Along for the Ride: Don’t be a statistic in 2024 by using safe cycling practices

With freezing temperatures, snowy/icy roads and less daylight, winter cajoles us off the bike saddle to a safer activity, setting cycling goals. Catalogued among my past January aspirations are distance objectives, fantasy climbing feats and dreams of multi-day tours.

Like any January, however, my unspoken goal is not to be a statistic. I’m currently fixated on the sobering 39 bike fatalities in Illinois in 2023, up 50% from the recent 10-year average (26), a grim statistic reported in my 2023-in-review column, and an increase hard to fathom.

Like others, I want to feel in control when mounting my bike. Knowing the risks, I crave a single, simple explanation for these deaths, if only to trick myself into thinking, “That won’t ever happen to me.” But as a cyclist, I’m considered a vulnerable road user like pedestrians, construction zone workers and wheeled individuals with disabilities.

With more cyclists on the road, an increase in crashes isn’t surprising, but 50% more? Without understanding each fatality, speculation becomes too easy: Higher vehicle speeds, impaired or distracted driving, distracted cycling, ignorance of traffic laws, human error, plain carelessness.

Safety on multi-user trails includes a bell or shout-out when overtaking other hikers or cyclists. Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak

Sharing responsibility

It’s also too easy to point fingers, a blame game without winners. Pitting motorist against biker is nonproductive. As both a cyclist and driver, I, unfortunately, cannot claim innocence. While driving, I occasionally neglect checking both directions when turning right. While pedaling, I sometimes forget my rear blinker isn’t fully charged, reducing my visibility.

All of us share responsibility on the roadways for staying safe and for keeping others safe. We are all “along for the ride,” as this column name suggests. While biking-focused, this column presumes that everyone on two wheels, four wheels and even 18, shares responsibility for safe travel.

That’s certainly not to imply an equivalence between motorists and cyclists. Safety lapses committed by those behind a steering wheel yield graver consequences than by those behind handlebars.

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration paint a depressing picture: 10.1% increase in U.S. motor vehicle fatalities from 2020 to 2021, with 28.7% of deaths speeding-related. ( No matter one’s travel mode, speeding has become a serious issue.

In November the Illinois Department of Transportation completed its 2023 Illinois Vulnerable Road User Assessment, as required by the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021. Focused on pedestrians and bicyclists, it provides helpful insights into the contributing factors for their deaths/injuries, encompassing Illinois traffic crash data for the years 2005-2022, among other sources.

For vulnerable Illinois road users, IDOT’s assessment indicates pedestrians and cyclists account for 18% of total 2022 traffic fatalities, pedestrians sharing the greater burden at 15.3%. This percentage has remained relatively unchanged over the past five years.

Factors contributing to Illinois bicycle crashes over the 2005-2022 period differed by area. Particularly troubling is that individuals younger than 21 were factors in 37.3% of Cook County crashes and 34.5% in the collar counties.

In Cook and collar counties, aggressive driving was a factor in slightly over 16% of crashes, and right-turning vehicles in about 18%. Larger vehicles – SUVs, pickups – were factors in 23.5% of Cook County crashes and 26.5% in collar counties. Other factors included nighttime, inclement weather and hit-and-run motorists.

Encouraging more biking, particularly safe biking, has undergirded this column since its launch during the 2020 shutdown. My hope is that “safety in numbers” forms the conceptual basis of a positive feedback loop: more cyclists visible on roadways, more motorist awareness of cyclists, more cyclist safety, and so more cyclists on roadways, etc. In various communities where cycling is prevalent, that’s been my perception.

Pedestrians and cyclists on Palatine's Smith Street wait for motorists to yield after activating the crossing signal. Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak

Four basic concepts

How to avoid becoming a statistic? Considering cycling goals, nothing is achievable without staying safe. Like other cyclists, I’ve experienced my share of near-misses and mishaps. Yet how do I manage to stay safe despite riding thousands of miles every year?

Life offers no guarantees, of course, but mindful cycling has served me well. The acronym “CLAP” rooted itself in my cycling psyche several years ago after completing “Traffic Safety 101,” a safety skills course my bike club sponsored. Developed by the League of American Bicyclists, the course is now embedded in the League’s Smart Cycling curriculum.

A League-certified instructor impressed on me four basic concepts: be conspicuous, legal, aware and predictable. Plenty more tips are specific to riding safely in inclement weather, in groups of cyclists, etc. CLAP references a general orientation no matter the cycling situation. In brief …

  • Be conspicuous: Wear bright/reflective clothing. Mount a fully charged red rear light/blinker even in daytime, and white light up front as darkness approaches. Beware of motorists’ blind spots; don’t pass vehicles on the right.
  • Be legal: Obey all traffic signals like any other vehicle. Cycle with traffic flow, not against it. Ride as close to the road edge as practicable. Yield right-of-way like any road user.
  • Be aware: Check for driveway or curbside vehicles moving into the roadway. With parked vehicles, watch for doors opening; ride outside the “dooring” zone. Scan behind you and sideways to be primed for any hazards. Make eye contact with others – drivers, cyclists, pedestrians.
  • Be predictable: Employ hand signals when turning and braking. Change lane positions early and smoothly. Ride straight; avoid weaving between parked vehicles. When proceeding straight at intersections, stay out of right turn lane.

Other safety tips? Share yours. Help us all enjoy safe cycling in 2024.

Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at

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