Three simple rules to follow if you want to stay safe on your bike

Staying safe on your bike

Here are three simple rules that should be etched into your mind to help you stay safe whilst out cycling in London.

1# Thou shall never undertake a moving vehicle

There’s a reason they put this on all Boris Bikes! When you pass a vehicle on the inside (left) that’s considered undertaking. A driver most expects someone to overtake on the right. Therefore, they often check their right mirror. Unfortunately, the left mirror is under used. This is a particularly dangerous scenario when a truck is turning left. They may fail to see the cyclist as they have a very large blind spot.

Stay back, give it a couple of extra seconds, an overtake the same as a motorbike or car would.

2# Glance at the vehicle behind every 8-10 seconds

Three important principles are at work here. The first is psychological. The eye contact makes the driver feel they are being watched and so are likely to act with more courtesy. The second is that your glance backwards draws the drivers attention to you. Finally, it gives you an awareness of the road behind so you don’t get any nasty surprises. As my cycling instructor said to me with a very serious look – he doesn’t like surprises.

That glance behind also means that if you suddenly have to swerve to avoid something you know the position of the car behind.

3# Fight the fear to be shouted at

Picture a narrow street, lined with parked cars, with barely enough room for a car to overtake you on the left. Of course, knowing your luck, a taxi is revving up behind rushing to get to the next traffic light to wait.

Out of wanting to avoid any confrontation you squeeze to the left, the taxi sees the opportunity, and takes the risk to overtake narrowly on the right with their mirror barely missing your shoulder.

You sir, have just put yourself and the taxi in danger!

This is because you could have been hit by a parked car opening the door, you could have been hit by the taxi and you have absolutely no room to swerve to avoid anything that appears on the road suddenly. The taxi is in danger because if you swerve they’ll either hit you or ram into a parked car.

In this situation fight the urge to avoid a few angry revs and a look of disgust from the driver by realising you’ve done both you and the driver a favour by staying in the middle of the lane completely preventing them from overtaking.

As they angrily get by you at the next opening, only for you to catch up with them at the next traffic light, flash them a smile and a thank you wave.

Are you some kind of saint?

No, I break these rules often too, especially when I’m tired and just want to get home. But I am aware of it as I do it and try to remind myself why what I’m doing is dangerous.

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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.


42 Responses to Three simple rules to follow if you want to stay safe on your bike

  1. Adam 26/05/2011 at 9:30 am #

    Every 8 to 10 seconds looking backwards? Sounds quite frequent and maybe a bit too much to be noticing what is happening in front of you? Ears are important for knowing what is going on behind you too. Is this frequency a recommendation from somewhere? Cyclecraft / bikeability training etc?

    • Andreas 26/05/2011 at 9:31 am #

      Recommendation from the guys at Cycle Training UK who work from the Cyclecraft guidelines

    • Gaz 26/05/2011 at 10:39 am #

      Not often enough in some cases.
      Sometimes I’m lookin back more than forward as the danger is coming from behind.

    • Henk 30/12/2011 at 4:05 pm #

      2# Glance at the vehicle behind every 8-10 seconds.

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    • Amoeba 01/01/2012 at 11:36 pm #

      All our bikes have mirrors. Essential for road cycling.

      Every cyclist needs to be monitoring the road behind. It’s every bit as important as the road in-front. After-all, where do most of the vehicles come from, that pass you most closely?

      If I see a vehicle that’s too close, I start weaving from side to side in a pseudo-random wobble. This increases the chance of being noticed. It works a treat. Cars move away.

  2. Dave Escandell 26/05/2011 at 9:37 am #

    I see no reason to be looking behind you that often if you have not, or do not plan to deviate from your line.

    No.3 is essential on lots of road types, pinch points and even some tight bends. I would always recommend acknowledging any vehicle that you have held up witha thankyou wave when you do eventually move back to teh left.

  3. Mike 26/05/2011 at 9:48 am #

    Number three keeps me out of trouble all the time in the narrow lanes of Cornwall’s countryside, and I always (almost!) abide by number one.

