Smile Politely

Safety tips from the front lines

There have been several serious, disturbing incidents between cars and bikes in Champaign-Urbana in the past couple of weeks. These incidents have brought several safety issues to the surface, and in response to that, we asked several people in the C-U cycling community to share their tips for staying safe while on a bike.

The advice is varied, and I think it reflects the complexity of riding in traffic. I hope it helps:

Two awareness items here; time-of-day and position on road.

1. Be aware of where the sun is. Although there may be plenty of sunlight, if you are going toward the sun, you might get lost in the glare. Prior to mid-morning or past mid-afternoon, turn on those flashers!

2. When approaching either a street or a driveway to your right, you need to remember that the closer you are to the curb, the less likely a motorist on that roadway will be able to see you. Watch for following motor vehicles. If there are any, then the motorist on the side street will (should!) see them and not pull out. On the other hand, if there are no following vehicles, move out toward the middle of the traffic lane. The further out you go, the more visible you are. So, the faster you are moving, the further out you should go.

Even if you should be quite visible to motorists on side streets, do NOT presume they will see you. Always be prepared to take evasive action.

— Richard McClary


The biggest change I’ve had to make getting on a bike instead of driving a car is to learn to let things go. It doesn’t matter that I have the right of way when I’m trying to argue with a two-ton box of metal that can move much faster than I can, but can’t stop as quickly.

The second biggest thing I’ve had to learn is: When they might not see you, STOP! because I tend to just put blinders on and keep going, and I’ve nearly been hit riding home in the dark even with my lights all a-flashing because they are just not bright enough to catch the attention of someone who isn’t expecting anything to be there.

The third most important thing I’ve learned is to have nice bright flashing lights at night. A driver won’t avoid what they can’t see.

— Dannette Dunklau Tucker


First off, I would like to state that sidewalks are dangerous, both times cars hit me while bicycling, I was on the sidewalk. Drivers don’t expect fast things on sidewalks, and bikes move much faster than pedestrians. As a result I always ride in the street, and when I do so, in the middle of my lane. I always take a whole lane, just like a car, and then move to the right to allow passing when I feel it is safe. I used to ride at the right-hand side of the road, but cars would pass uncomfortably close, trying to get past me and on-coming traffic simultaneously. Being far to the right also put me at risk for being hit by car doors opening, and one near miss made me decide that taking the lane is the only safe option. My method does occasionally get drivers angry enough to honk and shout, but I just smile and wave as they pass, their anger is not as important as my safety (besides I frequently catch them at the next red light, which has to be embarrassing). Overall I just feel safer doing the above than I ever did before I started using it.

— Erich Heine


For riding on the street, handlebar-mirrors are a big help! For all of the same reason that cars and motorcycles have them…

I find that it’s even more critical on the bike, especially when it comes to for planning to pass a line of parked cars smoothly, or to make a left turn, or to move out into a lane to unambiguously pass through a traffic light or a stop-sign. It makes it much easier to smooth the flow of traffic for everyone by slowing down or speeding up to make sure that the cars pass at the safest time.

Before riding with the mirror, I thought frequent shoulder-checks and careful listening provided adequate situational awareness, but the mirror really does bring my awareness up to the next level.

— Luke Scharf


C-U has a non-negligible amount of street crime after dark, so I try to keep moving quickly at all times. I bike in the street instead of walking, since it means I’ll be harder to catch up with. I also try to avoid any intersections with ‘smart’ stoplights, since the city has adjusted these to change only when they detect automobiles (although this could be easily fixed). Waiting for a ‘smart’ stoplight to change at 1am makes a cyclist a target for both potential muggers and drunk or distracted drivers. Except for those darned stoplights, I follow all of the usual automobile laws, though I use the ‘slow and roll’ whenever there’s a stop sign with clear visibility and no traffic (because, again, a moving target is harder to catch). Oh, and I always use front and rear bike lights at night, on the blinky setting, since I imagine it’s a bit more likely to capture a driver’s attention.

It’s quite frustrating not being able to comply with the traditional traffic laws, but those are really designed for automobiles, which, by comparison, protect their occupants like tanks. Cyclists have to protect themselves.

— Gary Oppenheim


In my experience commuting for roughly 15 years now by bicycle, the most critical problem we face as cyclists is not being seen or at least not perceived as a legitimate part of the traffic by drivers of cars and trucks. In order to be perceived as such I ride one third into the lane, irrespective of its size. If it is a double lane road, I ride down the middle of the lane, effectively “claiming” the lane for myself. I watch other bicycle commuters and they are far too timid, ducking and diving into the space between parked cars, trying to stay as far right as possible. In my experience this is a recipe for an accident.

— David Brookes


This is something i learned from a motorcycle safety class that i have carried into my bicycle riding habits. What they taught us was to never assume that another motorist sees you, to always leave yourself an ‘out’ if that other car starts to merge into your lane, or pulls out in front of you etc….

