Ask Chuck: Should I Ride With Traffic Or Against It?
Believe it or not, deciding which lane of travel to ride comes up a lot. We give you the low down.
While some cyclists may think this one is obvious, we get this question a lot. Newer rides, and even some experienced cyclists, wonder which lane of traffic is the safest to ride. Should we ride with traffic, on the right hand side of the road and in the same direction as the flow of cars, or is is safe to ride against traffic, riding essentially into on-coming traffic in the left lane?
For beginners, it’s a question that’s asked out of simple ignorance, and frankly, we applaud them for reaching out and seeking information. But those veteran cyclists who ask? We want to take the time to explain just why there is every reason to stay riding the right way, on the right side of the road.
First off, you’re a vehicle. Cyclists have to obey the rules of the road like any other vehicle, so this one is pretty simple. If you’re not in the right lane, you are breaking the law.
Second, traveling the wrong way on a road is inherently different for numerous reasons. The most obvious one is that, because it’s illegal, drivers are not looking for you and certainly not expecting to see you traveling in the wrong direction. As cyclists, we always want to conform to the expectations that keep us safe, and being in our familiar place near the shoulder of the road is often the place motors look for us.
Travelling the wrong direction also puts more pressure on drivers. Because a cyclist travelling the wrong way is moving, the closing speed between the bike and the on-coming car is exponentially fast than a car overtaking a cyclist moving the same speed. If a cyclist travelling at 15 miles per hour is being passed by a car going 25 miles per hour, the effective closing speed is 10 miles per hour. Reverse it to the other side of the road, and the converging speed is over four times quicker! That forces attention, decision-making, and reaction time for a driver to just a split second.
And their course of action upon spotting you is limited, too. Drivers headed toward an on-coming cyclists can’t reduce speed because there is a good chance the car behind them hasn’t spotted the cyclist yet. This means that car barreling toward you probably won’t slow down at all, and since it has just seconds to take evasive action, there’s a higher likelihood that they won’t move over and into the other lane for fear of on-coming traffic.
All of this is a recipe for disaster. So why do some cyclists insist that there are situations that riding towards traffic is safer? They insist because they are facing traffic, they will be able to avoid cars as they pass by. As we’ve seen, that’s often just not possible. It certainly doesn’t allow for all the factors we’ve discussed, and it doesn’t allow for unsafe or gravel shoulders, parking lots or driveways that may have cars trying to leave it, or other road hazards that limit your ability to avoid close calls.
The risk factor for riding against traffic goes up by over double when compared to riding with traffic. In some situations involving teenagers and kids under the age of 17, the risk can go up to 6.6 times the number of incidents where riders are obeying road laws.
In short, always ride with the flow of traffic, and avoid using the sidewalk whenever possible. By being predictable, aware, and following the rules, we can all make the road a safer place.