    Looking behind is a tricky one, and for me the frequency is dictated by a) the fact that on the quiet lanes I hear vehicles long before they’re visible and b) I find it physically difficult to look far enough around for the look to be meaningful. I acknowledge however that the act of appearing to look round alerts the driver to the possibility of you swerving, changing lanes or whatever.

    For me however, the overriding safety rule is ALWAYS ASSUME THEY’RE OUT TO GET YOU – cycle in such a way that, within reason, YOU control the roadspace, the timing of cars squeezing past you, and cycle where YOU are safe (but always do it with a smile and a friendly wave).

    I frequently hold up the traffic behind me until I feel the road is wide enough to let them pass me safely, always smile, wave and say thank you (especially if their window is open), and I have never been hooted at, shouted at or made to feel threatened.

    • kimberley 27/05/2011 at 12:42 am #

      Mike, I also ride with that in mind and tell all my new cycling friends that, unfortunately, that’s the safest thing to assume: that all cars (and pedestrians) are going to do something unexpected so plan ahead.

  4. Jim 26/05/2011 at 10:18 am #

    “Thou shall never, under any circumstance, undertake a vehicle”

    Under *any* circumstance? Even when the vehicle is stationary, at the back of a long line of other stationary vehicles waiting at a red light you know isn’t going to turn green any time soon, with a clear mandatory cycle lane leading to the front, where there is an ASL with no lorries but lots of cyclists?

    I would change it to ‘never undertake a moving vehicle or one which you think might be about to move’. And even then there are cases where it is absolutely fine (including where there is no left turn any time soon), but those should be judged by informed experience.

    • Andreas 26/05/2011 at 11:02 am #

      Yeah I guess that rule is a little too all inclusive. Especially as most cycle lanes encourage you to undertake. I’ve changed the post to moving vehicles 😉

    • Paulina 29/12/2012 at 4:47 pm #

      Stephanie Posted on Great! Awesome!1st up the wedding china my motehr gave me 18 years ago, while saying, with a VERY disappointed voice Well since it seems that you aren’t getting married any time soon, I might as well give this to you now. I’ve been carrying them around, thru 3 moves, thinking that I ought to keep them, that I would somehow curse myself or jinx myself if I got rid of them..that I would indeed end up alone.Guess what? Yep, I am still single. I’ve had a couple of relationships between then and now, but the end result? The dishes are not magical and I don’t have to expend any energy trying to make myself feel better about the dishes so that I can keep them.So, I am hereby embracing the real possibility that I may never be married and commit the dishes to craigslist, may they be gone in a wink and trouble me no more LOL!Thank you for the entertaining video about a serious subject.

  5. Rachel 26/05/2011 at 10:42 am #

    Do you really, really, really mean never undertake a vehicle? On my way to work I undertook a great number of stationary vehicles in slow moving central London. I know there are risks with doors opening, but it is unlikely they are going to suddenly swerve left. It’s a tough one as I am a long time driver so I tend to cycle more like a car/motorbike, but I find it quite intimidating to be on the right as then cars _will_ undertake you. Maybe this is a point for wider discussion and awareness?

    Couple of small points, I think you could write “you sir” differently to take more note of female cyclists / be gender neutral. Small grammar correction; you said “you could of been hit by the taxi”, that should be “you could have been hit by the taxi”.

    Thanks for the awesome blog, keep up the good work!

    • Amoeba 26/05/2011 at 9:43 pm #

      Filtering is passing of a stationary vehicle on the nearside, whereas undertaking passing of a moving vehicle, also on the nearside.

      My understanding is that undertaking is a no-no, but filtering is permitted. Never filter past a large vehicle, unless you can do so quickly and safely – this means adequate room is required. Never do so on the approaches to a junction – it’s just too dangerous. Undertaking isn’t allowed and rightly so.

  6. alp 26/05/2011 at 10:43 am #

    “Thou shall never, under any circumstance, undertake a vehicle”

    In London traffic you might as well walk.

