Biking is one of the most accessible exercise and outdoor recreation choices for individuals, couples and families in the DC area. With more than a dozen bike trails in the region to explore and countless bike lanes being added to county and city streets, it’s easy to enjoy a long ride, quick outing or even a commute to work.
As with any outdoor activity, bike safety should always come first and being prepared from the start of your ride is the best way to prevent accident and injury.
From mapping your route to choosing a proper helmet and deciding the best way to make your presence known at dawn or dusk, here are some bike safety recommendations and tips to keep you on the road or trail and out of harm’s way.
1. Map Your Route
Thanks to GPS technology, a host of wayfinding and cycling apps are available for your mobile device to help you plan your route, stay on the right path and avoid any last minute turns that could lead to an accident. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) is a great source for digital tools and maps of great rides in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
2. Choose a Proper-Fitting Helmet
A proper-fitting helmet is the most important piece of bike safety equipment for every family member. While it is an extremely safe sport, cycling accidents cause a half million injuries a year requiring emergency care, according to the CDC. When you go biking with the family, it’s important to know local helmet laws, especially if you are cycling on trails in jurisdictions outside your hometown.
In the region, helmets are required for all children under 16 riding bikes in the District and in Maryland. For Montgomery County, the age is raised to children under 18. In Virginia, some, but not all, counties and cities require helmets for children under 14. These include Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties, and the following cities and towns where local ordinances exist: Alexandria, Falls Church, Leesburg, Manassas, Manassas Park, Purcellville and Vienna.
Regardless of age, helmets are strongly recommended for any rider.
In choosing a helmet, pick a model that can easily be adjusted to provide a snug fit so it stays in place on your head without being uncomfortably tight. Chin straps should also be snug.
Helmets outfitted with a newer technology called MIPS (Multi-Directional Impact Protection System) are generally believed to provide the best protection. These models feature a thin liner inside the helmet that allows the outer shell to slide across the head on impact and reduce the rotational force that cause concussions.
3. Learn How to Adjust Your Helmet
Montgomery County Fire and Rescue provides some great instructions and diagrams to help you properly place a helmet on the head. Helmets should cover the top of the forehead and sit just above the eyebrows (leave two fingers between the eyebrows and the helmet front). A common error is having a helmet sit back too far on your head.
In adjusting the straps, shake your head. The helmet should stay in place and not move back and forth. Straps should be adjusted just under the ear at the jawbone.
For proper bike safety, replace helmets every five years or immediately after any incident. The foam inside the helmet is only constructed to withstand one accident, and excessive heat can also cause the foam padding to be compromised.
4. Don’t Forget Reflective Gear
Gear in fluorescent colors with reflective strips help you stand out to vehicle drivers on the road at any time of day and should be standard attire whenever you ride early in the morning, at dusk or at night. A simple slip-on safety vest that costs no more than $15 to $20 does the job, but more fashionable and comfortable reflective bike shirts and jackets may be preferred for regular riders.
Battery-operated reflective bands for the wrist and ankles also help you stand out by blinking to alert drivers on the road. Other reflective garments available to riders include helmet shells, shoe covers and gloves to promote bike safety.
5. Light It Up
Between sunset and sunrise and in low visibility conditions such as rain or fog, all jurisdictions in the region require riders to have a white headlight on the front of the bike or on their helmet that is visible from 500 feet. At the rear, a red reflector is required that can be seen from 600 feet (just 300 feet in the District).
Riders who bike on roads with street lamps should consider a headlight with a narrow-focus beam, but on dark roads and trails, a wide-focus beam promotes peripheral vision.
Be sure to monitor your headlamp usage for battery life and consider models with longer-lasting capabilities or rechargeable system capabilities. LED lights are more efficient.
Additional front, rear and side safety lights and reflectors at lower brightness levels provide extra safety to make your presence known on the road. Rear reflectors can be added to packs and seat posts. Side lights can be mounted to spokes, frames and pedals.
6. Make Some Noise
A simple bike bell mounted to your handle bar and within easy reach is an important addition for cyclists riding high-traffic trails where frequent passing is required. For many cyclists, however, verbal communication to alert drivers ahead is preferred – “Passing on your left.”
In street traffic, 120-decibel bike horns as loud as those found in most cars will get others’ attention.
7. Get Expert Advice
Local bike shops in the region can provide great recommendations on best bike safety gear for you and your family. Some top choices include:
District of Columbia
Bicycle Pro Shop, Georgetown
Conte’s Bike Shop, Cathedral Commons, Navy Yard
Arrow Bicycles, Hyattsville
Germantown Cycles, Germantown
Griffin Cycle, Bethesda
Performance Bike, Rockville
Silver Cycles, Kensington and Silver Spring
Bicycle Pro Shop, Alexandria
Conte’s Bike Shop, Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church
Spokes, Etc. Bicycles, Arlington, Belle View, Fairfax, Leesburg, Vienna