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Don't be afraid to bike on the road, but know the rules

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Published Oct. 2, 2014

Newcomers to bike riding usually have some questions, none more important than this:

Should I have my head examined if I decide to ride on roads, right alongside cars and trucks?

My answer: No, you shouldn't, because you can do it safely.

Throughout the United States, bike riders have the right to be on the road. Motorists are legally obligated to respect that. Cyclists, in turn, have responsibilities to obey the law, act predictably and be courteous. But first, you need to know the law and ride in a way that mitigates risk. And sometimes that means doing things that might seem counterintuitive.

If there is not a bike lane, Florida law requires you to stay as far to the right as is "practicable" — unless "reasonably necessary to avoid any condition or potential conflict." That gives you wide latitude and you should use it. If a lane is less than 14 feet wide, it's considered insufficient for both a bike and a car to ride alongside each other. In that case, you are better off moving toward the middle of the lane, according to Keri Caffrey, co-founder of Cycling Savvy, a program of the American Bicycling Education Association.

She says if you try to stay as far right as possible on a narrow lane, drivers might try to squeeze by you when there isn't sufficient room.

"Riding on the far right on a narrow lane can expose you to other people's mistakes," Caffrey said.

If there is a bike lane, you are legally required to use it — except when the lane is unsafe because of debris or a poor surface, or when you're turning left. Use hand signals to indicate if you're moving out of the bike lane, turning or slowing down. Glance behind you to ensure it's safe, or use a rearview mirror.

Often, there is a white line at the outer edge of the lane, but that doesn't mean the space from the line to the curb is a bike lane. A bike lane must be at least 4 feet wide and marked on the surface as a bike lane, according to George Martin, who writes about bike laws for the Florida Bicycle Association. He says if it doesn't meet both of these requirements, you needn't stay in it.

A bike lane adjacent to parked cars can be dangerous, exposing you to the thoughtless driver who opens a door into the bike lane. Just because you have a bike lane doesn't mean you can let your guard down. "Don't let the white line think for you,'' Caffrey says.

Many drivers don't know that when making a right turn, they should check first to make sure the bike lane is clear. Conversely, a cyclist stopped at an intersection is better off in the driving lane, not the bike lane, to be more visible to motorists. Use hand signals if turning. If not, proceed straight ahead and move to the bike lane once through the intersection.

Here's a basic: At stop signs and red lights, stop!

If you arrive first at the intersection with a four-way stop sign, you have the right of way, but proceed cautiously and make eye contact with drivers. As a gesture of good will, a large group of cyclists might let a motorist go first since a car can clear the intersection more quickly.

Keep your eyes and ears open at all times. Never wear headphones or earbuds on the road, and always wear a helmet.

And consider riding with a group. Almost all my rides are with other cyclists. Motorists can better see a large group, and they might be less tempted to try and speed around a group than a lone cyclist.

Stay off the sidewalk; you'd be a menace to pedestrians, and cars won't be looking for you at intersections.

And always ride in the same direction as traffic. Riding against it is dangerous and unlawful.

Yes, there are some incorrigible drivers who think that losing a few seconds while waiting to pass a bicycle is more than they can bear. But I've had several accidents, and all of them were my fault. If we want more courteous drivers, we need to be more courteous bicyclists.

Bob Griendling is vice president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. He blogs at bobgriendling.com.

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