    I’d say never undertake or overtake at junctions and under/overtake steadily, being prepared to stop suddenly.

    I’d also ask motorbikes, scooters and other cyclists to never undertake bikes

    And whilst I’m here can the bus lane lycra-clad hogs please stay left unless over-taking another cyclist? No matter what you think you are not the fastest cyclist in the bus lane and they are made for sharing & it’s not 1 bus lane each although I could be wrong about this). Really sick now of being held up by selfish slower cyclists who think they are Mark Cavendish, when they are more BoJo in reality.

  7. ibikelondon 26/05/2011 at 11:19 am #

    Undertaking moving traffic is bad, filtering past stationary traffic is good, is my understanding of this. But the best bit of advice here is with regards to large vehicles and lorries; “This is a particularly dangerous scenario when a truck is turning left. They may fail to see the cyclist as they have a very large blind spot.

    Stay back, give it a couple of extra seconds, an overtake the same as a motorbike or car would.”

    There’s a lot to be said for hanging back sometimes.

    I would add that it’s also dangerous, annoying and damn right rude to undertake other cyclists. If they’re taking the lane have the courtesy to go around their outside where they expect to see you. Undertaking other cyclists is a particular peeve of mine.

    Great post!

  8. Corin 26/05/2011 at 11:21 am #

    There is a substantial risk you’ll be clipped in undertaking moving vehicles. Most drivers will have their attention on oncoming traffic and their driver’s side wing mirror. If they see an oncoming or approaching motorbike in either source they are likely to move in to the left without checking, and if that’s where you are on your bicycle you are in danger.

    Of course, in London it is not always practical to overtake, and everyone does a certain amount of undertaking – including scooters, motorbikes, etc.

    The key thing is to have this as a general rule. If you want to pass any road user in front of you, try to overtake.

  9. Ben Brown 26/05/2011 at 11:21 am #

    Nice photo of my wife Vicky there at the top of your article. I do hope the suggestion is not that she is undertaking the male cyclist? Because that’s not her style 😉

    What is it with middle aged experienced looking cyclists often being such bad examples? Grand sweeping generalisation but as a group they do account for some really bad cycling

  10. chris 26/05/2011 at 11:32 am #

    I was about to add another “what do you mean never in #1” but the more I think about it, the more it’s closer to the truth but that it isn’t feasble.

    Best practice in slow moving traffic is probably to go up the outside of the queue; you have better visibility (oncoming traffic, drivers from the offside mirrors and your own view) but quite often there’s more room on the inside (anecdotally, I think drivers will pass closer to oncoming traffic on ‘their’ side of the vehicle than parked cars and kerbs on their inside).

    But, of course, cycle facilities (where they exist) tend to be on the inside, so passing on the outside will provoke more switching, introducing more danger.

  11. Ben Brown 26/05/2011 at 11:47 am #

    I was undertaken by some d**khead cyclist just as I was about to turn left onto a cycle path from a major road. idiot, I was so infuriated. Mainly I can’t understand why everyone is always in such a rush, your article gives advice on calming down and thinking about a situation rather than dangerously rushing on. I agree

    • Jim 26/05/2011 at 1:41 pm #

      Spot on. I just don’t understand why many cyclists seem to want to go as fast as humanly possible, even in circumstances where it might endanger them or others.

  12. Phil 26/05/2011 at 2:01 pm #

    I will not undertake anything in motion, drivers do not pay attention to anything on the left except kerbstones.

  13. John Williams 26/05/2011 at 4:39 pm #

    Re undertaking, it isn’t just moving vehicles that pose a hazard. I ended up in Charing Cross hospital many years back due to undertaking a car just as the passenger opened his door.

    Having said that, I do still undertake – you may as well stay at home otherwise if you want to ride around the capital – but I’m a lot more cautious about it. And I tend to overtake more as well. Even that isn’t risk free since I hit a car a few years back when the driver decided to do a u-turn without signaling or looking in her mirror. To add insult to injury she then tried to claim I’d been riding too fast, presumably assuming that I’d been unable to stop. Sometimes you just can’t win.

