How to be a Virtuous Cyclist

Cyclescheme, 27.03.2015

How to be a Virtuous Cyclist

Getting on well with other road users will make your journey to work safer and more pleasant, and help improve attitudes to cycling too.

Some people don’t like cyclists much. They’ll use any cyclist’s transgression to shore up this prejudice and justify poor behaviour of their own - for example, deliberately overtaking cyclist B too closely (a ‘punishment pass’) because they saw cyclist A ignoring a red light. This kind of us-and-them mentality doesn’t help anyone. We’re all just people trying to get somewhere. Some idiots drive cars, some idiots ride bikes; that’s all there is to it. What you can do as a commuter cyclist is not get drawn into the argument. If your own road behaviour is beyond reproach, you’ll get a better reaction from the vast majority of drivers. And you’ll reinforce the idea that cyclists are road users who are entitled to the same respect as anyone else.

1. Stop at red lights

Stop at red lights

In the Netherlands, cyclists are sometimes permitted to go through red lights when turning right – the equivalent of a left turn in the UK. Here it’s flat out illegal to run a red light. Doing so could see you hit with a fine in the form of a Fixed Penalty Notice. It also infuriates other road users, despite the fact that drivers cause almost ten times more accidents by running red lights than cyclists do. Department for Transport figures show that ‘disobeying automatic traffic signals’ was a contributory factor in 1% of cycle accidents and 1% of car accidents in 2013. That's 187 and 1,664 accidents respectively. You will see other cyclists – and drivers – running red lights. Don’t imitate them.

2. Don’t ride on the pavement

Unless it’s a shared-use path, you’re not allowed to cycle on it. You risk a Fixed Penalty Notice – and the ire of all the pedestrians on that pavement. The anger that pavement cycling causes is disproportionate when compared to the danger posed by drivers on pavements. Department for Transport statistics show that well over over 100 pedestrians were killed by vehicles on ‘footways or verges’ between 2009 and 2013; one pedestrian was killed in an incident with a cyclist on a footway/verge in that period. Nevertheless, pavement cycling causes distress even when it doesn’t cause physical harm. And it’s illegal. Don’t do it.

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3. Be polite on shared-use paths

Don’t behave to pedestrians on shared paths like bad drivers do to you on the road. If you want to ride fast, ride on the road. On a shared path, slow down. Ring your bell. You do have a bell? If not, a courteous ‘Good morning’ will alert pedestrians who haven’t heard you. Give them plenty of room when you pass. Thank them if they step to one side. Sometimes pedestrians or their dogs will wander over the dividing line of a shared path into the cyclists’ bit. Don’t ‘punishment pass’ them. No one likes a rules Nazi.

4. Use effective lights

It’s a legal requirement to have cycle lights between dusk and dawn. Cycling without lights risks a Fixed Penalty Notice. It also makes it harder for other road users to spot you, so increases your risk of an accident. While you want your lights to be bright, avoid front lights that are too bright. Headlamps intended for mountain biking at night can dazzle other road users. This is an offence. The Highway Code says: ‘You MUST NOT use any lights in a way which would dazzle or cause discomfort to other road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders.’

5. Signal clearly

Signal Clearly

Signalling stops other road users from having to guess what you’re going to do next. This vastly increases your own safety, because they know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Don’t just stick a finger out. Hold your whole arm out horizontally, so that your intentions are unambiguous. Click here for more on communicating with drivers.

6. Don’t tailgate

Don’t cycle too close to a vehicle or cyclist in front. It’s off-putting for them; the attention that they have to give to you might force them to make an error. It’s risky for you as well. At any given speed, cars can stop quicker than bikes, so if the driver has to stop suddenly, you could go into the back of the vehicle. If you go into the back of another cyclist, meanwhile, you’ll both crash.

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7. Acknowledge good behaviour

If a driver has waited patiently behind you for an appropriate place to pass, give them a friendly wave or thumbs up sign when they do pass. Likewise when a driver pauses because it’s your right of way. You’ll make them feel like a virtuous driver – and they are. It’s a small step in reinforcing good behaviour.

8. Avoid confrontation

Conversely, when a driver overtakes too closely or does something else that’s poorly thought out and dangerous, resist the temptation to swear and flick them a hand signal. It creates a confrontation out of what might have been a mistake, and it’s oil on the fiery tempers of the real idiots. If you want to fight back, don’t raise your fist: buy a helmet camera and take the evidence of bad driving to the police.

9. Park your bike sensibly

Locking your bike to street furniture is sometimes the only practical option when parking your bike. The Highway Code says: ‘do not leave it where it would cause an obstruction or hazard to other road users’ and ‘secure it well so that it will not fall over and become an obstruction or hazard.’ The word MUST is not used, so it’s not law. It’s just common decency. What if the next person to come by can’t pass because they’ve got a pushchair or a wheelchair.

10. Help out fellow cyclists


If you spot a cyclist who is lost or has a mechanical problem that you might be able to fix, stop and help. It’s good manners and good karma. Encouraging them to keep cycling is good for you too, because cycling gets safer the more cyclists there are. There’s a safety in numbers effect.

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