5 Laws Of Bicycling Survival


Ren (“Aaron”) Willis wrote the 5 Laws of Bicycling Survival. It’s amazing and worth reading the original article. I like the focus on not dying – which, of course, should also be your goal in a car or walking or moving about in the world.*

Here’s my take on his 5 Laws based on my own 20+ years of biking around cities.

1st Law: Give Those With The Right-Of-Way The Right-Of-Way First

On principle, yes, bikes should obey all traffic laws. However, traffic laws are made for cars, not for bikes. In heavy traffic on a main road, I behave exactly like a car. On a quiet, hilly, neighborhood street…I’ll roll through a stop sign here and there. And if I have to choose between signaling my turn and keeping my balance…I’ll choose to keep my balance.

That said – thou shalt never try to sneak through an intersection before your turn. Car drivers thrive on predictability. Right-Of-Way is the foundation of predictability on streets & roads. Stealing right of way takes an unnecessary risk and gives cyclists a very bad reputation.

Because guess who dies in a Right-Of-Way fight? The cyclist.

2nd Law: You Are Invisible To Cars

On nature shows, they always focus on the predator vs. prey relationship. But they rarely focus on the elephant to beetle relationship – animals that share the same space where one is so much more massive that they simply don’t know about the other.

Cars are the elephant and cyclists are the beetle. Cars not only have massive blind spots on their own but their interior lures every driver into a false sense of control & security…leading to all forms of distracted driving.

And guess who gets stomped when the elephant is trying to grab a leaf on a tree? The beetle.

The cyclist gets to play a fun game, which is, how can I make cars see me? I do a few tricks –

  • Always ride where cars expect to see a cyclist. Don’t go hiding in the bushes.
  • Slow down and try to make eye contact with drivers whenever possible – especially at intersections with lots of right and left-hand turns.
  • Be OK with claiming space and making it awkward. At an intersection with poor visibility – go ahead and get right in line with the cars instead of hugging the curb.

Always play the game of “what if this car doesn’t see me?” – what can you do to hide.

Also – never assume that since one car can see you, that another one can. For example, if you are at a four-way stop, just because one car sees you, does not mean that the other cars do. Never accept a wave through or courtesy without checking everything yourself.

3rd Law: Read The “Body Language” Of Cars

Cars are big. That means that they don’t turn, stop, or accelerate on a dime like a bike or foot.

A car getting ready to turn will slow down, etc.

On a bike, you can kind of learn to predict who is going to run a red light; who is going to change lanes; who is going to come a bit too close. Practice paying attention and making predictions on what cars are going to do.

4th Law: Do What You Got To Do To Be Safe

For a car driver, the safest place for them is in the driver’s seat with their seat belt on. In fact, as a car driver, you can be punished extra for doing something reckless to protect your car before a wreck.

For cyclists…it’s different. Remember, a cyclist is a beetle among elephants. And traffic laws are written for cars, not cyclists.

Break every rule in the book if it keeps you alive.

Hear a drag racing car on a narrow street? Bail onto the sidewalk.

Is something blocking the bike lane? Take the full car lane with confidence.

Stuck at a massive 6-lane intersection? Weave your way to the front to get out of the way.

Is the road wet and slick? Keep your hands on your handlebar and ditch signaling!

Do whatever it takes to be safe and avoid all elephants.

5th Law: Do Not Engage

It’s never worth engaging with car drivers. Just move along.

If they don’t quit messing with you, still do not engage. As BikePortland put it, instead “use that energy to collect as much evidence as possible. Get a good look at the driver, write down their license plate number and note the year, make and model of the vehicle.”

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