— 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.
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Guest opinions do not necessarily reflect the position of BikePortland. Our goal is to amplify community voices. If you have something to share and want us to share it on our platform, contact Publisher & Editor Jonathan Maus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just want to validate every single word you wrote — I think the same things All The Time. Complete contrast to the exchange I had with some random cyclists the other evening as we were all unlocking to head home — “have a fun ride home” were the words we used :).
This is so eloquently written and really captures many of the frustrations I’ve felt with the ways that well-intentioned drivers interact with people who walk and bike.
I wish people the best all the time.. I hope people drive and ride safe.
I will stop doing that since you asked….
Me too, no more kind words of safety to departing cyclists. I’ve already altered my behavior regarding being helpful to females – if they don’t specifically ask for help, I won’t offer it lest they take offense.
I just treat everyone the same and ask if they have everything they need. Especially since I compusively carry almost everything I would need if something broke. I mean I almost never need anything more than a flat kit so I might as well offer it up to other people.
Which reminds me I need to add my quick link pliers to my bag. 🙂
Excellent article! As a traffic instructor, I can confirm that the 7 bulletins are the most effective safety tips. Always do a full lane change to pass. Lanesplitting in a car is deadly.
And on a bike its pure fun.
I’ve seen a lot of people in cars do lane splitting.
Love this, thanks! I would add Don’t ever honk. It is never friendly, and it is always scary and too loud. I am pretty sure the reason why my daughter will no longer ride in traffic stems from someone honking at us- it was kind of a heads up/get out of the way honk, but it scared the crap out of both of us. I have multiple people try to give me a “friendly” honk- just don’t.
I feel like this is a weird stretch and overthinking of a common nicety. I get told all the time to have a safe ride or get home safely and I say it all the time to people who biked or drove. It just means you wish someone well. As a male I’ve gotten so many offers for a ride, a lot of the time strongly insisting because it’s too dangerous to bike. It’s like being upset if someone tells you to have a nice day.
it’s like you missed the point of this entire post
I take other point as a woman rejecting “mansplaining” about bicycle safety then launching into a “womansplaining”lecture on driver safety to a cycling audience. Am I missing anything?
I definitely didn’t miss it. I get it, it’s trying to say one thing is related to another thing but it isn’t.
Wow, not too presumptuous, are we? In fact, in your case it’s not like you are affecting not to graspit how Brandon’s comment relates directly to the post, it is exactly that.
Agreed. If the outreach is simply a gesture of concern and connection can’t it be accepted in the same spirit with which it was offered?
Imagine in real life if someone tells you to be safe riding home and instead of saying thanks you explain why it’s wrong for them to say that.
I realize you may already realize this, but the author doesn’t do that, and doesn’t say or even imply that anyone should do that. She also said she realizes that people mean well when they say it to her.
Reading comprehension and nuance are not the strongest skills amongst those that jump to incredulity or offense so quickly.
#1 is spot on which is why my typical response is “only if drivers let me.”
The lengths we have to go through just to be seen as being safe is ridiculous. I have the best rated helmet, a front light from Germany that not only lights up the road almost as well as a car but also doesn’t shine in peoples eyes, a rear light that automatically flashes when I slow down, wheel lights and reflective rain gear.
I know if I get hit most people will ask were they wearing a helmet, did they have lights, were they wearing dark clothing, and were they in the bike lane. After checking all those boxes someone will inevitably remark sure they had the right of way but it’s better to be alive than dead and right.
Recently I’ve decided to take those drivers up on that suggestion if I should always give up my right of way on the off chance that it will keep me alive then I’ll start ignoring traffic laws that make me less safe. After all according to them it’s better to be wrong and alive than right and dead. I assume they’re perfectly ok with me doing this and I won’t hear a peep from them about it.
Anyway sorry for the rant nice write up.
When I’ve been told to “Wear a helmet” from a driver…
If I can have a conversation with them about it, they will quickly agree that if I were to fall or become involved in a collision, it is likely that a helmet might benefit my safety.
