7 mistakes that people riding bikes make and how to correct them

Bicycle riders frequently make some simple errors on the road. These are quite common and not really their fault as they have never been provided with the information that they need to understand these errors. Hopefully this blog helps!

In most cases people simply follow what they see other people doing. Up until 5 years ago when I took a Can-Bike course (and subsequently became an instructor) I made many of these errors too. Here are 7 errors that I see people on bicycles make all the time and how they can be corrected. (in no specific order)

1. Riding too close to the curb

This may be the most frequent error made. The Highway Traffic Act indicates that when you are riding a bike you are to be as close as “practicable” to the edge of the road, not as close as possible. Firstly riding in the gutter means that you need to either ride through or avoid all the debris, potholes, manhole covers etc that litter the edge of the road. In order to avoid these you need to shift your position to the left which means moving frequently and often unpredictably into the flow of traffic.

Instead what Can-Bike recommends is that you ride a minimum of 1 meter from the edge. Riding a meter away allows you to maintain a straight line while avoiding the vast majority of the hazards along the edge. If you do have to avoid a hazard there is a good chance you can move to your right, away from the adjacent traffic flow to avoid it.  By taking a bit more space you also become more visible to other road users and encourage drivers to move over in order to pass by you.

In some cases riding a meter from the edge is not sufficient. Remember that a safe position on the road depends on traffic volume, speed, lane widths, weather, and even a cyclist’s skill level. Poor road conditions or big puddles can force you to move even further to the left. In some cases it is safer to move to the centre of the lane. Examples of situations where this is a safer choice would be construction zones, bridges/underpasses with no bike lane, or even very narrow lane widths.

2. Not shoulder checking

It is always a good idea to check over your shoulder to get a sense of traffic flow behind you, but it is absolutely essential before changing positions on the road. Before ever considering a change of position you should always shoulder check first. Many bicycle riders will weave out around parked cars without even checking because they assume that the zone adjacent to the parked car is safe. It isn’t! Riding too close to parked cars (in the door zone) is extremely dangerous as a suddenly opened door can not only cause serious injury, but can also knock you into the adjacent traffic flow. You should pass parked cars outside the door zone (1.5 meters) and to do this safely you need to shoulder check and signal so drivers behind you know what you are planning and that you need more space. Even if they don’t understand why you need the space, you do.

Always shoulder check first before signalling so you don’t get a nasty surprise like a car mirror hitting your outstretched hand. If the lane is clear you can signal and then before making your final position change, shoulder check one more time. Remember the mere action of shoulder checking will draw the attention of approaching drivers and often cause them to slow down.

 3. Maintain a straight line

The previous item leads us to another common mistake, weaving in and out of traffic or parked cars. It is important to maintain a straight line as much as possible and remain in the motorist’s field of vision. If you wind your way in and out from between parked vehicles you will disappear and then reappear constantly. This is not only unpredictable behaviour, but makes you at times invisible to drivers.

The key is to remain in the drivers field of vision and to do this you must stay out where you can be seen at all times. If the distance between the parked vehicles seems overly large you can always move slightly to the right and allow traffic to flow past you and then renegotiate your position a bit further out as you approach the next parked vehicle. This way you are always visible and with appropriate shoulder checks and signals, you are predictable as well.

4. Communication (signal)

Very few people use appropriate hand signals and in some cases they are not even sure of the correct signals to use. Signalling is one of the most important things that you can do to ensure your safety. You will find that letting other road users know what you are doing and where you want to go will also glean you respect and cooperation.

The signals are simple, but there are a few things that you can do to enhance their effectiveness. Firstly make them clear! Don’t just put your arm part way out to signal a turn, extend it fully. If you are stopping don’t just hang your arm by your side, extend it and make a clear right angle with your elbow. Another thing that helps to enhance your communication is pointing your finger (be careful which one you use). This is especially useful when moving over in a lane or just to the next adjacent lane. Point your finger at exactly where you intend to move and you will make your intentions clear to drivers.

Remember when signalling to shoulder check first, then signal and then check one more time before you move over.

5. foot on the curb at intersections

If you put yourself in the position of being right next to the curb when stopped at an intersection you will now have to start up with tonnes of steel right beside you. Since we all wobble a bit when we start up and also considering that the car adjacent to you might just turn to the right in front of you at the intersection, it would seem wise to avoid this position.

