Bike riding tips

The following has lots that you probably already know. However, you may wish to check it to refresh yourself. And if you’re from outside California, the laws here may be different from where you come from. You can click on any topic to move right to it. What’s here will help you have greater, safer rides!

  • Traffic Basics
  • Lane Positions, Turning, and Passing
  • Trouble Situations
  • Conflicts With Motorists
  • Off-Street Bicycling
  • Riding at Night
  • Riding in Winter
  • California Laws

Traffic Basics

On streets and roads, motorists follow traffic rules. Traffic flows smoothly because drivers can predict what others will do. A collision happens when someone breaks the rules or does something unexpected.

Act like a vehicle. When you’re on a bike in the middle of all those cars, it’s easy to defy traffic rules because you can maneuver better, and almost no one will stop you. This is how most bicyclists get into collisions. When you break traffic laws motorists never know what you’ll do next, so they’re not sure how to avoid you. But if you act like a vehicle—signaling turns, turning from the correct lanes, and stopping at red lights and stop signs—drivers can predict what you’ll do.

Ride predictably. Being predictable is the key to safe bicycling on our streets. And if you follow traffic rules, motorists will come to respect bicyclists as drivers of vehicles—which is what California laws say we are.

Ride legally. You have to know and obey all of the traffic signals, signs and pavement markings.

Right of way. As a bicyclist, you must yield the right of way in the same situations that motorists do. If you don’t know when to yield to pedestrians and other vehicles, read the California Drivers Handbook.

Sidewalks. Jurisdictions in Santa Barbara county prohibit riding on a sidewalks unless they explicitely say you can. If you need to use a sidewalk, just walk your bike.

What to avoid. It’s against the law to ride your bike on Highway 101 where signs prohibit entry. It’s also illegal to ride the wrong way on one-way streets, or against traffic on two-way streets.

What police might do. If your break a traffic law, an officer might stop and warn you or possibly give you a traffic ticket. What happens when police stop you for the wrong reason? If polite persuasion doesn’t work and you know the California Vehicle Code, make your case in court.

Watch behind you. To bike in traffic you must know how to look back over your shoulder while riding. This simple act helps you move left, avoid hazards, change lanes, or make a turn. And looking over your shoulder makes drivers pay attention to you.

Mirrors. Although mirrors attached to the handlebars provide a limited view on one side behind you, there are small ones that attach to either your helmet or eyeglasses. They weigh less, they have less image jiggle than handlebar mirrors, and by simply turning your head a little, you can quickly scan for conditions behind you. Their disadvantage is that drivers approaching from your rear don’t know that you know they’re there. A quick glance back tells them that you’re aware of them.

Where to look. As you ride you have to avoid two kinds of things. hazards on the ground right in front of you, and cars and pedestrians ahead and on either side. So you should always know how both the ground and the traffic around you look. To do this, get into the habit of looking first at the ground 20 feet in front of you, then up at traffic, then back down at the ground.

Ready for a brake. Always keep your hands near or over your brake levers—so you can stop fast in a pinch. When you brake, squeeze the front and back brakes at the same time. If you see a dangerous situation coming up, like a car backing out, glance behind you and get ready to brake or swerve if you have to.

Communicate. Bikes are smaller, slower, more agile and quieter than most other vehicles. So you should make drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians notice you, and communicate with them. And since a lot of bicyclists don’t follow traffic laws, drivers don’t always know what you’ll do—even if you think it’s obvious. Here are some ways to communicate.

Use hand signals. Whenever you change lanes or turn, signal with your arm. If you are about to move in an unexpected way—like around a bunch of glass—point over to the part of the road you’re moving to. California law says you must signal 100 feet before making a turn—tricky if you’re also shifting and braking. Try to put your arm out in between the other things you’re doing, but not if you’ll lose control.

Yielding. When you’re waiting for a car to pass you before you cross an intersection or change lanes, the driver might not realize you’re yielding. Wave at the driver to go ahead. Also, when drivers yield to you—even when they’re supposed to—it’s a good idea to thank them by waving and smiling.

Assume you’re invisible. In some situations—like a car turning in front of you—it’s a wise to pretend the driver doesn’t see you. Plan in advance how you’ll avoid that driver. Can you stop in time? If not, slow down and figure how you’ll steer out of the way.

Does the driver see you? Watch for the car to move slower than it would if you weren’t there. Look at where the driver’s eyes are. If they’re not looking at you, slow down and be ready to get out of the way. Make Noise. Just as a car honks its horn when it comes out of an alley, you should make noise when you emerge from places where people can’t see you—like when you ride between two stopped trucks to get into an intersection. Yell or use a whistle, bell, or horn.