When I ask them if they might also benefit from having a helmet on while driving when involved in an unexpected collision, they are stunned. Instead of just agreeing that it could indeed benefit them, they always only change the subject towards “Riding a bike is more dangerous than driving a car” or “I wear a seatbelt.” While either of them are true, it’s also true that having a helmet on would indeed likely be helpful if they are in a collision, but they not only won’t wear a helmet, they don’t tell their family and friends who drive to “Wear a helmet!” either.
In Portland (At least prepandemic) it has been a similar level of danger for people driving and for people riding bikes.
Don’t tell people riding bikes to “Wear a helmet!”
Ask them if they wear a helmet while showering or using the toilet. 200,000 people a year fall in the bathroom.
(while I wear a helmet, I find the non-rider’s fixation on it obnoxious)
And a fixation of many riders too. I usually wear one. I have contexts for riding that are conscious choices for when I don’t. And yet, I’ve gotten gruff for it.
In this context, such an expression can only be interpreted as an act of aggression.
Absolutely true! I am not as bothered by “be safe” as I am by “be careful” which I get more often. Be safe sounds like a wish for my well being, but “be careful” seems to indicate that somehow I am not careful and I have control over all of the distracted, speeding drivers. This especially strange from people I know, who should know that “Careful” is my middle name. It is very annoying and I have taken to wishing other cyclist “ride like the wind,” or some such term that is not instructing careful-safe action.
People say “stay safe” to drivers all the time, and no one except for possibly an exasperated teen resents it. It’s simply an expression of concern and recognition that you are undertaking an endeavor with an element of danger, and a hope for you to be well. It’s not an admonition; it’s an expression of love.
I think what this article is fundamentally about is differing interpretations of “responsibility”; it does not always mean “culpable”.
When you’re walking, riding, or driving, your safety is your responsibility. You may not be able to control what other people do, but there are plenty of things you can do that will mitigate for the stupid and dangerous actions of others. Defensive driving isn’t a controversial concept among drivers or motorcyclists (who are at greater danger from errant drivers than bike riders are); I don’t know why it is for cyclists (see all the past arguments about visibility: “it’s not my job to be seen!”).
This does NOT mean that if someone passes too closely it is your fault, even if there are things you can (and probably should) do to reduce the likelihood of that happening. Not doing those things does not increase your culpability, even if it does increase your chances of getting hurt.
You are responsible for keeping yourself safe; you are not culpable if someone else hurts you.
It might well prevent a head injury if that SUV knocks you from your bike and you hit your head on the pavement.
If you are going someplace and someone wishes you a safe trip, you resent it and find it patronizing?
What a strange reaction.
When we share the road, the safety of others on the road is also our safety, especially if there is a power differential (there is). No one road user is out there alone. This is victim-blaming language.
You can die or suffer life-altering injuries regardless of helmet use. Yes, we should all use a helmet. And yes, know that the force of a vehicle is much greater than the force of a helmet. It’s just physics.
When a SUV hits a pedestrian/cyclist, it’s most likely more than a “knock”. Try: slamming, crashing, striking.
If your friend locks their bike with a cable lock, is it their fault when it gets “donated” to the local sidewalk chop shop? Is it victim blaming to suggest they get a better lock?
Bike riders are not passive victims without ability to influence what happens to them. We all make choices that affect our safety. It’s not my fault when someone smashes my car window to get the quarter I left in my cupholder, but I’ll be better off if I don’t leave it there.
Of course. But a helmet is about the cheapest insurance there is against serious injury, even if it doesn’t help in every scenario.
If someone tells me to “Ride safe out there” I just shoot back “Drive safe out there” and add nothing else. They usually only say it once.
If someone tells me to “Ride safe out there” I just shoot back
“Drive safe out there” and add nothing else. They usually only say it once.
writer: [says something about the impact of a common expression]
dudes: you’re hurt by some words? oh my god, this hurts me so bad
Hahaha, nailed it. The irony is clearly lost on many people.
Yes, when I am offered such a statement…I smile and reply back…”I will if you give me a head start”. 😉
Yes! Well said!
