focus away from COVID-19 patients, but it will likely take a long time for you to be seen by medical staff.
The spread of COVID-19 has severely curtailed vehicle traffic. Passenger vehicle traffic overall in the United States was down 48 percent for the week beginning March 21 compared with the same period in 2019, according to Inrix, a service that collects traffic data.
In general, roads are getting safer due to reduced traffic while businesses and schools are closed and people aren’t driving. For example, in New York City, traffic collisions have gone down nearly 38 percent in the 28 days ending March 29, 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, according to the NYPD TrafficStats, with total injuries down 32 percent. However, bicycle injuries are up by 2.7 percent during the same time, the only metric to rise. But don’t be dissuaded: It’s easy to reduce your chances of being injured while cycling with some preparation and riding etiquette.
For the most part, people following a shelter at home mandate can exercise outside. As an example, orders from Alameda County, Calif., that direct people to stay home still allow them to go on a walk and exercise outside “so long as you do not congregate in a group and maintain at least six feet of distance between you and other people.”
While this isn’t the time to engage in group activities, it’s fine to cycle with close family members you live with who are in good health, so long as none of you have any symptoms. But older family members or those who are immunocompromised should not expose themselves to potential illness. Avoid riding on crowded trails or paths, where maintaining six feet from others may be a challenge.
And it’s always important to follow personal hygiene practices. Johns Hopkins University notes that while “the virus isn’t spread through perspiration, items touched by many people could pose a risk.”
If you are using short-term bicycle rentals, make sure to bring wipes to clean off the handlebars, seat, brakes, and any other commonly touched surfaces before you ride. As a precaution, try not to touch your face while riding. Use hand sanitizer right after you ride if you have it. And wash your hands at a sink as soon as you can.
After your post-exercise shower, clean your clothes, including any cycling-specific equipment such as gloves, sunglasses, helmets, wind jackets, or other wearables.
Pre-Ride Safety Check
Of course you need to make sure that the bicycles you and your family are riding have been maintained and are in safe working condition. But you also need some specific safety equipment.
In the majority of bicyclist deaths the most serious injuries are to the head, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. This highlights the importance of wearing a bicycle helmet. Helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of head injury by 50 percent and the odds of head, face, or neck injury by 33 percent.
But helmets don’t last forever. “We recommend replacing a helmet every five years, immediately if you’ve taken a spill and hit your head while wearing it, or the helmet shows damage like cracking or delamination of the shell or inner foam layer,” says Peter Anzalone, senior test project leader who oversees helmet testing at Consumer Reports. If you’re unsure of the age of your helmet, or if it’s been a while since you’ve bought a helmet for your kids, check out CR’s bicycle helmet buying guide and ratings.
You can find helmets at your local bike shop if your state or local government has allowed them to remain open. Call the shop to see if they are offering delivery or contactless pickup of helmets and other merchandise. Or, you can order them online. If you already have a helmet, check out how to make sure it fits properly. Before using the helmet, check to make sure that it meets standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
It’s best to always use front and rear lights, even during the day. This isn’t to light your way; rather, it’s to make you more visible during daylight hours and especially at dusk and dawn. A forward-facing blinking white light will make you more noticeable to oncoming traffic, while a rear-facing blinking red light will make you visible to traffic behind you. But even with these lights blinking and strobing, assume motorists won't see you—even if you have the right of way. If you have a need to ride before the sun rises or after it sets, you’ll need high-powered lights to illuminate the road.
Wear easily visible cycling clothing, such as a bright yellow, red, orange, or blue jacket or vest, to improve your ability to be seen. Think brighter colors rather than blacks or grays that could be easily overlooked or lost in shadows. Some cycling clothes also come with reflective stripes. The key is to be visible by contrasting with your environment. It isn’t a rolling fashion show.
A good pair of cycling gloves serves a number of purposes. First, it helps you keep your grip on the handlebars even if you are sweating or riding in the rain. Second, in the event of a fall, gloves will protect your palms; it’s natural to put your hands out when falling, and the impact can scrape them up. Finally, gloves help relieve pressure from the palms and prevent blisters from forming. But it’s OK to ride without them if you’re more comfortable that way.
In order to protect your eyes from dirt, debris, and sun glare, you can wear safety glasses or sunglasses marketed and sold as cycling-specific ones. Clear (untinted) lenses are good for use when it’s raining, because they’ll protect your eyes but won’t be too dark. Some glasses let you swap in different lenses so you can choose the appropriate ones depending on your conditions. You can also get prescription lenses made for these.
Out on the Road
Keep in mind that safety doesn’t just mean protective equipment, it’s also about how cyclists interact with motorists, pedestrians, and other cyclists.
Obey the law. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reminds cyclists that “a bicycle is a vehicle, and you’re the driver.” This means that cyclists have to follow all traffic laws and obey street signs, signals, and road markings. Ride in the same direction as traffic when cycling on roadways. Running stop signs and other traffic control devices puts you and other cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists in danger.
Stay alert. Remember that potholes, bottles, glass, curbs, and sewer grates pose a bigger risk to cyclists than they do to cars. Keep your eyes up and look far enough ahead of you to make an evasive maneuver or stop in time to avoid a crash. Anticipate that someone may open their parked car door when you're riding past.
Use hand signals. The only way you are able to interact with traffic is by using hand signals. Both NHTSA and League of American Bicyclists note that not only is it the law to use proper hand signals, doing so communicates your intentions to turn or stop, making it safer for everyone.
Be predictable. Try not to weave in your travel lane. While it’s necessary to avoid obstacles, inattentive riding and random movements can confuse or unnerve drivers. They may slow and avoid passing you because they don’t know what you are doing. Or they may aggressively pass, putting them, you, and other traffic at risk.
Ride single file. Stay single file no matter where you are riding. This allows traffic to give you three feet of space when passing without having to veer into the oncoming lane, and lets other cyclists pass you safely on the road. If it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk in your town or city, keep in mind that riding two or three abreast on the sidewalk crowds out pedestrians.
Skip the tech. Whether you’re commuting or interval training, keep off your phone. NHTSA says cyclists should never wear headphones because they hinder their ability to hear traffic. Plus, it can become a distraction if you need to take a hand off the handlebars to change the volume, choose another song, or accept/reject a call on your mobile phone. And just like driving, texting is a major distraction. One slight wobble and even the most experienced cyclist will go down in a heap. You can attach a small saddlebag under the seat or to the frame to stash a phone. This not only keeps it from being a distraction, but it prevents you from accidentally dropping the phone.
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