As the warm temperatures of summer draw scores of cyclists to the outdoors and onto local streets buzzing with traffic, the importance of staying safe behind the handlebars reaches an annual height.

The reality is that bicyclists have to compete for pavement space with fast-moving cars, trucks, motorcycles and buses, the drivers of which, often running late and stressed by traffic, fail to yield to or even notice the presence of a two-wheeler in their vicinity.

While putting safety gear to good use, including a properly fitted helmet, reflective clothing and appropriate footwear, little can prevent a rider from being struck by a car. According to BicycleSafe.Com, the best way to stay safe on a bike ride is to simply avoid areas of heavy traffic altogether.

The list of hazards facing cyclists is a long one, any one of which can result in serious injury or a fatality. Not only must riders face the dangers of being struck from the side by the ever present red-light runner or the driver who has yet to learn the meaning of a yield sign, there is also the surprises that can present themselves in the form of a suddenly opening door from a car parallel-parked along a curb, the driver jumping into traffic from the curb who has failed to look into his side mirrors, or a motorist making a sudden lane-change, oblivious to anyone else in the areas to the sides of the vehicle.

Fort Belvoir’s grid system of narrow intersecting lanes, side-streets and thoroughfares presents bicyclists with major safety challenges that call for a well-developed set of precautionary skills, the first of which is always staying alert.

A very high number of riders take to the streets looking to enhance the experience with IPod-provided background music via a pair of ear buds. When music is drowning out the world around a cyclist, awareness of dangers virtually disappears. The bike rider is now in a sensory world of his or her own, deaf to the sounds of car horns, screeching tires, approaching sirens, or pedestrians’ appeals to “Watch out!” Furthermore, music has a subtle way of drawing a cyclist into a dreamlike state, turning them into a sitting duck for an inattentive motorist.

Improper equipment can also contribute to an unwelcome wake-up when out for an afternoon ride. Handlebar-mounted, side-view mirrors, while not always required by law, can greatly reduce the possible hazards associated with sharing the pavement with motor vehicles. Headlights and taillights, which are required by law between dusk and dawn, improve visibility to motorists approaching from the front and rear, and state-approved reflectors allow the rider to be seen from the sides in low light. Hand-signals are also expected to be known and used by all riders operating a bike in Virginia.

Many resources are available on the web that can provide cyclists with safety tips and riding strategies which can greatly reduce the risks of riding a bicycle on the street. BicycleSafe.Com provides ten common pitfalls which often face a bicycle rider, as well as suggestions for avoiding them. In addition, there are clearly defined laws governing the operation of a bicycle on Virginia’s roadways which can be found at Fairfax County’s VDOT website: www.vdot.virginia.gov/programs/bk-laws.

While bicycling in Northern Virginia-or any busy metropolitan region-presents inherent dangers that simply cannot be eliminated, much can be done on the part of the careful rider to reduce these hazards. And it begins with the cyclist himself, combining proper safety equipment with common sense awareness of all aspects of the surroundings, a commitment to staying alert, and always expecting surprises from the most harmless appearing circumstances.

Page last updated Thu July 14th, 2011 at 00:00