For most of my friends who never (or very rarely) bicycle, bicycling is seen as an entirely recreational pursuit for kids and irresponsible adults only, a form of voluntary suicide like skydiving or traveling in Europe by train – hence their well-intentioned if maladroit responses. As a person who never learned to drive, I get such responses all the time, for my whole life. My bikeless friends are literally scared to death to bike in traffic, any sort of traffic no matter how minor, even if they own a bike (and many in fact do not.) They won’t let their kids bike either, naturally. They really believe that I’m going out to kill myself every time I bike anywhere, particularly at night – they simply can’t imagine it. Sad and depressing. Still, they are good people in other ways with other redeeming features and we get along – it’s helpful to remember that over two-thirds of Americans do not own bicycles.
Or a passport, which has to explain the European train sentiments, ’cause traveling Europe by train is the best…!
You are sooo right! Most of my friends here in NC don’t have passports either, both liberals and conservatives, bike people and car people! And the few who do, we happily trade train stories!
Point #1 is spot on!!! This is a verbal tic that illustrates a common, but kind of thoughtless sentiment.
This is a great topic.
I’d actually be a bit less charitable than the author in regard to the intentions behind “be safe”. Especially if it’s coming from a stranger, I don’t think it’s guaranteed that it’s entirely well-meaning, and that there’s a component of criticism. While the words may be “be safe out there” the meaning may be more, “Are you sure that’s wise?” or even, “You’re not another one of those cyclists that insist on riding in the street and dart out from nowhere wearing dark clothing, are you?”
Also, people who are critical of others who walk or bike sometimes may not be comfortable (consciously or not) with their being critical, or perhaps with the underlying reason behind why they’re critical, so they’ll express the criticism as concern for safety. The concern for safety could be masking a criticism (“Why do cyclists insist on riding at night?”) that may be motivated by “I can’t see as well in the dark as I used to and am afraid I’ll hit someone and lose my license”, “I could drive faster if I didn’t have to watch out for people on bikes”, etc. “My concern is your safety” is a lot more palatable to admit to.
Something you point out, intentionally or not, is that context is everything. Something coming from a friend or loved one may be received differently than the same words coming from a stranger.
This article was written largely absent context, so it’s hard to understand if there’s a specific context that vexes the author, or if the words “ride safe” even coming from her mother are problematic.
As usual, most people are assuming a context, and that assumption may differ from reader to reader, and so there may be a lot of controversy over what amounts to nothing.
“Sometimes it’s friends or family members, who I know mean well. Sometimes it’s complete strangers, fully unsolicited … Telling cyclists to be safe on their ride home doesn’t accomplish anything.”
The context seems pretty clear to me.
Is “all contexts” appreciably different than “no context” ?
You complained that the author didn’t specify who was telling them to “be safe”. Now you know they did. You’re welcome.
Actually, I was pointing out that the comment writers may be imagining different contexts, leading different interpretations.
I don’t get the offense. This is what pretty much everyone says to everyone. Drivers say it to each other. Skiers, oceangoers, mountaineers, you name it say it to each other — even when both people involved are bona fide experts. It can mean different things coming from different people, but overwhelmingly, it’s a way people of people saying they care.
but doing so is patronizing and condescending — it’s literally telling them how to drive. No one does that in other spheres for the same reason.
In any case, the list of instructions to drivers who won’t see them on a bike blog (and many of whom never wouldn’t do them anyway) undermines your core point. If them failing to follow these guidelines makes the roads unsafe in your view, then the expression of concern is appropriate.
As far as the instructions go, I don’t agree with all of them. But I wholeheartedly agree with #1. The roads would be better and safer for all if fewer cyclists didn’t buy into the anti-cycling logic that we don’t belong on the roads and need to be on something else.
Excellent article, the one about telling you to “have a safe ride out there”. It’s not just young women who get told that; older women like me get it too. Well intentioned to be sure. I so agree with the point that “if you care about the safety of bicyclists, then drive like you care”.
Men both young and old are also frequently wished a safe trip.
Suffice to say that literally no one outside of Portland spends any amount of time dissecting such a common form of speech that is absolutely rooted in common human decency.