How I carried that into my bike riding habits is to never assume another car sees me. For example, if I’m on the sidewalk crossing the street and a car is waiting to turn at the cross street, I’ll assume they don’t see me and cross behind them.

— Paul Mikesell


Take a tip from Robert Frost and Take the one less traveled by…

Route selection is the #1 thing that has improved my safety.

I recommend learning to recognize dangerous road/bicycle paths — in C-U just because there’s a bicycle path doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to use it – often there are much safer (and sometimes faster/more comfortable -ie, shadier, smoother) routes on the secondary & tertiary streets. Examples of poor bicycle paths are the Windsor Road path (due to multiple driveway egresses and the 35-55 mph speed of nearby car traffic) and the First Street bicycle path south of St. Mary’s Road (inexplicably crossing in middle of the route without a traffic control device). A good tip for figuring out if a path is safe or not is if you don’t feel comfortable on it (feel like you might get hit, drivers don’t see you, etc).

In planning your route, if you reduce the numbers of drivers in cages that appear you will reduce the number of potential collisions. Usually vehicles traveling these routes also have a significantly lower Real Life SpeedTM, again increasing your safety. Also, “flock mentality” does work – if you tend to go on routes frequented by other bicyclists, cars will be used to looking out for bicyclists at those intersections (e.g. the N/S bicycle/pedestrian boulevard that runs along the river by Fox Drive).

Re-evaluate your route periodically (Google maps is a great way to plan, graph and share your routes) to see if there might be a better route: sometimes a short stint on a high traffic road will place you in a better position to cross said roads (rather than attempting to make a left-hand turn at a 2-way stop sign or dart straight across 4 or more lanes). Sometimes lower traffic roads have less traffic control devices – compare Harrington to Devonshire between Matis and Prospect, and you’ll find that Harrington is not only less traveled (and shadier!) than Devonshire, but also has one less stop sign (stopping on a bicycle kills your commute time, especially for a 2 minute or more stop-light cycle).

— Matt Childress


My most recent acquisition is a Flash Flag, which sticks out from the
side much like a “long load warning” flag would in a motor vehicle.
Drivers have been giving me a little extra room and slowing down a
little sooner and passing a little later (as in, after the overpass

— Sue Jones


As someone who usually wears a skirt, I know firsthand how dangerous loose clothing can be on a bicycle. At best, clothing caught in the brakes or between the chain and gears gets uncleanably oily and dirty. At worst, clothing that catches in the derailleur or spokes can stop the bike and throw you off. Also problematic are pants that are too long and catch on the pedal, or shoelaces that wrap around the crank with each push, tying your foot to the bike!

For pants, using a ‘peg’, a strip of material with velcro at either end, is great to wrap around ankle and keep pants away from the gears. In a pinch, a clothespin or other clip will do. For skirts, I’ve done all sorts of wrapping the extra material and tucking it between myself and the seat, but the best is to fold the excess skirt fabric and use a sturdy spring clip to attach it to itself and out of the way of the gears, chain and derailleur.

— Elizabeth Simpson


Every time I ride I combine defensive driving strategies with a game-like athletic awareness. I coach and play a lot of soccer, and that sport encourages one to maintain awareness of a ball and 22 athletes as they fly around the field. Indeed, one tries to remain aware of players and events even when out of sight. I get lots of practice trying to be aware of many things while moving through space and judging distances and velocities and paths; sounds like traffic.

By “defensive driving strategies” I mean (1) be ready to be surprised, by things unseen and not noticed and assumed to be inanimate or to be not moving or to be proceeding at a constant rate. In other words, one cannot assume anything. The closest I’ve come to death was when I was hit by a falling tree at the L.A. Zoo. I used to run track — you’d think I could get out of the way of a tree. Twice, while commuting, I’ve run over squirrels, who seems to run defensively haphazardly in any direction.

(2) Imagine the worst case scenario for each vehicle, person, object, and animal in your vicinity, and imagine a defensive maneuver or escape route. For instance, what if that Mack truck actually turns in front of me-what will I do? What if the lady with stroller actually turns around without looking and comes in my direction? What if a kid races across that front yard in front of me without looking? When you imagine a danger and have no escape option, then you are in big trouble and need to slow down, turn around, etc.

Following these practices sound like a lot of work and makes for a scary world. However, I find it relaxing to so aware and this is one of the reasons I love riding a bike-the heightened awareness and attention to the world. Now, think about how attentive and aware drivers are, when they are humming along in an air-conditioned cocoon listening to Michael Jackson and chatting on the phone and fellow passengers, while they worry about office politics.