  14. Ashleigh 26/05/2011 at 5:48 pm #

    Great post. As you say, it’s pretty hard to follow these rules every day. We all break them occasionally. I guess knowing when you can take a risk comes with experience – being out on the road and endeavouring to make wise choices 99% of the time.

    Oh yeah – I’d totally look behind me every ten seconds or so. It’s not that outrageous, people! Especially on a busy morning commute, when you’ve got other cyclists, cars, motorbikes, and pedestrians up the wazoo. (How the heck do recumbent cyclists keep an eye on whose behind them, if they don’t have a rearview mirror?!)

    • Dave 31/03/2013 at 11:50 am #

      As a new recumbent rider, I follow the usual style of riding I have ie riding on the right at all times. People tend to give me a wider berth than if I were to ride on the left, People ahead can see me in their driving mirror and facing traffic can see me head on

      I never have turning traffic unexpectedly in my path, or pedestrians appearing unexpectedly, and no one hoots at me or crowds me, nor am I ever doored all I ever have to worry about are motorcyclists doing the same, but they are usually more alert and careful

  15. Andreas 26/05/2011 at 5:51 pm #

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  16. Mark 27/05/2011 at 10:44 am #

    1 – well th first rule of this article is simply not realistic, cycle lanes are on th left, therefore cyclists regulary HAVE to undertake, eg when traffic is slow moving.

    Overtaking on th outside can also be dangerous as i witnessed yesterday, some cars turning right in heavy, slow moving traffic dont check their mirrrors! i watched a taxi turn into a cyclist, hitting them. the taxi wasnt indicating, made no appology and th cyclist didnt even complain! crazy!!! i think this rule should be changed to – beware when overtaking/undertaking: as a cyclist you have to do it, just beware that if a car is pulling along side you slowly they are probably getting ready to turn left or right, even though they may not be indicating

    2 – as for every 8-10 seconds, that is completely over th top, i have been cycling in london for years and if i look behind me that often i wil crash into something in front of me, i agree with th comments from other people – ears are useful for what is behind…. im not saying dont look behind you, but not every 8-10 seconds….

    3 – spot on, dont be bullied by other traffic, you have a right to be there too, anyway a cyclist in london will rarely hold up traffic for any length of time – i mean, th car overtakes and then normally has to slow down again, while th cyclist happily overtakes 🙂

  17. roy 27/05/2011 at 12:52 pm #

    Well some good posts sent in there,

    #1. I undertake all the time, mostly,I say mostly when traffic is stationary, because if nothing else that’s where we are expected to be & commuting everyday in London as I do, its unavoidable i’m afraid, but, at the same time I am also very very aware of what’s happening with the traffic, but if i’m not comfortable I will go around the outside and think nothing of it, in fact I prefer this option to down the centre between the cars. But I will often follow a line of M/Cycles doing it but still being aware of whats happening all around & not just in front. And being undertaken by another bike when i’m trying to give myself some safety space just pisses me off something rotten.

    Which brings me on to number.

    #3. My lane hogging has been well documented & if I need to be there thats where i’ll be, and that’s where i’ll stay until I feel it’s ok to move over no one pushes there.(well I have had a few coaches come close to it) now they do get my goat. But all I do as far as i’m concerned is make other users aware of where I am and where I need to be.

    #2. I am constantly checking who’s up my jaxie, but not every 10 seconds.Well not unless I’m pissing off a coach driver that is.

  18. Sarah 27/05/2011 at 2:15 pm #

    I’ve actually gotten into the habit of looking behind me very frequently mainly because the part of London I cycle in has a lot of electric cars which can’t always be heard coming up behind you. I’ve jumped a few too many time when one has gone past me without my realising it was going to be there. It’s certainly the best educator in look behind you. Incidentally since I’ve been doing this I’ve noticed that cars overtaking me leave a wider gap.

