In theory, the rules of the road exist to ensure that everyone gets back from their ride in one piece. But how does this work in practice?

Different countries -- and different states in the U.S. -- have different ways of dealing with bicycles. Years ago, riding in Japan, for example, was not for the faint of heart. The samurai spirit of WWII was alive and well, and three-wheeled mini-pickup trucks, piloted by fearless and ruthless construction workers (ex-fighter pilots?), would often run up over the curb and along the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians, to get around a traffic jam at a stoplight. To truck and taxi drivers, bicycles were just mobile road furniture—like speed bumps with wheels.

Thankfully, times have changed. One of the best traffic rules in Japan is based on the Confucian notion that increased power implies increased responsibility and liability. What this means to you as a cyclist is: if you are involved in an accident with a motor-driven vehicle, that vehicle is presumed responsible unless proven otherwise. In an accident with a pedestrian, you -- the cyclist -- are presumed responsible unless proven otherwise. (It’s unclear where skateboards fit in the pecking order.)

In the U.S., of course, this is the stuff of dreams.

There are additional interesting twists, like the “stationary object” rule. In a collision between a wheeled vehicle and a stationary object, the vehicle is presumed responsible in all cases. Sounds logical, right? But in the case of two bicycles, it becomes the “foot down” rule. If you’re about to collide with another cyclist, if you can stop and get your foot down you become a stationary object, and this means you’re home free in terms of liability (possible injuries may be another matter).

I applied this rule once on a rainy day in Kawasaki; at an unmarked intersection I found myself in the path of a housewife—baby on her back, panniers and basket piled high with groceries—zipping along, clutching an umbrella in one hand and maintaining a tenuous grip on the handlebars with the other. No way was I going to bear the burden of proof (and guilt) if we collided!

Full lock two-wheel skid to a stop on the wet street, get the foot down. Now it’s up to her. Unable to brake much --wet side-pull brake and only one hand to work with, plus maintaining a balancing act with umbrella, weight of groceries, and kid -- she wobbled into an evasive action and ended up running into a pile of sand next to a construction site. And then, being Japanese, she apologized profusely.

But back in the rest of the world...

You are sharing the road with joggers who don’t like the sidewalk, drivers who don’t like cyclists, cars parked in -- or driving in -- bike lanes, cyclists going the wrong way, skateboarders and all the rest. Survival in this environment requires a little creativity and a lot of flexibility.

Your best option is to think like a Japanese driver: no matter what happens, the weight is on you. If you’re on a bicycle you are like middle management: you get it from both top and bottom. Hit a pedestrian, it’s often considered your fault (and you can still get hurt—I’m missing the distal end of one collarbone thanks to a pedestrian who decided to cross a path and reverse course right before I got to him). Get hit by a car, it may be their fault but what good is that if you’re in a wheelchair? People demanding their rights often cause themselves more trouble than anyone else could possibly do. [Editor's Note: Just because you can take the lane doesn't mean that you should take the lane. The most difficult to interpret and ambiguous reports in the Close Call Database often contain the phrase "I was taking the lane, as I was legally entitled to do . . ."] So don’t assume you’re going to get the right of way, even if it is yours.

Which brings up the next point:

Another self-preservation move: share different space by seeking alternate routes. For years there was (and may still be) an undeclared war on bicycles on the San Francisco Peninsula, with the Atherton area seemingly the epicenter. Drivers would deliberately cut you off at corners, or pinch you off onto the shoulder or into the ditch. When I reached the point of considering carrying a length of chain as a weapon (an idea I got from an old biker movie), I realized it was time to find other places to ride. Route selection matters, it's a critical part of riding safely.

This is true in less extreme situations as well. Every weekend I see cyclists riding on heavily-traveled boulevards with most traffic moving at 45mph or more -- when if they went a block or two on either side they could have a tranquil, low-risk ride and avoid inhaling exhaust fumes. Instead of putting yourself on auto pilot, take a day now and then to find alternate routes. Some of them are far more interesting and challenging, and all of them are preferable to putting your life at risk as you coat your lungs with hydrocarbons.

How about the beach cruiser set? You know, the hapless horde that rents bikes, haven’t ridden since they were a kid, and immediately set out to ride like clueless 10-year-olds: weaving all over the road, riding the wrong way in bike lanes, blowing through stop signs without looking or slowing down. Believe it or not, these people are your friends! Why? Because wherever they come out in force, local motorists are conditioned to watch out for brainless cyclists. This means that they will be much more careful and accommodating around you, as well. (Just be sure you don’t get T-boned by one of your surprise allies at an intersection.)

So far we’ve been talking about mostly defensive or adaptive measures. But how can you take more active steps to protect your interest in seeing safer streets? Some cyclists participate in Critical Mass, and it’s undeniable that Critical Mass has helped immensely in some areas. But many of us aren’t totally committed fans of Critical Mass, due to their often arrogant, aggressive and illegal behavior. I quit participating after an event in San Francisco years ago, when CM riders created gridlock by ignoring stop lights (the purpose was supposed to be equal rights on the road, not flouting the law) and intimidating (and in some cases running into) pedestrians attempting to cross the street with the light. The net result of that particular event was to create a substantial number of motorists and pedestrians (who are also motorists at some point) hostile to cyclists. Not the smartest way to create safer streets.

Another good way is to submit reports of bad driver behavior to the Close Call Database. Documentation is important. And of course bike-cams or body-cams are an excellent source of documentation. At the same time, keep up the pressure on local elected officials. Even if they don’t ride, they do understand how to count votes. Your lone email might not have much effect, but if you can get ten or twenty or fifty other people to send one, even the most indifferent politician has to listen.

Finally, there are local bike clubs and similar groups. Unfortunately, too many of these groups focus on recreational routes and bike paths, ignoring the need for dedicated bike lanes (both for commuters and for weekend warriors) and improved attitudes on the part of law enforcement. Not long ago in La Jolla, CA, I was deliberately run into the curb by a carload of teenagers who laughed, shouted insults and flipped middle fingers as they nearly sideswiped me. The officer who responded to my 911 cellphone call -- I wanted to report them for assault -- suggested that the best way to deal with this type of problem was to quit riding.

It’s a long way from where we are to real safety for cyclists. But as we ride that road, it’s important to realize that we have to show at least as much respect as we are trying to get. And a big part of that is sharing the road with people who don’t always have your best interests at heart.

About the Author

BG Davis has been riding for 50 years, including Southern California, Idaho, O'ahu, Mexico, Brazil, Korea, and Japan. He currently lives in San Diego with his wife, his folding bike (we all slow down at some point) and dreams of biking in Portugal.