As you approach the intersection, shoulder check to see the traffic situation behind you and if clear, signal and move to a position in the centre of the lane. This way you are more visible to both the car in front and behind you.

When the traffic begins to move you can start up without worry of those tonnes of steel beside you and when you are through the intersection you can return to your position “as close as practicable to the right.”

6. Passing on the right

It’s simple, passing is always done on the left! When you pass motorists on the right (unless you are in a bike lane) you are putting yourself in a dangerous position. You will also frustrate the drivers that just passed you and are now forced to pass you again. The last thing you need is a frustrated driver passing you!

As indicated above, when you are approaching an intersection always reposition yourself to the centre of the lane. If you arrive first, take the lane and hold it until you can continue. If you arrive after, take a position directly behind the vehicle in front of you. Don’t want to breath in exhaust, simple, stay further back. Long line of traffic to wait for, easy, pass on the left with the traffic that is moving quicker. You could also get off your bike and become a pedestrian for a short period or if you know this is part of your every day commute, find a better route.

In a bike lane you can pass on the right since you have your dedicated lane, however be cautious at intersections where motor vehicles might be crossing over into the bike lane to turn. While you are at it, watch carefully for parked cars pulling out or cars to your left moving into the bike lane to park.

7. Riding on sidewalk

When people understand the risks of sidewalk riding, they don’t do it. It is however a very common occurrence. Sidewalks are for walking, it is in the name. Riding on sidewalks is also illegal. They also represent the most dangerous place to ride, especially at intersections. Most car-bike accidents happen at intersection and the majority of these are a result of people riding on sidewalks. Let’s not forget that every back lane, driveway, etc represents an intersection and that these intersections are not controlled.

With no stop sign, and in many cases limited visibility, drivers will pull directly into the path of a fast moving bike before they have had a chance to even notice them. And it is really not always their fault as they do not expect something moving with speed on a sidewalk. The simple solution is not to ride on sidewalks, however it is clear that many cyclists still feel safer on the sidewalk. Consider that the statistics put you at more risk and if that is not enough to keep you from using the sidewalk, ride slow (at pedestrian speed) and take extra caution at all intersections.

These tips can keep you safer on the road, but you need to practice them.

Having done numerous cycling skills courses it has always amazed me how just giving people the information that they need does not change their habits. In order to change habits you have to consciously practice the new ones. If you can find a bicycle skills course, take it. You will find that it will help to build not only your knowledge, but also your confidence. Another option is to ride with an experienced friend, however keep in mind the tips provided above, as your friend may not know them either.

Happy riding!

35 Responses

  1. Iodoral Weight Loss | August 29, 2013 | 8:51 am | Reply

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyhow, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

  2. Donald McKenzie | June 21, 2013 | 9:52 am | Reply

    As a lifelong pedestrian, I’d like to suggest that if a cyclist is on a sidewalk, just remember to treat pedestrians the same way you would like drivers to treat cyclists.

  3. Best destinations inside European countries for team skiing vacations | June 4, 2013 | 5:29 am | Reply

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  4. Char Lyons | May 31, 2013 | 6:19 pm | Reply

    Responding to #5 and #6, I feel that the cyclist is at risk if repositioning themselves into the centre of the lane at the stop light. The driver in the vehicle immediately behind the cyclist may have better visibility but any vehicles behind that will not know that there is a cyclist ahead. As cyclists are expected to be at curbside, drivers will not be looking for cyclists elsewhere. A cyclist in the middle of a lane creates an unsafe environment for themselves and creates a road hazard for drivers. I strongly discourage this habit.

    • Dave | June 1, 2013 | 7:56 am | Reply

      I suppose we can agree to disagree. If all cyclists were to take this position at intersections vehicles would quickly become accustom to our presence. Taking the position next to the curb may make you visible to vehicles further behind but they are not the vehicles that you are immediately concerned with when you start up from the intersection. By positioning yourself in the middle of the lane you discourage drivers from squeezing up beside you which is an invitation to a “right hook.” You also provide yourself with the space to maneuver when you start up as none of us can hold a straight line until we gather at least some momentum.