  19. MARK 27/05/2011 at 3:52 pm #


  20. Bluenose 27/05/2011 at 4:41 pm #

    Rule 1. If there is a clear bike lane then I use that for undertaking. If there is no bike lane or its obstructed then I overtake. Generally that’s true, however if I feel unsafe I tend to hold back.

    Rule 2. I follow when I am about to deviate, I’m not completely stable on my bike looking back, I’m not too sure if anyone is so I only do it slightly more than necessary. I do do it a lot more in heavy traffic when approching obstacles.

    Rule 3, absolutely, any pinch point take the centre position. I remember once I let a car past at a pinch point, he gave me just enough room, but the trailer he was towing didn’t.

  21. Mike 27/05/2011 at 4:48 pm #

    Awww – don’t even get me started on people towing who can’t even drive a supermarket trolley…..

  22. Geoff 28/05/2011 at 9:05 am #

    Rule 1: There’s a time for both but you need to be fully aware of what’s going on around you, and ensure that it’s done safely. If in doubt hold back for both

    Rule 2: seems excessive, as you’re approaching hazards, turnings etc. would be more appropriate, and as someone above has said, use your hearing in conjunction with looking back.

    Rule 3: again depends on the roads, if you’re on a narrow road then it’s best to try and leave enough space for traffic, so that they don’t get frustrated and overtake in a bad place. If this is the case then pull over to let traffic by when safe to do so. Taking middle position at pinch points e.g. approaching roundabouts, LH filter lanes etc. can be a lifesaver. Just this week I saw a woman in a LH / straight on filter lane on the inside but she was going straight over. How she missed the car turning left on her I do not know, whereas if she’d been in the middle the situation would not have occurred.

  23. David 29/05/2011 at 8:18 pm #

    I would say that #2 glance at the vehicle behind is certainly one of my top ones, so have to agree. Is this the equivalent of vehicular drivers looking in their mirrors, which some might say is something _most_ drivers do. However, there are probably too many cyclists on the road who _don’t_ look around them, don’t make contact with other road users to let them know “I am here”, “I am traffic”. Great post, as ever.

  24. Phil 31/05/2011 at 11:43 am #

    I should add that I use a rear view mirror to keep an eye on traffic behind me without losing too much forward vision, but if I’m going to change direction I always look round as I signal, so that the following driver is aware that I have a very good idea of what they look like. I eyeball drivers reaching junctions to the side, for the same reason.

    • John 02/06/2011 at 3:35 pm #

      I use a bar end mirror on my bikes it is stable and saves you all that turning around and missing what’s going on infront of you with the possibility of someone turning or opening a door into you.
      I always turn around at junctions just to let that driver know I want to know what he is doing but in reality I have been watching him all the time.
      It was only a mate of mine many years ago who had a bar end mirror on his bike that after riding it a bit made me realise how good they are.

  25. roy 31/05/2011 at 1:05 pm #

    Geoff, your comment #3 is another good point for us to be in the advanced stop box on our own.

    On another point using our ears which I do all the time, but has anyone come accross this.

    I see people wearng a full set of cans listening to their music peddeling away as if they were in the park and completely oblivious to anyone, what chance have they got of listening to the traffic.

  26. warren BUZZ brant 08/06/2011 at 10:32 am #

    when the left of a slow moving queue is blocked i will and have overtaken on the right, motorists in my experience will happily then accelerate close up the gaps and keep you on the outside for as long as possible. I have been hit by a door mirror in a cycle lane by a passing car,It got ripped of on my handlebar as the passenger gave it a wipe on a damp morning. Until transport education is viewed as a progressive thing start on a cycle and progress up to bikes cars with a test how is it possible to appreciate the others prospective limitations and vulnerability

  27. warren BUZZ brant 08/06/2011 at 10:43 am #

    looking over the right shoulder will convey the message to a motorist i just cant judge the speed the car is approaching at if i am trying to make a right and need to move into the center of the road the is why i use a helmet mirror as well.

