Five Layers of Bike Safety: Tying it All Together

This will be my last post on this blog. It was conceived in the early stages of the Covid pandemic, April 2020, in response to seeing so many new people out on bikes, so early in the season (for Maine). The goal was to provide basic should-know information to people who may be taking up biking for the first time as adults, or in a long time, or ever. I hope that it  has accomplished that.

I think that I have covered the basics now, and I'll wrap it all up with a concept known as the Five Layers of Bicycle Safety. This concept was developed by Dan Gutierrez, a bicycle safety educator in California. For this post, I will present each of his slides, with commentary by Mighk Wilson, another long-time bicycle educator, a transportation planner, lifelong cyclist, and co-creator of CyclingSavvy.

 The Five Layers of Bicycle Safety

In Dan's words, "The important talking point about this diagram is that the layers are cumulative and build upon each other, with the first 4 to eliminate crashes, to hopefully NEVER reach layer 5, which is only useful AFTER a crash occurs. The main motivation for making this diagram is to show that bicyclist skill development is the 1st through 4th lines of crash avoidance, and that helmet use does NOTHING to avoid crashes, but is useful if a crash occurs."

 Layer 1: Control Your Bicycle (Don’t fall or collide with others)


Mighk: If you can skillfully control your bike by starting, stopping, and turning properly, you will not fall down all by yourself or run into others. Do this and you cut out about half of your injury risk. To ride in groups, a cyclist must have good bike handling skills.

Properly functioning equipment is also included in this layer. You can't properly control a bike that doesn't work right! That's why, way back at the beginning of this blog, I introduced the "ABC Quick Check" for this purpose:

I covered night riding, and other visibility add-ons, in

Another safety option discussed in that last link was mirrors, which is a convenient way to monitor what's going on behind you. But being able to turn your head without swerving nonetheless still an important skill to learn, because mirrors have blind spots. Just as you don't change lanes in a car without glancing over your left shoulder, you should do the same on a bike. (Or right shoulder, if necessary.)

Layer 2: Follow the Rules (Don’t cause traffic crashes)

Mighk: Follow traffic laws, obey signs and signals, use headlights and tail-lights at night, and use the correct lanes for turns and through movements, and you won’t cause a collision with a motorist. About half of cyclist/motorist crashes are caused by cyclists who violate the basic rules of the road. But you don’t do that, right? Combine Layers 1 and 2 and you cut about 75% of your injury risk.

The biggest rule violation I see bicyclists making is riding against traffic. It may seem like common sense at first, because it is easier to see cars coming at you, but it is actually 3 times more dangerous! You are coming from an unexpected direction, and at a greater closing speed! That is why I wrote

It is also good to note that apart from the safety problems of not following the rules of the road, you are also creating greater financial liability for yourself if you get into a crash with a car (or another bicycle). If you weren't following the law, which applies equally to bicyclists (Maine, see paragraph 5), you will likely be blamed for the crash and won't be able to recover any money for injury or damage from the other  party. You may even be liable for theirs!

Layer 3: Lane Positioning (Discourage other driver’s mistakes)

Mighk: Knowing when to use the full lane or to share a lane is something few cyclists fully understand. Your position in a lane is the best way to make yourself conspicuous, to tell drivers what you are doing, and to discourage them from making unsafe movements. Many of these effective lane positioning principles have been forgotten by the modern cycling community, so they may be contrary to what you’ve been taught! Combine Layers 1, 2 and 3 and you cut out about 99% of all potential crashes.

This has been the biggest revelation to me, and frankly took me years to really internalize. The ironic thing is that lane control is not hard to do, physically. But it is so counter-intuitive in this "roads are for  cars, stay out of the road" culture, that it can be difficult to believe that you can do it, should do it, or even think about doing in the first place.

Returning for a moment to the Bike Control layer, the basic skills you need to utilize lane control are:

You also need lights at night, obviously.

I introduced the why's and how's of lane control in these 2 articles:

A third article, Knowledge That Could Save Your Life, focused on two especially dangerous situations that cyclists on roads must be aware of: getting hit by right-turning trucks, and getting hit by an opening door of a parked car. Being farther into the lane (and never passing a stopped truck on the right) prevents these and other conflicts.

Layer 4: Hazard Avoidance (Avoid the other driver’s mistakes)

Mighk: There are evasive maneuvers you should know that can help you avoid major motorist mistakes or dodge obstacles. Knowing how to stop and turn quickly helps you avoid motorist mistakes that aren’t discouraged by lane positioning. These skills are not instinctive and must be taught.

Common motorist mistakes to watch out for include:

  • Not looking your way at intersections
  • Not stopping for a stop sign or a red light
  • Passing you and then slowing down (they may have suddenly realized they want to turn right)
  • Passing you on the way to a stop sign and then having to stop on the wrong side of the street 
  • Wanting to pass despite approaching a blind spot where they can't see opposing traffic

Besides watching out for these driver errors, situational awareness also includes looking at the road ahead for surface hazards or other problems that may require you to slow down, move left or even stop. Situational awareness is a need on trails as well, which I mentioned in Coexisting on Shared Use Paths. In all circumstances, cyclists should always yield to pedestrians!

