Janet Basinger's recent letter in the Monitor, discussing bicycling safety, needs further discussion.
A shortened version of this screed has been printed by the Los Alamos Monitor.
Traffic law does not say that a cyclist needs to ride as far to the right as possible. The law says to ride as far right as is practicable (i.e., feasable, realistic with regards to all likely hazards and traffic considerations.) For example, proper positioning leaves the cyclist some room to the right in order to avoid the debris to which Ms. Basinger refers and far enough away from the gutter pan or road edge to not be in danger of a crash. Just as importantly, the rider needs to be far enough into traffic to be clearly visible to others. Indeed, the cyclist is legally entitled to take the entire lane if it is too narrow to be shared, thus deterring motorists from unsafe passing in a narrow space. Of course, in the narrow lane situation the cyclist needs to cooperate to help other traffic move around him or her. Further discussion would require a lot of space here, so I would refer readers to Los Alamos County Codes, Ch. 38, Article X for details. The following two online references are also useful guides to cyclist position on the road.
Being visible is important. However, I would recommend that a cyclist wanting to ensure his or her visibility during daylight, dawn, or dusk should use well-tested designs such as the Class III or Class II reflective vests (links are used as examples, not endorsements) used by highway departments and road crews. These vests have been designed with minimum amounts of reflective material and can reduce the hazards faced by poor visibility or a busy background environment (i.e., heavy traffic). Having said that, the onus for being aware of what is on the road in front of you (whether it is a cyclist, a pedestrian crossing the street, or a motorist slowing down) falls primarily to the vehicle operator. It is everyone's job to pay attention to safety and not hit someone. Let's keep the responsibility where it belongs.
A more serious concern not addressed by vests or reflectors is nighttime illumination. Very few cyclists riding at night use lights. A bright vest or bicycle reflector does not tell a cyclist he is about to hit a pothole, brick, patch of ice, or fellow lightless rider. From the Law Officer's Guide to Bicycle Safety, Reference Guide, "...Certain types of motor vehicle-bike collisions occur disproportionately at night, including motorist entering from side street or on-street parking, motorist turning left, motorist overtaking, and wrong-way cyclist hit head-on (Forester 1994 based on Cross and Fisher 1977). In the first two of these crash types, the motorist must yield to the bicyclist already in the road, but the motorist’s headlamps will not be shining on the bicyclist. Therefore the bicyclist needs, and is required by law to use, a headlight to be seen by drivers in these situations..."
Bike lanes increase the comfort level for cyclists and in terms of traffic management in busy traffic, make it easier and more efficient for a motorist to overtake a cyclist by providing the cyclist a separate "slow moving vehicle" lane. However, these lanes don't necessarily make a cyclist safer and the lack of a bike lane does not make a road unsafe for cycling--unsafe operators are the greater determinants to safety.
The assumption that bike lanes dramatically increase safety is based on the premise that a cyclist is likely to be hit from behind, but that is actually a relatively rare (a few percent) type of car-bike collision and more of a real concern in rural areas. According to the Law Officer's Guide to Bicycle Safety, Reference Guide, 80% to 90% of urban bike-car crashes occur due to right of way (turning and crossing) errors at driveways and intersections. In these cases, poorly designed bike lanes often increase the chances for these types of collisions by encouraging motorists to pass a cyclist on the cyclist's left and then turn right and cut off the cyclist, by encouraging a cyclist to make a left turn from the right side of the road (i.e., from the bike lane) resulting in the cyclist being hit by a thru motorist, or by positioning the cyclist too far to the right to be clearly visible to a motorist entering from a side street or driveway. A well-designed bike lane system enables traffic to flow smoothly and comfortably, but also encourages cyclists to position themselves properly in traffic while turning and at intersections and roundabouts.
The best advice to cyclists is:
1. Control your bike and routinely inspect it for safe operation.
2. Follow the rules of the road.
3. Observe proper lane positioning.
4. Avoid hazards and practice effective bike handling skills to enable you to take effective evasive actions.
5. Use passive safety devices such as helmets and active safety devices such as lights.
6. Take a League of American Bicyclists bicycling safety course.
Useful pubs and references
California Bicycle Coalition guide to rider position on the road
John Allen's Street Smarts
Law Officer's Guide to Bicycle Safety Reference Guide, Powerpoint, and instructional movies
My recent article on Los Alamos' bike lane system.