The author, her bike, and that annoying proclamation.

— By BikePortland subscriber, Bike Loud PDX volunteer and southeast Portland resident Missy LeDoux

“Be safe out there!”

I hear that phrase almost every day. In the past, I’d get the occasional “drive home safe!” after an event, but I could usually leave the grocery store, the library, or my office without anyone remarking on my safety. But that was when I was in a car. Now I’m on a bike.

When I meet up with friends to see a movie, I hop on my yellow vintage Raleigh mountain bike, adapted for city streets, fitted with tires perfect for Portland’s roads, potholes, and speed bumps.

It’s the default thing people say to a 20-something woman commuting home in what’s viewed as an unsafe fashion. So I need to point out why this way of speaking isn’t helping anyone – and what cyclists actually want instead.

I’ve lived in the Portland metro area for most of my life. I’m in my 20s, white, and female. I live on Hawthorne Blvd, one of the busiest streets in Southeast Portland. I used to drive every day. Now I get around mostly by bus, walking – or on my trusty bike. And now, when I leave an event – helmet and pannier bags in hand – I’m almost always met with that response:

“Be safe out there!” Or this one: “Are you sure you don’t want a ride?” Or even: “Seriously? You can’t do that, it’s dark out. I’m giving you a ride.”

Sometimes it’s friends or family members, who I know mean well. Sometimes it’s complete strangers, fully unsolicited. Just two nights ago, a random man walking toward his car turned and looked at me as I biked past him on the greenway and shouted, “Get home safe, lady!”

You might be thinking: what’s wrong with that? They care. They want you to be safe. It’s a nice thing to say. And I know that everyone means well, from close friends to strangers on the streets. If you’ve said this to me before, don’t worry – I didn’t write this article as an elaborate clap-back. I’m not here to call you out by name. I probably took it in stride and focused on the intention you put behind it.

But it keeps happening. It’s the default thing people say to a 20-something woman commuting home in what’s viewed as an unsafe fashion. So I need to point out why this way of speaking isn’t helping anyone – and what cyclists actually want instead.

Problem #1: We’re talking about it wrong

Let’s look at that phrase again. This is going to get pedantic for a second. Bear with me.

“Be safe out there!” is a complete sentence. It contains an implied subject: the word “You.” “[You] be safe out there.” As in “You” the cyclist.

The statement uses the imperative tense, also known as the command tense. “[You] be safe out there.”

It’s saying: “You need to behave a certain way.” No matter how kindly it’s said, it’s an instruction. Do you see the problem?

It implies that the safety of the cyclist is their own responsibility. It implies that when I bike home, it’s my job not to get hit by a car.  It implies that I could force a driver to look over their right shoulder before making a turn. That I could make them hit the brakes. That I could stop several tons of metal propelled by burning fuel from crashing directly into my unprotected body. That in the battle of human vs. machine, some small lights on my bike and a white line on the pavement will be enough to protect me.

A quick side note. I’m not throwing away my responsibilities as a cyclist here. I’m aware that I need to take safety precautions – and I do. There are two lights on the front of my bike, one light on the back, bright yellow and pink pannier bags attached to my already bright yellow bike, high-visibility reflectors, and of course, a good quality helmet expertly fitted to my head. I stick to bike lanes and greenways as much as I can (despite my legal rights in Oregon). I signal when I’m going to turn, I’m aware of my surroundings, and I give cars plenty of room.

Whether these precautions should be necessary is another topic, but regardless, I take them. I’m doing my part.

But I’m not safely tucked into a giant cage designed with airbags, seatbelts, and emergency brakes. I’m muscle and marrow balanced on a thin aluminum frame. I’m about as protected as a baked potato wrapped in tin foil. There’s an unmistakable power imbalance at play here.

When we put the safety of cyclists on their own shoulders, we ignore the disparity between the privilege of car drivers and the vulnerability of cyclists. Defensive Driving puts it like this: “The worst that a motorist will get in a car-bike collision is a dent in their car, the best that a cyclist can hope for is to live.”

Problem #2: No one says it to drivers

Your actions behind the wheel are exponentially more powerful than my actions at the handlebars.