— Robert Baird


To increase safety for cycling in our community we have to:

  • Participate in creating a culture of complying with traffic laws and common courtesy for all roadway users.
  • When approaching Stop signs and traffic signals following the rules of the road is very important both for safety and to set an example.
  • When I am in a traffic lane in which there is not enough space for vehicles to pass me safely I assume the lane and move far enough into the lane to prevent vehicles from squeezing past me and potentially knocking me over onto the side of the road.
  • If I need to turn left on a multi-lane road I try to move over one lane at a time with plenty of room for vehicles to see me and move around me. You have to negotiate with the vehicles to avoid unnecessary conflicts.
  • Always signal before turning or changing lanes.
  • Always wear a helmet and a mirror is a big help in staying safe.
  • Never assume that vehicles see you or plan to operate legally and give you the right-of-way.
  • Avoid using sidewalks to bicycle. You are much more likely to not be seen by motorists at intersections and driveways.
  • Avoid going back and forth from the sidewalk to the street. It confuses the drivers.
  • When you are in the street you should follow the rules of the road.
  • When you are on the sidewalk you must give the right-of-way to pedestrians and operate as a pedestrian which means stopping at intersections and not proceeding unless vehicles are able to stop without screeching to a stop.
  • Always report a dangerous motorist. This is how to report a dangerous motorist(Source: Active Transportation Alliance website.):

1. Stop, pull off the road if possible, and calm down.
2. Write down or record (you can take a picture with your cell phone) the following information and SAVE IT, you may need it in the future:

  • Vehicle description
  • License plate number
  • Description of the incident
  • Location of the incident
  • Date and time
  • Motorist’s physical description

3. Dial 911 and explain the situation, they will direct you to the appropriate department based on whether the situation is an emergency. Police may or may not be dispatched to apprehend the violator.
4. When your report is complete, the assisting officer will give you a reference number, write this down and save it with the other information from the report.
5. Police will mail you a copy of the report, keep it for your records.

TIPS: When speaking with the Police, focus on the specific violation committed, not on your emotions, or on any aggressive verbal exchange you may have had with the violator.

  • Always carry a pen and paper or cell phone with you so you can record information easily.
  • Call 911 when a motorist endangers you or when you see a motorist endanger another bicyclist or pedestrian. If the police do not know about the problems they cannot fix them.
  • TAKE ACTION. Become involved in advocating for improvements in the community. Do it for yourself, do it for your family, do it for the children. Do not sit on the sidelines and complain. We all have to contribute to creating a safer transportation system.

— Cynthia Hoyle


Local observations

Having ridden my bike in some big cities and other rural cities like Champaign, my observations are that compared to the other places I have ridden, motorists in Champaign appear to be more ignorant, unskilled, and worst of all, mean. Many C-U motorists believe that they are the
only ones that should be using roads. I know you don’t want to intimidate cyclists, but I have modified my biking to be more defensive. Specifically:

1. C-U drivers don’t like to change lanes. I don’t know if they can’t use mirrors, are ignorant of proper lane use, or are simply lazy, but in cases where they should be changing lanes to pass, they won’t. What they do is blast by you at full speed, and they are unaware of how much room
they are giving you. The solution is to “take the lane” and drive further from the right side of the road. This does two things in the cyclists’ favor: a) forces the motorist to slow, and properly check to change lanes to pass, b) it gives room to move over when they crowd you. Of course, it is bending the Illinois rule “ride as far to the right as you can” and it also pisses off drivers. I have experimented with this for many years, and have determined that there are some stretches of
road where using this technique is safer in spite of the reasons not to use it.

2. C-U drivers are worse than some others in how accurate they are in lane usage. Primarily, they cut corners when turning. If you are making a left turn, and in that lane, a driver coming from your right to turn into your road may cut across your lane. This is how my neighbor got nailed, and I have had many close calls with this kind of sloppy driving. Defense is to approach intersections with care, never assume you are seen, attempt to make eye contact with drivers.

3. I see more than usual bikes going against the traffic in C-U, driving in the left lane. My assumption was that some local school or something was teaching this as safety to account for how much I see it here, but it is not more safe.

General Suggestions

A fact of life I have come to learn is that every form of transportation hates the other forms. Pedestrians, roller bladers, babies in prams, horse riders, cars, skateboards, bikes, tractors, garbage trucks, steam rollers — all hate each other. This seems like it is not useful to think
about, but it is interesting to observe that some people that use multiple modes of transportation are still not empathic to another form. I don’t know how to put this as a suggestion… other than we all need to be more tolerant.

1. The one thing I don’t see in most lists of rules and suggestions to cyclists: Strategize to avoid high traffic areas. Something I have observed with noob cyclists (as well as pedestrians and runners) is that when they think about going from Point A to Point B, they take the same routes they do in a car, when combinations of side streets and bike paths are just as expeditious and much less dangerous. I have routes, such one I take to work, that is longer than it would be to drive, but it is many times more pleasant, thanks to a bike path through a pastoral setting with ponds. The extra distance is easily compensated in safety and beauty.

2. A lot of first time cyclists tend start out riding with friends, and when the do so they tend to want to be able to talk. Forget it. Ride in single file, give each other distance. You will be safer in traffic and from each other if you do.

— Name Withheld


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