Lane Positions, Turning, and Passing

Traffic law says that slower vehicles should stay to the right. But where exactly should bicycles ride? Here are some basics.

Never ride against traffic. If you feel safer riding against traffic, you’re wrong. one out of five car-bike collisions results from cyclists going the wrong way. Drivers moving down a street—and drivers turning onto the street—don’t look for vehicles coming at them in their lane. And if they hit you, it’ll be a much harder head-on than from behind.

When to stay right. Stay right if you’re moving slowly compared to traffic, but remember. the farther from the curb you ride, the better motorists can see you—whether they’re in your lane, oncoming, or on cross streets. Riding closer to traffic keeps cars from passing you on the left and then turning right immediately in front or you.

When to ride in the middle. It’s safest to ride in the middle of the lane when you’re moving at the speed of traffic, the lane’s too small for cars to pass you safely, or you’re avoiding potholes or the doors of parked cars. If you’re riding in the middle and traffic starts to move faster than you can, move toward the curb if there’s room. Some special cases.

Bike lanes. You can ride in the middle of marked bike lanes. But when you find parked or moving vehicles in these lanes, signal and move out of the lane.

Dangerous areas. If you come to a dangerous area—like a bend in the road that you can’t see beyond—ride in the middle of the lane to be more visible.

Roundabouts. Traffic roundabouts are designed for our safety with no bikelanes within them. Take the traffic lane so exiting motorists won’t guess wrong and cut you off.

Parked cars. Don’t weave in and out of parked cars, because you’ll confuse drivers; ride in a straight line. Ride at least four feet away so you don’t get hit if someone opens their door. And if a car door starts to open into you, yell and brake; swerve out of the way only if you have enough room.

Riding with others. Be extremely careful when you ride side-by-side with other cyclists. It’s best to never have more than two riders side-by-side when riding in traffic. If you ride next to someone, don’t block motorists or other bicyclists that want to pass you. When another cyclist turns or changes lanes, don’t assume it’s safe for you to go too. Always look behind you before you make a move. When you’re with a group stopped at a light, line up single file so you don’t block or slow other vehicles.

Blind spots. To be safe, know where drivers’ blind spots are—and stay out of them! This is especially important when you’re approaching an intersection because drivers can turn right into you if they don’t see you.

Following distance. Don’t follow a vehicle so closely that you can’t see potholes or other pavement problems until you’re on top of them. If you’re following a large vehicle—like a van, truck, or bus—don’t follow so closely that it blocks your field of view. Also, big vehicles coming at you can hide other cars. Slow down or don’t proceed until they get out of your line of sight.

Intersections. Almost half of urban car-bike collisions happen at intersections. This section tells you the safest places to put yourself when you reach an intersection, whether you’re turning or going straight.

Go straight. When you’re about to cross an intersection, don’t veer to the left or right. Try to move in the straightest possible line to where you’ll ride on the other side.

Don’t block crosswalks. It’s dangerous and illegal to make pedestrians cross farther into the intersection.

Changing lanes before a turn. When you’re turning left on a multi-lane street where traffic isn’t much faster than you, merge left one lane at a time. Where traffic moves much faster, drivers won’t have time to react to you—so it’s safest to wait for a gap in traffic and move across all the lanes at once. Turning Left from a Left-turn Lane. Follow these steps for making left turns just like cars do. From the right side of the street, look behind you for a gap in traffic. Start looking a half-block or more before the intersection. When traffic allows, signal left and change lanes. If you can’t find a gap and you’re sure of your skills, get a driver to let you in by making eye contact and pointing. Don’t change lanes until you’re sure the driver will yield! Go to the middle of the left-turn lane. If there’s a car already waiting to turn left, get behind it. Never put yourself next to a car in the same lane. Don’t be afraid of oncoming cars that are stopped facing you, waiting to turn left. Turn just like a car does. After the turn, move into the right side of the road—unless another vehicle is there or you’re making another left turn immediately.

Turning left with no left-turn lane. If there’s no turn lane, ride about four feet from the center stripe—far enough out so a left-turning car behind you can’t pass until you’ve finished the turn. If a car’s stopped at the intersection and you can’t tell whether it’s going to turn left, don’t try to pass it on the left. Stay behind it until it gets through the intersection.

One-way street turns. When turning left from one one-way street to another, you can turn into the left or right side of the street. In this case, California law allows left turn on red—you can make a left turn after stopping at a red light and yielding to vehicles on the cross street.

