The Smart Cycling program developed by the League of American Bicyclists teaches the five layers of crash prevention.
1. Control your bike. 83% of bike wrecks don’t involve a motor vehicle. Learn the common pitfalls and how to avoid them. Allow an arm’s length between yourself and the edge of the road, to avoid debris and unexpected obstacles like animals.
2. Obey the law. In half of car-bike collisions, the cyclist was not obeying a traffic law.
3. Discourage drivers’ mistakes. Just like defensive driving, you can discourage drivers from making common mistakes by choosing where and how to ride. A key concept is to control the lane with an assertive lane position, which also makes you more visible to drivers.
4. Avoid drivers’ mistakes. For those mistakes they make anyway, there are a couple maneuvers you can learn—and practice!—to avoid a collision.
5. Wear a helmet. Practicing the four principles above prevents over 90% of bike wrecks. The helmet can save your life for the few you can’t avoid.
These principles are based on studies and statistics. Many bike safety programs, especially for kids, start and end with “wear a helmet”, and bike safety debates are full of helmet wars. Of course I wear a helmet and encourage everyone to do so. However, the focus on helmets detracts from the steps that, based on the data, will have a much bigger impact on bicyclist safety.
If I were to advocate only one practice that would make bicyclists safer, the way some people latch onto helmets, I would choose “lane position”. Ride on the right side of the road (in the direction of traffic), but not at the far edge. Keeping a healthy space between you and the right curb is the majority of the First and Third Layers of Crash Prevention.
image from "Lane Control" animation by Commute Orlando