Bicycle Safety

Wear a helmet

Wear a helmet—your brain is worth protecting! Adjust helmet for a level, snug fit: eyes—should see helmet edge when you look up; ears—straps should form a “Y” just under your ears; and mouth—straps loose enough for a finger between buckle and jaw, but tight enough that the helmet pulls down on top your head when you open your mouth wide.

Northwestern Community members can purchase helmets, parts and accessories, at a 10% discount, through the Turin and Pony bike shops (located in Evanston) with presentation of a WildCARD. Speak with a store employee to purchase a proper fitting helmet.

Status on roads

By state law, bicyclists are granted all the rights on the road and are subject to the same rules as motorists. Traffic laws do apply to cyclists—ignoring them hurts the public perception. Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated like other vehicles on the road. For example, wait for and take your turn when you have the right-of-way. 

Lane Positioning: when riding on roadways and bicycle paths at less than normal traffic speed, ride as close as practical and safe to the right-hand curb or edge of roadway except:

  • When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction; or
  • When preparing for a left turn. Bicyclists may choose between a vehicular-style left turn or a pedestrian-style left turn. For vehicular-style left turns, proceed as if driving a vehicle, moving to the left lane or the left side of a single lane prior to the intersection; or
  • When reasonably necessary to avoid fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, bicycles, motorized pedal cycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge. A "substandard width lane" means a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane;
  • When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized;
  • When riding on a one-way highway with two or more marked traffic lanes. Here, bicyclists may ride as near the left-hand curb or edge of such roadway as practical.

Hand signals

  • Signal when turning or changing lanes: left turn – left hand out; right turn – left hand up at elbow or right hand out; or stopping – left hand down.

Side path bicycling

Be aware of the intersection conflicts and visibility problems that often make biking on side paths (trails along roads) and sidewalks less safe than on-road cycling! This is especially important on roads with numerous side streets, commercial entrances, parking lots and other driveways.


If you are riding on a sidewalk, always yield to pedestrians. If the sidewalk has numerous pedestrians, dismount from your bike and walk with it. When you approach corners, alleys and driveways, slow down and use your horn or bell. Remember, some communities do not allow bikes on sidewalks, including downtown Evanston and other areas of the city. Check local laws to be sure. 

Road hazards

  • Proceed slowly and carefully when you turn, brake, and accelerate on wet roads; avoid slippery metal plates and grates; on rail crossings, cross at a right angle; and avoid parallel, narrow pavement cracks.
  • Watch for drivers exiting parked vehicles and vehicles pulling away from curbs.
  • Be alert for pedestrians walking between vehicles or against traffic control devices, and for animals in pathway.

Safety techniques

  • See, be seen and be heard.
  • Be visible – wear bright or reflective clothing, use lights at night.
  • Make eye contact and be predictable.
  • Assume proper lane positioning and ride in a straight line.
  • Be assertive in operating your bike but be aware that others may not respect your rights as a cyclist. 
  • Scanning – Looking back is a very important skill. Practice looking over your shoulder to check for cars behind you.  Keep riding in a straight line.  Do not swerve. 
  • Establish eye contact with drivers and communicate that you may soon change lane position.
Additional information on bike safety, operation, maintenance and rules of the road are available at the League of Illinois Bicyclists website and in the pamphlet Safe Bicycling in Illinois, which served as resource material for this page. “Student Cycling in Chicago” booklets are available at the Northwestern University Police stations, the Norris Center and Student Affairs (Scott Hall – basement).