  28. Mark Muggeridge 08/08/2011 at 12:24 pm #

    I am so impressed with yor attitude to safety and riding on the streets in London, your latest newsletter was brilliant.
    What impresses me most is the fact that you take full responsibility for your safety and do not expect other road users to be responsible for your safety, this is such a refreshing attitude, so often we cyclists (and other road users) are so quick to blame others for risky or dangerous riding and driving.
    Well done and thank you so much -you are generating some very intelligent attitudes and the more people that read your safety tips the better.

  29. Shades 28/11/2011 at 9:45 am #

    I adopted the defensive stance a year or so ago and it stopped the ‘phew, that was close’ overtaking situations, but last week I had 2 drivers who were hell bent on getting past me. One managed it with excessive horn and barging. After both incidents I was obviously their ‘no 1 enemy’ as the guy who barged past me was looking for me as I caught up with him further down the road and I did hear some abuse from the 2nd driver as I pulled away from him as the traffic had backed up. My first reaction after the incident was to keep away from them in case their ‘red mist’ descended, so you could say defensive cycling just escalates the stuation, although I tell myself the alternative, overtaking too close, is worse. If the situation goes up another level, then the driver either tries to knock you off or gets out of the car to attack you (we’ve seen the videos). There is a chance that you could cross paths again if you’re travelling the same route. Not wanting to be a statistic, when there were no witnesses and the driver gets away with it, when do you defend yourself and potentially end up being the villain if you ‘clobber’ the driver? You hear the term, “I’d rather be alive at my own court case than dead”. The urge to give a car a good few thumps on the window is overwhelming and maybe they’d think again before they try and barge a cyclist off the road; unless they’re the drivers who never change? I thought back to the 70s/80s and cycling to school in nothing more than uniform and looked at myself now with helmet, high-viz kit, array of lights, defensive riding etc. Bit depressing!

    • Mark 28/11/2011 at 12:11 pm #

      recently i was almost run over by someone driving their car relatively slowly along a one way road –
      they failed to indicate or check wing mirrors and attempted to turn right as i was overtaking them. if there had been a right hand turning up ahead i would never have attempted to overtake. but the road was wide and had no turnings on either side.
      unknown to me they were looking for a parking space and drove straight in front of me. i narrowly avoided being hit. normally i shout or just give a stern stare. but this time it was very close – an inch or two away from hitting me. i just lost it and got very angry (i was fed up with these near misses!), I began thumping th windscreen and then the door window. the man got out and tried to grab me but i just grabed at his suit in defense. I was thinking to myself “I am warmed up and ready to go mate, you are in the wrong and you will be worse off for this, not only can i get you done for dangerous driving, but now assault too”. also, i hoped in the scuffle his nice suit jacket would get ripped… anyway, he let go of me and nothing came of it, he shouted at me not to thump his car and he would appologise, so i shouted back at him and made him perfectly aware that he had almost caused an accident and should use his mirrors and indicators.
      no one was hurt and no damage was done. but i hope my anger at him made him remeber the road doesnt belong to him and to be more aware of people around him in future.

  30. Fe 14/05/2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Or put another way…

    1) It is ALWAYS VERY dangerous to undertake (especially at the approach to any junction)

    – can you clearly see the small school kid running across the road infront of the undertaken vehicle?
    – if the passage door opens, you and your fashionable clothes are fcuked.
    – if you “dash” quick on the inside of a lorry, the driver hasn’t a hope in hell of seeing you.
    – there are 1001 reasons why the vehicle may NEED to suddenly swerve to the left that YOU CANNOT SEE why.

    2) ALWAYS look over your shoulder BEFORE deviating from your “path” on the road.

    – swerving around a parked car, or overtaking another cyclist, avoiding a puddle (see 30s into )
    – turning at a junction
    – approach to a hazard.

    3) When in a narrow single lane road section, be towards the middle of the lane where it is safest.

    – the courts recognise cyclists are entitled to a wobble space either side of you to be safe.
    – When waiting at lights in narrow single lane
    – if it not safe for a car to pass you safely.

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