You can dramatically increase your safety on the road by:
- Making sure your bike is in good working order
- Observing traffic laws
- Being aware of road conditions
Under Wisconsin law, bicycles are vehicles. That means that bicyclists on the road have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers of motor vehicles. If you know the laws that apply to driving a car, you know the laws that apply to bicycling. By obeying traffic signs and signals, following all other rules of the road and bicycling in a predictable manner, you’ll find more courtesy and respect on the road.
Watch this 7-minute safety video from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for some great tips about cycling in traffic. Traffic tips begin about four-and-a-half minutes into the video.
A note about crashes:
Bicycling has an undeserved bad rap when it comes to safety. Riding a bicycle is incredibly safe already, and the crash rate has decreased steadily for the last 15 years or so. Yet when you ask people what their greatest fear is about riding a bike, the answer is often, “Getting hit by a car.” As long as you follow these tips below and obey the law, you can join the more than 2.5 million people who enjoy safe bicycle rides in Wisconsin every year.
Ride with traffic
Always ride in the same direction as other traffic – including on one-way streets. Some people believe that bicyclists are like pedestrians and should travel facing motor vehicle traffic. This is illegal and has been shown to dramatically increase the risk of a collision because:
- Drivers don’t expect you to be there and won’t be looking for you
- Bicyclists traveling in the proper direction will have difficulty avoiding a collision with you.
- It forces you into oncoming traffic if you need to swerve
- You can’t see road signs
- You can’t make proper turns
The “closing speed” (velocity at impact) between you and another road user makes a collision more dangerous
Ride as far to the right as practicable
Wisconsin law requires bicyclists to ride “as close as practicable” to the right of the road. “Practicable” generally means safe and reasonable; it does not mean hugging the curb. You should right far enough from the shoulder to be able to maneuver around debris or hazardous objects you come upon without having to swerve into traffic.
A major exception to the principle of riding on the right occurs on one-way streets with two or more lanes. In such cases, one should ride as far to the right or left as practicable. See Wisconsin state statute 346.80(2)(b).
You are required by Wisconsin law to exercise due care when passing parked cars. (View this video on our YouTube channel for a more detailed illustration of what safe distance from parked cars looks like.) You must give parked or stopped buses at least three feet of space.
When passing moving vehicles, you must pass on the left and allow a safe distance between yourself and the other vehicle. If the moving vehicle you’re passing happens to be a bicycle, it’s always polite to give a friendly audible warning, such as a bell ring or a “Hello – passing on your left.”
Know when to ‘take the lane’
According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, you should ‘take the lane’ if you are traveling at or close to the speed of motor vehicle traffic.
You should also take the lane if it is too narrow for a bicycle and a motor vehicle to travel safely side by side (with three feet of clearance), you should ride in the center of the lane. If you are concerned that this will impede motor vehicle traffic, you can pull off the road (if it is safe to do so) to allow motor vehicles to pass, but do not hug the curb. This could tempt motorists to pass without giving you adequate clearance.
In some instances, you may be legally required to pull off the road to allow a motor vehicle to pass, but never when pulling off would be unsafe. For more information, please see Wisconsin statute 346.59, minimum speed regulation.
Use hand signals
According to Wisconsin state statute 346.34(1)(b), bicyclists must signal their intention to turn for the 50 feet prior to making their turn, as long as signaling does not interfere with operating the bicycle. Note the Bike Fed had our state law changed to now allow the use of the alternate right turn hand signal circled in the diagram.
The short video (below right) illustrates, in less than two minutes, how to signal turns and stops. Please not that, in Wisconsin, the legal standard for the right-turn signal is the left arm raised with hand and forearm pointing upward.
Signals and stop signs
Because bicycles are vehicles, operators must obey all traffic signals and signs the same as if they were driving a car. That means coming to a complete stop at stop signs and stopping (and waiting through) red lights.
Wisconsin statute 346.37(1)(c)(4) does outline one exception to this rule for operators of bicycles, motorcycles, mopeds and motorbikes. The exception is for intersections where the lights are controlled by vehicle-actuated sensors – that is, the light will only change when it senses that a vehicle is present. Some sensors do not pick up smaller vehicles, such as bicycles and motorcycles, and therefore will not change no matter how long the operator waits at the light. If you are on a bicycle and have waited at least 45 seconds at a red light, and you believe the light only changes color when it senses the presence of a motor vehicle, you may proceed through the intersection if it is safe to do so
Here’s what the statute says:
A motorcycle, moped, motor bicycle, or bicycle facing a red signal at an intersection may, after stopping as required under subd. 1. for not less than 45 seconds, proceed cautiously through the intersection before the signal turns green if no other vehicles are present at the intersection to actuate the signal and the operator of the motorcycle, moped, motor bicycle, or bicycle reasonably believes the signal is vehicle actuated. The operator of a motorcycle, moped, motor bicycle, or bicycle proceeding through a red signal under this subdivision shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicular traffic, pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device proceeding through a green signal at the intersection or lawfully within a crosswalk or using the intersection.
Be aware of what is going on around you, both in terms of roadway conditions as well as other traffic. Watch the road for hazards like sand, broken glass, potholes and railroad tracks. Watch side streets, driveways, alleys and parked cars for traffic that may enter the street in front of you or turn across your path. Remember that trees, shrubs, fences, bright sunlight and darkness can make it difficult for you to see and for others to see you. Adapt your riding style to minimize these and other hazards.
Learn where crashes are most likely to happen
While the overwhelming majority of bike crashes do not involve cars, it’s important to learn how to avoid collisions with cars. You can do your part by following the tips above and further protect yourself by learning the most common motorist errors that lead to car-bike collisions. Once you know them, you will be better equipped to spot motorists who may be about to make a driving error.
This list of guidelines for safe and legal riding is not comprehensive. For more information, please visit our Wisconsin bicycle laws page, review the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Rules for Riding Bicycles on the Road or contact the Bike Fed.