      This approach to positioning at intersections is consistent with the teachings of Effective Cycling (USA), Can-Bike (Canada) and other similar cycling skills programs that I have seen around the world. From experience I strongly support taking the centre of the lane at intersections as it is an effective way to eliminate potential conflicts with motor vehicles and as well allows for a greater feeling of comfort when starting up without tons of steel beside me.

  5. Mags | May 30, 2013 | 1:05 pm | Reply

    Good article, but as with everything the advice needs to be adapted to the situation.

    Pembina rush hour is a squeeze. I’ve worked out a routine with some bus drivers that when they tap their brakes I hop up on the curb for a short stretch, just long enough to let them pass and rejoin the road after they have passed. It’s a courtesy not to hold up an entire bus load (or 2) of folks just to stand on the principle of not pedaling on the sidewalk. I do all this shoulder checking of course.

    In the situation of a light that just turned green, I move slightly to the right and come to a near pause in the middle of the intersection to let them safely pass.

    It can take a bus a long while before they can change lanes. They often honk a thank-you or wave a thank you.

    And as for signalling, I always do it, but I do question the effectiveness when I have drivers “waving hello” back at me – it makes me laugh every time :)

    • Dave | May 30, 2013 | 4:52 pm | Reply

      Makes sense to be cooperative when it does not involve putting yourself in a compromising position. Interesting that you have your own routine with the bus drivers. Do they pass this along to other drivers as their routes are always changing?

      As for the waving, I always point my finger (index, not middle) when I signal. I find it helps and in fact I use it to point to exactly where I am going. If I am only moving over in the lane to clear a obstacle or parked car I just point over and down so that the drivers know exactly where I am going.

  6. Dave | May 28, 2013 | 4:55 pm | Reply

    As a lifelong cyclist in traffic, I agree with everything except signaling. Signaling is at beat useless – drivers just think you’re waving your arms – and at worst dangerous; the signaling arm is not on the controls. How can you even consider braking to a stop and signaling at that same time?

    My advice is if there are any cars behind you close enough to be affected by your proposed signal, just don’t do whatever you were thinking of doing.

  7. BobS | May 26, 2013 | 8:26 am | Reply

    All great stuff – thanks!

    I would not have been as generous in #6, passing on the right. A bike lane is no exception – you’re still putting yourself into a dangerous position, for the reasons you explained in the last paragraph. Yes it’s legal, but that doesn’t make it safe.

    • Dave | May 27, 2013 | 1:46 pm | Reply

      While I would agree that you need to be cautious when passing in a bike lane, especially close to intersections, it is nice to not have to stay behind a long line of cars when you have your own lane.

      • Teresa L. | June 26, 2014 | 3:36 pm | Reply

        I agree, it feels very very silly to have to go at the speed of traffic in a bike lane if it’s slower than I can go! However, only the case for something like the dedicated bike lane on Pembina.

      • Teresa L. | June 26, 2014 | 3:44 pm | Reply

        As a sometimes-cyclist (less than I’d like due to the inconvenience of living in a walkup apartment where I have to carry my bike up very awkward stairs, and to living on Pembina), I find that it’s much much easier to be safe when on quiet roads…but that quiet roads are not usually places where I can bike because when I’m biking I’m heading north towards downtown and don’t want to do the 15-20 minute detour that taking side streets requires (also I get lost and my ‘detour’ ends up taking even longer…). This advice is definitely helpful…now to get over my guilt at slowing up traffic on Pembina during rush hour…

        One comment about sidewalks: I very frequenly have to cross the Bishop Grandin bridge. I feel that by crossing on the road, I take my life in my hands much more than if I ride on the sidewalk (being very careful and watchful as I cross the exits of course, but no different than if I were on the road surface). I know sidewalks are more dangerous statistically, but I cannot shake the feeling that it is better to ride on the sidewalk from Chancellor to Plaza, where the bike lane starts, especially since there’s a separated bike lane and it’s insane that it doesn’t continue past plaza (scariest part of Pembina: the bit where I’m going south, hit plaza, the bike lane ends, it’s unclear where I’msupposed to go, I have to merge into traffic right at a major exit on a bridge OR merge onto the bridge sidewalk…there IS no ‘safe’ feeling solution there!).

