As part of a yearly tradition celebrating our births, Sheldon and I often exchange gifts. The past number of years, said gifts have been almost exclusively coffee, alcohol or cycling related – This isn’t something I really see changing – After all, what else does you really need?

Most recently, I received a book called “Just Ride” by Grant Petersen. The book is a collection of 89 ‘micro-essays’ on cycling – Easy to pick up, easy to read and each piece, a nice bite-sized thought on a particular aspect of riding. There are ideas that I can fully get behind, some that make me think, and some that I disagree with, but generally the book has been a fun read.

Though I haven’t finished, there was one nugget of brilliance that resonated so strongly with me I decided to field-test it and report back to you. The advice that caught my attention was what he called the “The Safety Swerve.”

In the essay Grant speaks to the fact that after extensive studies, British psychologist and traffic researcher Ian Walker determined that motorists gave the most room to helmet-less women and plain-clothed riders… Essentially riders that don’t look like they know what they’re doing (whether this assumption is based on stereotype or not). This pretty much aligns with my spandex-clad experience, since the distance by which I’m passed can usually be measured in microns ;-)

Grants advice is as follows:

The logical conclusion from this is to look like – or be – a woman and ride helmet less, but that may not be practical. There is another way: the safety swerve. You’re riding down a road, glance back quickly and note a car bearding down. Most cyclists react by riding closer to the edge of the road. That’s what the driver wants you to do – defer to them, give them more elbow room, get the heck out of the way. Here’s another option: With the car three or four seconds behind you (it helps to have a bike mirror), wiggle a bit or swerve for an instant. Look unsteady or oblivious. Reach your left arm skyward or outward to stretch it or shake it. Your goal isn’t to freak out the driver. It’s to appear slightly unsteady on the bike and unaware that a car’s approaching, so the driver will pass you more carefully. Be aware, ride with precision, but give cars reasons to pass you with a little extra caution.

A disclaimer: With certainty – I consider this an advanced technique, especially given it’s potential implications. Should you decide to give this a go, please be careful, please be controlled. I cannot take any responsibility for your actions, so you should.

Now, as mentioned, I’ve been testing this, both out on the road and on my commute and almost without fail, it works flawlessly – Though I have learned to use it somewhat judiciously. The two places I’ve derived the best value of this technique are:

  • In residential areas (commuting) – Where motorists are anxiously speeding their way to clogged main arteries and are often jockeying for position and speeding to get ahead of others.
  • On secondary highways (road riding) – Either where drivers are too discourteous to slide over to a completely empty oncoming lane to give you a bit of room, or to heighten their awareness of you when there’s an car coming in the other direction as well.

On roads with wider shoulders I generally don’t find any problems with traffic, the same applies to congested traffic near the heart of the city. Cyclists are a regular occurrence, and drivers seem to know that they’re going nowhere fast, so I’ve never really felt at ill-ease.

Just Ride

Generally, I also try to perform this technique with consideration to motorists in mind – especially on the highway since the stakes are much higher. In these cases I promptly tuck myself neatly to the shoulder after performing a “safety swerve”… When cresting blind hills or with oncoming traffic I find this to be the only sane approach.

I would hazard a guess that even the biggest asshole on the road doesn’t actually want to hit you… They just want to scare you, don’t see you, or don’t care. After all, you don’t belong on “their” road anyway. This simple technique, when executed properly not only ensures that you’re going to register in their consciousness, but that they may even give you that extra little bit of breathing room as they go roaring past.