Another situation calling for heightened awareness is riding in low sun, either sunrise or sunset. The most obvious problem is riding into the sun, limiting your own vision and that of drivers behind you. But even if a low sun is not right in front of you, be aware that it may in front of others to your left, right, or front, who may need to see you in an intersection. Be extra cautious, and consider using an alternate route. Flashing lights may also help. An easy way to figure out what direction danger might come from is that your long shadow points towards the people who can't see you.

Regarding emergency maneuvers, in the B is for Brakes article, I covered how to not go over the handlebars when braking hard or downhill. The "quick stop" is an emergency braking maneuver that is actually taught in bike classes, and which you can practice on your own, in a safe place, and wearing a helmet. Other common emergency maneuvers which I did not write about are the "quick turn" and the "rock dodge". Both are covered well here, by another CyclingSavvy instructor, John S. Allen.

Layer 5: Passive Safety (Protection when all else fails)


Mighk: This is actually the least effective layer. Helmets and gloves protect your most vulnerable body parts as a last resort in case of the very rare failure of layers 1 through 4, but they do nothing to help you avoid crashes.

 When all else fails, you may be glad you were wearing a helmet, which I covered in my More Safety Options post!

The Ride From Here

If you are one who took up riding again (or for the first time) last spring, I hope you are still riding here in late summer, and that you will continue until the snow flies. (Or beyond!) You may have started with just riding around your neighborhood, or on paths. Maybe you've seen all your local streets and paths by now, and are wondering about how to go farther, or into unknown places. Maybe, like me, you'd like to try riding for transportation. But you may be feeling unsure of your ability to do that. Traffic! Equipment!

Much of the knowledge I've presented in this series is stuff that can be picked up with experience. But that takes longer, and carries the risk of finding out personally why that method of learning is sometimes called "the school of hard knocks". I am thankful that I have learned a lot of this stuff before a crash forced me to learn it. The Internet is full of stories of cyclists who have been doored, sideswiped, hit at intersections. You may even had heard them from some of your friends and family. Many of these are not the cyclist's fault, but that's not to say that safety techniques like lane control couldn't have prevented them. In many cases, it can. I have seen it work for me and my cycling friends. Even my close calls have decreased dramatically since I learned this stuff. As CyclingSavvy co-founder Keri Caffrey says, "it's amazing how much smarter the motorists got when I changed my behavior!"


How to learn without putting your body on the line? Take a class! For my money, the best cycling class in the United States is CyclingSavvy, a program of the American Bicycling Education Association. With Mighk's lifelong cycling experience and transportation planning knowledge, illustrated with Keri's graphic design skills, this program offers the best classroom and online presentations of key concepts, presented in an enjoyable and low pressure in-person experience, or online. There is no test at the end. Learning is through discussion and sociable group riding.

Interested? Here are your options, updated for Covid:

  • Zoom Classroom: Although no in-person classroom sessions are being conducted, we are experimenting with Zoom-based virtual classrooms. Click here to sign up for a 4-session series of 1 hour each on Wednesday evenings in September. $32.00
  • Free "Essentials" online course: This free membership will give you access to the Essentials Mini-Course, Smart Moves posts and other great content. You’ll also get the Savvy Cyclist e-newsletter, with course listings, event updates and great stories from CyclingSavvy grads and fellow members.
  • CyclingSavvy Basics: In this self-paced online course, we show you how common crashes happen, and how to maximize your safety with a handful of smart strategies that virtually eliminate those conflicts. $35 $17.50 Covid Rate
  • CyclingSavvy Mastery: This online course will take you from being safe to being a Master of the Awesome Ride! You’ll learn to read the street and traffic system in a whole new way. Motorists will do what you want them to do — not through conflict, but through a combination of subtle moves and clear, obvious signals. And so much more. $75 $37.50 Covid Rate
  • "Ride Awesome" Premium Membership: This provides lifetime access to all current and future online courses (excluding professional certification courses), including our two current online series, CyclingSavvy Basic & CyclingSavvy Mastery. $100 $50 Covid Rate
  • In Person Courses: Before the pandemic, we offered an in-person classroom presentation of the above online content, followed by a parking lot skills class, and a group ride on city streets. Although we shut down our in-person courses with Covid, some of our lead instructors are currently experimenting with Zoom classes and Covid-cautioned in-person sessions. Here in Maine, it's probably too late for 2020, but I am definitely following their progress and hope to get back to personal teaching in 2021. Leave a comment if you'd like to get on my mailing list.

I hope this blog has been helpful to you. Be safe, and

See You Around Town!




  1. Thanks for these blog articles, new tricks for old dogs like me. As appealing as the discounted online classes are I'll wait for the in person one.


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