Lots of people tell each other to get home safe when they leave an event, especially at night. When drivers say it to each other, they’re thinking about other cars on the road who might run a red light or swerve into their lane. But no one reminds drivers to care about the safety of cyclists.

Despite the obvious vulnerability of cyclists and the clear protectedness of cars, drivers are only ever cautioned about… other cars.

No one ever tells drivers, “Make sure to give cyclists space on the road.” No one says “Have a great night, and remember to check the bike lane before you turn!” But drivers’ actions impact cyclist safety more than any action a cyclist could take. One small choice made by a driver could undo every safety precaution a cyclist took that night. It only takes one second of distracted driving, one drift into a bike lane, one right turn where you forgot to check your mirror.

According to the CDC, “Every day, almost 3,700 people are killed globally in crashes involving cars, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, trucks, or pedestrians. More than half of those killed are pedestrians, motorcyclists, or cyclists.”

My helmet might save my life if I accidentally hit a pothole and eat it on the pavement. It won’t stop the force of a 5,000-pound SUV slamming into me. Your actions behind the wheel are exponentially more powerful than my actions at the handlebars.

My point: focus on what you can control.

Want your cyclist friends to get home safe? Stop telling them. Start driving in a way that makes the roads a safer place for everyone.

Here are some things cyclists actually want you to do:

  1. Ride with us. Instead of offering us a seat in your car, grab a bike and join us. Cyclists have strength in numbers; it’s easier for drivers to see a group of bikes than just one. Plus, you’ll get some exercise and a fresh view of your city.
  2. Stay out of our lanes. I don’t care if you’re only stopping for a second to pick up your friend. I don’t care if your hazard lights are on. Stay out. When you’re in the bike lane, whether you’re stopped or moving, your actions push us into lanes where we’re unprotected and unwanted. When we bike in the lane with cars, we get yelled at and honked at on the low end, and run over on the extreme end (recent tragedies in Chicago serve as a grave reminder of this issue). Stay where you’re supposed to be so we can stay where we’re supposed to be.
  3. Pass us safely. We’re allowed to be on the road with cars when there’s not a dedicated bike lane, or when our bike lane is obstructed. We know we’re slowing you down. You’re not alone in wishing we weren’t in your way – cyclists would also prefer if we had a protected bike lane far away from motorists (I see you, Cambridge). But since that’s rarely the case, we need your cooperation. Take a deep breath and exercise a little bit of patience. When it’s safe to do so, pass us slowly and give us a wide berth. I’m talking a FULL lane of passing space – not straddling the middle line. Need I remind you, we have little to no exterior protection. Passing us too closely puts us in serious physical danger. According to this law firm, a vehicle attempting to overtake a cyclist is “typically the biggest threat to cyclists.”
  4. Look before turning. In addition to being generally aware of your surroundings on the road, take extra caution before turning. Right hooks are one of the most common and deadly car-on-bike collisions. Check your mirrors and look over both shoulders before you turn – even if you don’t see a dedicated bike lane.
  5. Signal even when there are no other cars. There might be a bike around that you either can’t see or didn’t take the time to look for. If you signal before turning, it gives us the information we need to make safer choices.
  6. Learn our signals. I’ve heard countless stories from drivers about a bike that cut them off. I’m sure some of them are true, but I always wonder if the cyclist may have signaled and the driver just didn’t know. Cyclists use the four official legal hand signals, which you (hopefully) learned before taking your driver’s test. (Here are the Oregon ones.) Brush up on these if you’ve forgotten them. But there are also other hand signals some cyclists use, and if you take the time to learn them, it helps us communicate with you on the road.
  7. Yield to us. According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, “Bicyclists are allowed to use a pedestrian crosswalk to cross a street – treat them as you would any pedestrian.” That means stopping when you see us waiting at a crosswalk, whether we’re on or off our bike, and yielding to us before making a turn. We’re not looking for special treatment. We just want our legal rights respected. 

Telling cyclists to be safe on their ride home doesn’t accomplish anything. What helps is drivers learning how to make the roads safer for cyclists. Focus on your own actions. Talk to the cyclists in your life and learn what they need from you. Maybe they aren’t going to dissect your well-intentioned words in an article like I did. But they need you to do your part in helping keep them safe. They’re already doing theirs.

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