Everything has risk associated with it, someone wishing you well in hopes you retain your same physical capacity when you reach your destination, is just decent. It’s no wonder people from elsewhere in the country find us to be such a-holes.
How out of touch must you be that you think that?
Portland-bashing is the new favorite avocation of the intellectually lazy. It’s a kind of reverse-wokeness.
If participating in the mental gymnastics necessary to be a fan of Portland currently makes you intellectually active, you can have the top step on the podium of intellectual superiority. For some people, where they live is not the most fragile part of their identity, so they are capable of being critical.
Nothing to bash here!
Great piece. Thanks for writing it, Missy.
What a great essay! Should be required reading for every student in every driver-ed class.
I’m sorry if I offend, but I will continue to wish my fellow cyclists a safe ride home at the end of the workday as we’re getting into the saddle. Ever since my sister in law was killed by a drunk driver while riding, I know all too well how everything changes in an instant. I sincerely care that we all make it to our destination safely. I can’t believe that wish is found offensive by anyone, least of all my fellow cyclists. To each their own, I guess.
I always like PB articles about semiotics! This is a refreshing point of view, M, I hope to see more of this stuff. People say all kinds of less-than-thoughtfull things all day long, particularly when they are in love or fearful or lazy or hungry or speaking. I’d like to see more content about :Things people say in bike shops, things people say when passing, things people say when they learn your situation, things people say about racing clubs, things people say about your body, things people say about Di12 and aero-socks (gear talk yo), things people say about gravel food hashtags pets babies houses clouds jobs and urban planning. No critical listener goes unpunished, I’d personally rather listen to hours of lazy thinking and talking than a poorly maintained drivetrain.
I like to tell people that I’ll “ride safe” when the roads are safe to ride on.
51 year old dude here, I hear this about twice a week as I’m leaving work for my commute. I almost always reply: ” Thanks. Watch for bikes.”
I appreciate your article.
It’s getting harder and harder to take BikeLoud seriously.
I do often say to other friends who are leaving somewhere on their bikes, “Keep the rubber side down!” I see it less of a command for them to take on the responsibility of being safe than I do as a statement of solidarity to which I wish them to experience a pleasant ride home, free of conflicts. It’s my bikey version of “via con dios” or “keep on truckin’.”
Missy, this is a great article. I agree with 90% of it. I do feel that one should not be offended by someone telling ‘you’ “Be safe out there.” As you very clearly explained, we, as cyclists, are extremely vulnerable on the road. Therefore it is incumbent on us to be as safe as we can for those that are not paying attention.
Maybe it is because I work in the construction industry, and we say that to each other every day on the job sites. We all want a safe workplace, and we rely on each other for our safety. But just as cyclists are vulnerable, so are construction workers, to falls, getting hit by equipment, and dozens of other hazards. So when we say to each other, “Be safe out there,” it is out of genuine respect and concern for each other.
So when someone says that to me before I leave from work to commute home, I don’t feel patronized, I take it as both a term of respect, and a reminder, “Safety First.” The City of Portland and all the people of groups like @portlanbike.org have made Portland a very bicycle friendly city. But I still believe it is the cyclist’s responsibility to take the minimum precautions you stated, use lights (front & rear, and even side/wheel lights) wear reflective clothing, obey traffic laws, and ASSUME, the driver doesn’t see you, until you’ve made eye contact. If we want drivers to look, see, and respect us, we need to make it easy for them to see us.
I commute a couple of days a week from inner SE Hawthorne to my office at 181st and Airport Way, and have for 15 years, always trying to improve my route. I’ve been a serious cyclist for 45 years, and the closest call/near miss I’ve ever had was a right hook, riding a casual ride with friends South on SW Terwilliger at Taylor’s Ferry intersection. Did I have the right of way? Yes. Could I, and should I, have done more to avoid that near life-ending near miss? Absolutely.
I rode across the US this summer fulfilling a 44 year-long life goal/dream. I had no issues with cars on that trip. Have I been lucky? Maybe so. But when people all across the US told me to “Be safe out there.” I just thanked them and and appreciated their concern for my safety.