The box left turn. Use the box left turn if you can’t merge left before you reach the intersection. Here’s how. Stay in the right lane and ride across the intersection on the left side of (not in) the crosswalk. Just before the opposite corner, check whether there’s room for you in the traffic lane to the right of the crosswalk, behind the stop line. If there is, go there and align yourself with traffic. If there’s no room behind the stop line, stop on the intersection side of the crosswalk and align yourself with traffic. When the traffic light changes, move with traffic.

Stop signs and turns on red. At a stop sign or right turn on red, the law says you must stop—not just slow down. Remember to act like a vehicle. If you’re at a stop sign and a vehicle on the cross street got there first, let it go through first. If you’re turning on red, yield to any vehicles coming at you in your lane.

Don’t veer to the curb. Don’t veer into the right-turn lane as you go through the intersection. You’re easier to see if you stay away from the curb. And you won’t have to move back over when you get across the intersection.

Cars stopped in both lanes. When cars are stopped in the left and right lanes, it’s safest to stop in the middle of the right lane. But if the right-lane car is turning right and you’re sure of your traffic skills, stop on the left side of the right lane. Stop where drivers in both lanes can see you.

Right on red allowed. If you’re going straight at a red light where right turn on red is allowed, stop on the left side of the right lane—leaving enough room for right-turning cars. If a car’s stopped in the left lane, stop where drivers in both lanes can see you.

Three-way intersection. At a red light in a three-way intersection, stop on the street you’re traveling on. Don’t cross the diagonal street to wait on the next corner, because you’ll confuse drivers about which way you’re really going.

Passing cars. Pass moving cars on the left when you can. That’s where motorists expect you to pass, so that’s where they look. If a vehicle is about to turn, don’t pass it on the side it’s turning toward. When you pass a stopped car, watch out for the driver or a passenger opening their door. Pass four feet from the car, or pass on the side with no passengers. If you’re passing a car and it speeds up, stay in your lane and slow down. After the car passes you, look back, signal, then merge back behind the car.

Squeezing between cars. Say you’re in a traffic jam with cars backed up for a block, it’s safest (and legal) to get into line with the cars and wait it out. But if you do squeeze between the cars to get through, watch for opening car doors on the left or right. Keep your hands on your brake levers. When pedestrians cross the street in the middle of a traffic jam, the last thing they expect is you zooming down on them between the cars. Watch out for pedestrians, especially when passing trucks or buses. If a space opens up in the traffic jam—and you’re near a driveway or cross street—watch for a car from the opposite direction turning into your path.

Passing buses. When you come to a bus that’s nearing or stopped at a bus stop, don’t pass on the right. You might get squeezed into the curb or hit a passenger. When you pass on the left of a bus with its rear stuck out in traffic, look around carefully. And pass the front of the bus with plenty of room in case it pulls out suddenly, or a passenger crosses the street in front of it.

Highway exit ramps. When an exit ramp merges from the right, first look over your right shoulder to see what’s coming. If a lot of cars are merging, stay straight so they pass before you on the right. As you move farther, they’ll pass behind you on the left. If there’s a break in the merging traffic, move to the right as soon as you can.

Passing cyclists. Cyclists can swerve faster than cars—so when you pass a bicycle, pass at least three feet away on the bicycle’s left (not the right). Always shout “passing on your left” before you pass so nobody’s surprised.

Trouble Situations

Emergency slow-down. When you stop fast, your weight shifts from your back wheel to the front. Even if you use both your front and back brakes, your back tire can skid and start to lift. To slow down quickly, push yourself as far back on the bike as you can. This keeps weight on the back tire. Put your head and torso as low as you can so you don’t flip. Squeeze both brakes. If the back tire starts to slide or lift, ease up on the front brake.

How To fall. Most serious bicycle injuries involve brain damage, so the best way to protect yourself in a fall is by wearing a helmet. Otherwise, it’s not easy to prepare for a fall. But if you have time to think when you’re about to hit a car, don’t try to wipe out first. instead, stay upright as long as you can. If you get low you risk going under the wheels or hitting the sharpest parts of the car. If you go flying, tuck your head, arms, and legs into a tight ball and try to roll when you hit the ground. If you stick your arms out you’re likely to break them, or your collarbone, or both.

Dogs. Here are some of your options when a dog chases you. Just stop. Some dogs just want a good chase and will give up when you’re not moving. Stop and quickly get off your bike. If the beast looks like it wants to attack, try to keep the bike between you and it. Shout something commanding, like “Go home!” Try to outrun it. This might be a good idea if there’s more than one dog. Don’t try to outrun it if you’re not sure you can; too many cyclists have wiped out when running dogs jam their front wheels. If you go for it, try a squirt with your water bottle to slow it down. Don’t try to hit the dog; you may lose your balance. Use a dog-repellent spray, but be careful because the wind could blow the stuff back into your face. If a dog bites you, get to a doctor or hospital right away for a rabies test. If you know where the dog lives, tell the police so they can check with the owners.

