Bike safety in Montana
Now that the snow has melted, the sun is shining and summer has officially begun, Montanans all across the state will begin taking part in the many adventurous summertime activities that they are known for. One of the favorite activities for many is biking all over this beautiful area. You may have already noticed the increase in bicyclists along the roads and in the parks, so now is a good time to remind yourself of the extra precautions to take both when riding a bike and when around bicyclists.
The single most important precaution a cyclist can take while riding is wearing a helmet. “You can repair broken bones, but your brain is one of those organs that if you damage it significantly, you may never be the same,” says Dan Daub, injury prevention coordinator at Kalispell Regional Healthcare (KRH). A key component of that is making sure that your helmet is properly fitted. A helmet that isn’t fitted properly can be just as ineffective as not wearing a helmet at all. It’s important to make sure your helmet fits tight enough that it covers your forehead and doesn’t tip back. That way if you were to get knocked from your bike, the helmet won’t come loose.
Being aware of your surroundings is also another critical precaution to take. Refrain from using headphones while biking, especially while on the road, as it’s important to hear what’s going on around you. Always use all your senses! You should never text while biking either. Occupying your eyes or your ears with other things can only increase your chances of getting in a bike accident.
Before doing any road biking, make sure you first understand the rules of the road. Bicyclists should always bike on the right hand side with traffic rather than against it. Also, if available, bike lanes should always be used. Many people aren’t aware of this, but bicyclists are required to follow the same traffic laws as motorists. They are required to stop at any stop signs or red lights just like vehicles are. When riding along a road or highway with other bicyclists, always ride single file to stay out of the road. This will allow vehicles to pass you safely. Learning to signal turns on a bike is critical as well. View this guide from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to understand the hand signals.
Because of how important it is to educate people about bike safety, KRH’s Injury Prevention Team sponsored the annual Spring Into Safety Kids Day this past May, a free event that focused on safety, education, injury prevention and fun. At the event, kids had their bikes checked for maintenance, helmets fitted properly and also learned about bike safety from the Montana Highway Patrol. In all, more than 950 helmets were given away and fitted at the event. The helmet giveaway was made possible through a grant from Flathead Electric's Round UP For Safety program. Each year the grant pays for roughly 1,000 helmets that are given away at Spring Into Safety Kids Day, the Libby Health Fair, Senior Safety Day and after the Northwest Montana Fair.
While it’s in the bicyclists’ control to take the proper bike safety precautions, that may not always be enough. When riding on roads, a large part of bike safety relies on the caution of motorists. In 2017, there were 783 bicyclists killed in motor vehicle crashes in the United States according to the NHTSA. Educating motorists on bike safety is as imperative to safe biking as educating bicyclists. “We’ve got some pretty challenging roads for biking here in Montana,” says Daub. “It’s important that motorists be aware of what to do when around bicyclists.”
Motorists should know that bicyclists have every right to be on the road with them and that honking or swerving toward them can cause serious bodily injury. Like bicyclists, motorists should always be aware of their surroundings. If pulling off of the highway, make sure that there are no bicyclists on the shoulder. On smaller roads where there isn’t as much shoulder room, you should always pass bicyclists with extreme caution. The general rule is to give about half a lane of space between the cyclist and your vehicle as you pass them. This means you will need to cross the centerline in order to do that. Always give yourself enough space to do that. You should never pass a bicyclist before a hill or going around a bend. If necessary, wait behind the bicyclists before it is safe to pass.
According to Daub, the KRMC Trauma Department has seen a slight decrease in serious bike crashes over the course of the past three years despite a gradual increase in bike crashes nationwide. “We like to think our helmet mission has a significant role in the reduction of serious injuries locally," he says. Daub also notes that a number of cases they see would be much worse if not for the fact that they were wearing a helmet. Do yourself and your community a favor this summer and practice bike safety!