        • Teresa L. | June 26, 2014 | 3:45 pm | Reply

          Oops. I intended that to go in the general comments area, not as a reply…apologies!

          Just a quick followup: the above is a bit of a frustrated rant, as I’m used to biking in Edmonton where the river valley was right by my house so I’m used to biking on multiuse paved trails rather than roads. I know that all I can control is my own biking behaviour…and this advice will help me to do that as safely as possible! :)

          • Dave Elmore | June 26, 2014 | 8:15 pm

            I recognize a rant, we all have them from time to time. No apology necessary. Just be aware that you have your right to space on the road. The Highway Traffic Act indicates that you have to ride “as close as practicable” to the edge and not as close a possible. Practicable means safe and the only one in my opinion that can make that decision is you.

        • Dave Elmore | June 26, 2014 | 8:20 pm | Reply

          Many cyclists run into situations where the road is just not something they are willing to use. My advise is ride with caution (as you are) and at the speed of a fast pedestrian (or walk). Remember that the sidewalk is for walking, it is in the name.

  8. peter | May 22, 2013 | 6:23 pm | Reply

    I agree with Nick. If I am first at an intersection I often move left in a right hand turning lane far enough that people can turn right past me but not so far that people will try to go straight through to the right of me (as Dave mentions). When the light turns green I quickly angle back to the right hand portion of the lane. I haven’t had any problems with this strategy and, as Nick mentions, drivers are also quite happy.

    This takes experience however and the first priority is your own safety so make sure you don’t let people pass on your right.

    One thing that is certain – when there is a DEDICATED right hand turn lane, and you as a cyclist are going straight through, you shouldn’t be on the right hand curb, you need to be in the right-most thru lane. I often see cyclists going over to the curb no matter what.

  9. Jean Palmer | May 18, 2013 | 9:52 pm | Reply

    What a relief to read your advice to cyclists. As a pedestrian I am frankly terrified of walking in Osborne Village. Even crosswalks are unsafe if cyclists become ‘pedestrians’. Get licenses,lights back and front and a loud bell.At least yell when you overtake a pedestrian on the sidewlk. Thankyou…be safe.

    • Dave | May 19, 2013 | 8:57 am | Reply

      I wish that we could convince people of the dangers of riding on the sidewalk. It is the same false sense of security that Jeremy describes below. This is especially true when they are riding at the speeds that make you and other pedestrians “terrified.” The potential for a collision with a pedestrian or a car (at intersections) increases with speed.

      I would agree with the use of a bell or a loud voice when overtaking another user on a multi-use path, but sidewalks as I said are for walking. If you are going to ride on the sidewalk it should be at pedestrian speed and with great caution.

  10. Jeremy Hull | May 18, 2013 | 10:46 am | Reply

    Great advice Dave! As a fellow Can-Bike instructor I try to ride as you describe, and I feel safe and comfortable on the road.

    I have one comment on the issue of safety – I don’t think bike tracks and bike trails are safer than the road, at least not all the time. Some research I’ve seen suggests otherwise with higher rates of crashes and injuries among cyclists on separated lanes than when riding on the road. In either situation it pays to follow the basic principles you mentioned – being visible, predictable, and communicative.

    The new Pembina bike lane that provides a separated lane on the road that detours onto the sidewalk around the bus shelters is a separated facility that may give people a false sense of security. People are more comfortable on the separated bike lane because they’re not sharing the lane with cars, but there are lots of driveways along Pembina where cars have to cross the bike track to get to a business or parking lot. At one point when I was biking there last week I was on the bike lane behind a bus shelter as a car came past and made a quick right turn just beyond the shelter. They didn’t know I was there. It wasn’t a close call or anything, partly because I was aware of the car, but I worry that this situation could easily result in cyclists being hit and injured along that stretch. In that case I think there needs to be some kind of caution signage for both cyclists and drivers about the frequent driveways.

    • Dave | May 19, 2013 | 8:47 am | Reply

      I agree Jeremy. While separated bike infrastructure definitely makes people feel safe, it does not mean that they will be safe. Intersections and crossings, especially the uncontrolled kind (back lanes, driveways) represent some of the same potential issues as they do when riding on a sidewalk, Riding on the streets using the techniques above is what helps to build both confidence and that awareness of traffic around you that makes you safer wherever you ride.