Pedestrians. The law says you should yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. This can sometimes test your patience, where some people cross against the traffic light when they see no cars coming. So what happens when you’re zooming down the street, come to a green light, and find a dozen people scurrying through the crosswalk? Warn them by shouting or using a bell, whistle, or horn. Remember. pedestrians look for cars, not bikes. If there’s still a crowd in the crosswalk, or pedestrians freeze, you should slow down or stop. If you don’t stop, when you’re close enough for the pedestrians to see you clearly, go carefully between them. Try not to go between parents and their kids. Be patient with slow-moving seniors, young children or handicapped individuals who have not yet cleared the street when your light turns green.

Railroads. Some railroad tracks cross streets diagonally. If you go over these tracks without changing your direction, your tire might get caught between a track and the road. Instead, try to cross tracks at a right angle—especially when the street’s wet.

Gravel and sand. When you bike over gravel or sand, don’t turn suddenly or use your brakes; you might wipe out.

Conflicts With Motorists

Mean motorists. Some motorists are aggresive toward bicyclists. Some cut you off or curse you because they don’t understand you’re operating a vehicle just like them. What should you do? Don’t start a fight. As long as you and your bike aren’t damaged, don’t start a fight—no matter how steamed you get. If you lose your cool, the motorist might decide to nail the next bicyclist who goes by. Or, worse, the motorist might decide to smash you with two tons of metal and glass—and speed off before you can even start to say license plate.

Report harassment. Motorists who touch you or put you in danger might be guilty of assault and should be reported to the police. Stop and write down everything you can remember. the license plate number, type of car, and where and when it happened. Then call the police. Take the long view. If more cyclists follow traffic laws, more motorists will start to see bicycles as vehicles. You can help. If a motorist questions what you’re doing but isn’t hostile, explain what you’ve learned here.

Traffic collision. If you’re hurt in a traffic collision, don’t ride away or shake off what seems like a minor injury—you might find later that it’s worse than you thought. If you’re a victim of or a witness to a traffic collision, call 911 for the police. If needed, get medical help immediately. If you’re injured, don’t move unless you’re sure you won’t injure yourself more. Don’t get mad at the scene. Keep a level head so you can ask questions and take notes. Get the following information from every vehicle. driver name, address, phone number, driver’s license number, license plate number, make of car, insurance company name and policy number. Get the names and phone numbers of witnesses. Get the police report number from police on the scene. Write down how the accident happened. Keep (or photograph) any damaged clothes or equipment. It should be apparent from the above to always carry pencil and paper, a cell phone (preferably one with a camera), plus some identification about you that lists an emergency contact and your medical conditions that specialists might need.

Off-street bicycling

Where can you bicycle away from the streets? On park pathways, designated bike paths, and unpaved trails. Despite the pleasant setting, bicycle collisions happen almost three times as often on paths as on streets. Here are some tips for safer riding.

Be courteous. Unless there are arrows to direct them, people on paved paths don’t know which side to travel on and when to yield. So the most important rule for everyone is to act courteously. When in doubt, give the other person a break.

Ride predictably on paths. Ride straight and at a steady speed so people can stay out of your way. Always look back before passing or turning. And use hand signals and make noise by shouting or using a bell, horn, or whistle. Maintain a controllable speed.

Where to pass? Slower path traffic should stay right, except to pass—just like traffic on the street. And you usually should pass others on the left. When there’s not enough room on the left, pass on the right. Always signal so people behind you know which side you’ll pass on.

Communicate. Ring your bell or shout “passing on your left” or “passing on your right” before you pass another biker, hiker, or equestrian. If you shout at people jogging or hiking, some will freak out and jump in front of you. So if they’re walking in a straight, predictable line, you can pass them without saying anything—but pass them with as much distance as you can. Or you can slow to their speed, and say “bicycle passing on your left” and wait for them to move aside. On trails, use a bike bell to let others know of your approach. When encountering an equestrian, stop or move very slowly, talk to the rider, ask what is the best way to pass.

When to Yield. When you enter a path, or you’re on a path that crosses a street or another path, always be ready to slow down and yield to cross traffic. If cross traffic has a stop or yield sign, they should yield to you. If there are no signs, you should yield to the person who reaches the intersection first. Yield to anyone who looks like they won’t slow down for you. If there’s no room to pass yield to people in front of you who are moving slower than you. On trails, bikers must yield to all other trail users. Uphill travel has the priority.

