Rule one, obey stoplight; Rule two, wear helmet

Bike on the road following a car [Credit: clix on Flickr]

I was driving home mid-morning on a sunny Saturday. Stopped at a light, I noticed a slick bike descending the hill coming toward me. I was admiring the bike and --WHAM-- next thing I knew the bike was in the air after hitting a car.

Twice in the last month there have been bike accidents in my town. The first was the accident I witnessed. The rider had a helmet on and walked away. The second rider did not have a helmet and died.

There are lessons in these two unrelated incidents. While it's easy for cyclists to blame accidents on automobiles, and in the aftermath of a car/bike accident sympathy naturally flows to the fragile cyclist rather than the steel encased motorist, there are several things cyclists can do to improve their own safety. Both these accidents were caused by cyclists running a red light and the death in the second came from the lack of a helmet.

In the first accident, I saw the cyclist approaching bent out over his aerobars. He was wearing the kit of a local bike store and riding a time trial/triathlon bike. Obviously an experienced rider, he was stretching to make it through the intersection before the light turned red. (He missed that. I was already at a complete stop on the far side when I noticed him approaching). Ninety-nine times out of a hundred he would have sailed through the intersection on the red with no problem. This time, despite frantic braking, he "T-boned" into the side of a car in the intersection.

Fortunately, after the impact, he jumped up and walked clear of the road. He lamented, "I tried to stop." Having a good helmet strapped on tightly undoubtedly played a large part in this happy end to a bad situation.

The second accident three weeks later was weirdly similar. A witness to that accident said "the light turned green and I saw the bike coming down and he smashed right into the car." Again, it was a biker coming down a main road trying to pass through an intersection at the end of a green light, thinking that they could get through before any cars would enter.

Both accidents involved bikers hitting the side of cars after the light had changed.

Unfortunately, the second biker was just commuting around town and had no helmet. He too stood up in the roadway after his accident. But, he crumpled to the ground shortly after and passed away at the scene.

It's easy to blame cars that don't "see" cyclists (Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic talks about the psychology of driver's perception and why motorists have a hard time seeing bikes and motorcycles). But, we cyclists need to take our own share of responsibility. It's dangerous to sprint through a light about to turn red. And it's foolhardy to ride without a helmet.