      • Ginette Rooswinkel | May 24, 2013 | 9:52 am | Reply

        The Pembina bike lane is wonderful…except that cyclists have to slow down and speed up to move safely around the bus shelters. I shoulder check when approaching a bus shelter and if the adjacent lane is clear well behind me, I change lanes and remain on the street.

  11. Nick | May 17, 2013 | 12:13 am | Reply

    While I agree with these tips, a couple questions:

    #1 the meter rule seems okay, but lanes in Winnipeg vary greatly. The point is to get cars to go AROUND you. I’d suggest: ride in the vehicle’s right tire groove in the road. a) it’s clean of debris and oil, and b) you are guaranteed that nobody will squeeze by you, without you coming off as a jerk.

    #5 seems all good and dandy, but what if you are in a diamond lane, and the car behind you wants to turn? ~80% of the time that I sit in the middle of the diamond lane at a stop light, I have a driver swearing at me to move over so he can turn. This is severely impeding driver-cyclist (me) relations on my commute.

    Might I suggest the cyclist move over to the LEFT of the turning lane while stopped at an intersection, to allow cars to turn? You’re being courteous, and you have a guaranteed free path, once you start moving.

    • Dave | May 17, 2013 | 1:40 pm | Reply

      For most traffic lanes (on the right) riding in the wheel path is in the order of 1 meter from the curb. It is the reason that most drivers chose to move over at least a half a lane to pass. There are some exceptions, but not many. As for coming off “as a jerk” we do still need some education out there as many drivers still believe that we are supposed to ride as “close as possible” to the edge. This has not been the case for many years, but still is not clear to all drivers.

      In terms of taking the middle of the lane at intersections, I do try to be courteous, but never if it means that I am giving up my control of the lane. If the pedestrian crosswalk area is clear of pedestrians and if there is sufficient space I will sometimes move forward enough to allow a right turning vehicle to proceed. Moving to the left can potentially allow a vehicle that is proceeding straight through the intersection to pull up on your right leaving you stuck between to lanes of traffic. My moto is that I never compromise my safety for a driver’s convenience. If you were another motor vehicle proceeding straight through the intersection they would have to wait, so why is it different just because we are smaller.

  12. Outpost Magazine | May 16, 2013 | 4:15 pm | Reply

    This is a good collection of tips for both seasoned and new cyclists. Thanks for the article.

  13. Sara | May 16, 2013 | 4:00 pm | Reply

    Very useful tips! Thanks for sharing!

  14. Matt | May 16, 2013 | 2:20 pm | Reply

    The best advice I can give anyone about biking in the presence of traffic is to always be as predictable as possible.

    • Dave | May 16, 2013 | 5:49 pm | Reply

      Predictability is one of the keys along with manoeuvrability, visibility, and as I indicated, communication. Communicating makes you more predicable and at the same time actually gains you some respect/cooperation from drivers.

  15. Ed Vorst | May 16, 2013 | 2:07 pm | Reply

    The biggest mistake cyclists in Winnipeg make is assuming we’re safe with cars on the same road. This article wiould be mostly un-necessary with a decent bike path system (not paint). Keep up the pressure!

    • Dave | May 16, 2013 | 5:53 pm | Reply

      As a cycling educator (Can-Bike) I would agree that separated bike lanes and/or paths would be safer, however by using the techniques above a cyclist can definitely share the road with motor vehicles. We are a long way from having totally separated infrastructure and in order to use our bikes we are going to have to use the roads. Education is badly needed in this province and although MPI is making some effort to educate, there is still a long way to go on that front as well. We need to educate cyclists and drivers on how to cooperate on the road.

      • Ed Vorst | May 17, 2013 | 11:58 am | Reply

        Agreed, Dave. Keep up the good work!

  16. Bruce | May 16, 2013 | 12:46 pm | Reply

    Very well done.
    When I started bicycle commuting I think I regularly made all those mistakes. I am getting much better but that is a great reminder of the basics.

    • Dave | May 16, 2013 | 5:56 pm | Reply

      As I teach people when I do a course it is all about practicing these things until they become automatic. (especially shoulder checking and signalling) Thanks for the positive feed back.

  17. Leah | May 15, 2013 | 10:13 am | Reply

    Great tips for curbing old school bad habits!

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