Don’t block the path. Don’t stop on a path or trail. Instead, move to the side to stop.

Santa Barbara’s Beachway. Many people use the city’s oceanfront bike path. They walk, run, skate, dance and just stand looking at the views. This means that you—a bicyclist sharing the path with others—often have to slow down or stop. If you’re in a hurry, choose a different route.

Be kind to our trails. Respect all trail closures. Avoid wet and muddy trails because they are very vulnerable to damage. Keep riding groups small, fewer than 10 at a time. Use riding techniques that minimize your impact to trails. Pick up and pack out at least as much trash as you bring in. Volunteer for trail maintenance events so you and others will have more trails to ride.

Riding At Night

Attract attention. Increase visability with a safety vest or reflective clothing. Always wear some light-colored material, especially on your upper body. Flashing rear LED lights are cheap and can be highly visable, but by themselves do not meet California requirements—only red reflectors do. Wear reflective ankle straps, they attract because they’re rotating.

Defensive moves. At night you can’t see where drivers are looking, and some are under the infuence of alcohol or drugs. Slow down from your daylight speed. And watch cars closely; be ready to get out of their way.

White front light. It must light the road and be visible from 300 feet. Battery-powered is better than a generator light. Get the brightest one you can afford. If you ride at night a lot, use rechargeable batteries—you’ll save money. In a pinch, attach a flashlight with duct tape or bungee cord to your handlebar.

Red rear reflector. It must be visible from 500 feet in normal headlights. Get a red one at least three inches wide. Make sure it’s pointed straight back and not up or down.

White or yellow pedal reflectors. They must be visible from the front and rear of the bicycle from a distance of 200 feet. Because they move when you pedal, they attract more driver attention than fixed reflectors.

Wheel reflectors. White or yellow reflectors are required on the bike front, visible on each side. White or red reflectors must be on the bike rear, visible from each side. Usually attached to wheel spokes. A reflective wheel is also legal.

Riding in Winter

We get little rain or cold in Santa Barbara County, but you’ll still want to be ready on winter days. Days can be wet or cold or both.

Start of rain. Don’t race to beat the rain after it starts. That’s when streets are slickest because automotive oil on the road spreads before it washes away. Slow way down on turns and don’t lean as much.

Wet streets. It’s easy to slip when surfaces are wet. Watch out for metal-grate bridges, temporary construction covers, manhole covers, painted pavement, thermal plastic road markings and leaves. Don’t turn or brake on them. On metal bridges, if you have thin or smooth tires don’t ride across; put both feet on the road and scooter across, or walk your bike on the sidewalk.

Puddles. Don’t ride through a puddle if you can’t see the bottom. It could be a deep pothole that’ll throw you.

Poor Vision. Remember that in rain, motorists and cyclists can’t see as well. And it takes longer for us all to stop. Just go slower.

Braking. When brake pads and wheel rims are wet, they take up to ten times longer to work. Dry them by applying your brakes far ahead of where you want to slow down, causing your pads to wipe the rims. To dry them faster, pump the brakes by applying them lightly, then letting go, over and over.

Clothing for wet weather. If your clothes keep out rain they might also seal your sweat in. To vent perspiration, wear a jacket or poncho or rain cape that lets air in from the bottom, back, or sides. Or buy a wicking jacket that keeps rain out, but allows perspiration vapor to escape. Wear light, bright colors—yellow, orange, lime green, or pink. A baseball cap under your helmet will keep rain out of your eyes. Wear synthetic or wool socks. Use gloves with a water resistant shell or a waterproof liner.

Your bike in rain. Grime builds up on brake pads, making them squeak or scratch your rims. Run a rag between each pad and the rim, like shining a shoe. Brake pads grip aluminum rims better than they do steel. After biking in the rain, bring your bike indoors so bearings can dry. Install fenders to keep you dry on wet pavement. Plastic ones are cheap and light, but can crack if installed wrong. Fat tires have better traction. Tires less than 30mm wide work better on wet streets when under-inflated.

Clothing for cold weather. You don’t need a whole new set of clothes, just layer what you have. Wear a sweatshirt or jacket and add t-shirts, light sweaters, and tights or long johns in layers as weather gets colder. By wearing light layers you can also remove outer clothes if you warm up while cycling. The layer closest to your skin should be a wicking material that will let sweat pass through as you ride.

California Laws

California Driver’s Handbook. This is a 100-page booklet in PDF format containing more than you wish to know. Download it here.

California Vehicle Code for bicyclists. The Vehicle Code is large, however only a small section pertains to what we’re required to do