The Safety Swerve

51KxlaMNpqL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click-small,TopRight,12,-30_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-87,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_-1(Warning: Nothing in this post is advice. Don’t try it at home. I mean it.)


I’ve ridden over 1,200 miles in 2013, all of which have been ridden on bicycles I purchased used for less than $600. And during those miles, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t need anything aerodynamic to help me speed up a ride. I enjoy riding too much to speed it up.

This post is about city riding — the kind I do almost exclusively these days. While my ride to work and back is primarily along neighborhood streets, greenways and designated bike lanes, I have ridden enough miles in streets during the past 18 months to lose all fear of claiming my portion of almost any street in Nashville.

And the more fear I’ve lost about riding a bicycle in the city, the more joy I’ve found from riding one. And bike-riding joy is unique among any recreational activity I’ve tried as it is the joy of having constant flashbacks to being 12 years old and discovering the sense of independence for the first time.

It took a few hundred miles for that fear-joy factor to kick in, however.

And it also took me reading a book called Just Ride, by Grant Peterson, to provide me with the framework to understand what I was sensing. I’m glad I didn’t read the book until I had spent a few hundred miles riding on city streets, however. Before that, I don’t believe I would have agreed with some his suggestions had I not come to many of the same conclusions on my own through trial and error. (There are a couple of things I still don’t agree with him on, as I still prefer wearing bicycle pants, granted under some over-sized gym shorts; and I like using cleated pedals, which he says are ridiculous for those who aren’t racing professionally.)

More than anything else, the one thing I most agree with Peterson is something that will freak out drivers (translation: everyone) when you read it. It’s his advice on the smartest thing a bicyclist can do to keep a car from running over him or her is to look like they don’t know how to ride a bike. (Much preferred over the other method: riding in the gutter.)

That means, if you’re riding on city streets, never wear road biking costumes and aerodynamic helmets. (Wear the rounded off kind like the Jimmy Johns delivery guys and I do.) In fact, look like you’ve never been on a bicycle before.

safety_swerveHere’s a quote from Just Ride that explains what I mean:

“British psychologist, cyclist, and traffic researcher Ian Walker has conducted the most extensive studies on bikes in car traffic. He says motorists give the most space to helmetless riders, women (or men who look like them), and riders in civilian clothing. According to the study, un-helmeted, casual riders don’t look like they know what they’re doing. They could be riding a bike for the first time in years…

“There is another way: the safety swerve. You’re riding down a road, glance back quickly, and notice a car bearing down. Most cyclists react by riding closer to the edge of the road. That’s what the driver wants you to do—defer to them, give them more elbow room, get the heck out of the way. Here’s another option: With the car three to four seconds behind you (it helps to have a bike mirror), wiggle a bit or swerve for an instant. Look unsteady or oblivious. Reach your left arm skyward or outward to stretch it or shake it. Your goal isn’t to freak out the driver. It’s to appear slightly unsteady on the bike and unaware that a car’s approaching, so the driver will pass you more carefully. Be aware, ride with precision, but give cars reasons to pass you with a little extra caution.

“(Petersen, Grant (2012-05-08). Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike (pp. 39-40). Workman Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.)

In other words, if you want to be safe while riding a bicycle on the streets of a city (I can only speak first-hand about Nashville), then you should swerve out in front of people and act like you’re riding a bike for the second or third time in your life. (Peterson’s advice, not mine.)

And never, never dress up in a Tour de France uniform.

(Note & Warning: Yes, there’s a little tongue in cheek in this post. And do not try the safety swerve until you’ve practiced on a closed course with professional cyclists.)


  • JonLowder

    I live in a small town that is a suburb of a small city in North Carolina, and I also happen to currently serve as the chair of the planning board. Our fair town is listed somewhere as a great destination for biking, and so on many days this time of year our entire downtown will swarm with outsiders parking their cars, unloading their bikes and taking off in pairs, small groups or even a large peloton to ride the rural roads that make up the vast majority of the geography around us. All are gloriously arrayed in spandex, almost all are very serious riders, and they are despised by many residents. I fear that if they tried the swerve the residents would gladly take them out and claim that the rider jumped right in front of them, or was drunk, or something else.

    At planning board meetings they come up a LOT. Some folks see them as an opportunity – we’re trying to promote the town to outsiders as a destination while still retaining its small town character – while others view them as a nuisance. What’s really interesting is when we start talking about developing greenways and bike lanes these competitive riders always come up, and we have to remind everyone that the greenways and bike lanes are more about the people who use bikes to get from point A to point B, or for a nice way to get around without getting in the car, than it is about the competitive riders. Maybe if we had more of those there’d be less likelihood of a swerve turning into a splat.

  • Jon. As you are one of this blogs 12 readers, I actually know the town of which you speak. And your dilemma is precisely what I’m talking about.

    First off, in big city or small, everyone who drives a car feels that bicycles are a nuisance. Indeed, when I drive, I do.

    Also, I think the research cited in the post concurs with your observation that it is not recommended for someone wearing spandex as putting on spandex is counter to the research that drivers will avoid people who, in essence, look as if they’ve never been on a bicycle before. I, myself, wear spandex (but not the logo’d kind) on the weekends during rides around the beautiful part of Tennessee where I live — and know that every pick-up truck views me as a target.

    As for greenways, I will say this: Greenways don’t appeal to the kind of bicyclists who wear spandex. Greenways work for commuters and people who look like they are enjoying their ride.