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Road bike that’s fallen over on the side of the road

Rider Down: What To Do When You Witness a Bicycle Accident

Every cyclist wonders what they would do if they happened to have a wreck while out on a ride. But what about if someone riding with you has a bicycle crash? Would you know what to do when another rider goes down? 

It may not even be someone in your group. You might come across another rider on the side of the road. And, at that moment, your ability to think clearly and act decisively could save their life.

Our friend and longtime cycling coach, Darryl MacKenzie, has seen and been through enough bicycle accidents over the years. Here, he shares what to do in the heat of the moment.  

Who Will Take Charge When There’s an Accident? 

When an accident involving another cyclist occurs, there’s one critical factor that can have a major effect on the outcome. That factor? Whether there is someone who can take charge with quick action. 

“This is one of those things that people dread having to even think about,” says Coach Darryl. “But, quite often, when bicycle crashes happen, everybody stands around and looks because they don’t know what to do. And it’s a life-threatening situation.” 

If the rider has sustained critical cycling injuries, time is of the essence. Even if their life isn’t on the line, the right actions could prevent long-term or secondary injuries. Someone needs to step up and take control so the cyclist can get the care they need. After you read this article, that someone could be you.

10 Steps To Take When There’s a Rider Down 

To help any cyclist prepare for this situation, Darryl created a step-by-step checklist that anyone can learn. However, since you don’t encounter this situation frequently, you’ll need to review this regularly to be ready when the moment comes.

When he created this checklist, Darryl had his good friend, a national ER nurse of the year, review everything to ensure it was medically sound. Keep in mind that the order of these steps is crucial.  

You dont want to start putting a splint on a persons leg if they cant breathe,” says Darryl. Instead, follow this order of operations.

Step 1: Secure the Location

Before you start assessing the other cyclist, you need to ensure they, along with you and anyone else on the scene, are safe from any further injuries. In some cases, they might be down in the middle of the road and unable to move.

To make sure no one else gets hurt, someone in the group needs to stand watch and direct traffic around the area of the bicycle accident. Find someone who can be assertive to ensure drivers see them and follow their directions. 

Step 2: Find the Group Doctor

In the best-case scenario, you’ll have a doctor, or at least someone with medical or CPR training, in the group. If so, they should attend to the injured cyclist. In the event that there is more than one injured person, have the person with medical experience tend to the rider who looks most seriously injured. Then, you can tend to the other cyclist.

If there is no one in the group with medical training, then you’re the next best option to provide medical care for bicycle-related injuries (since you’ve read this article, that is). 

Step 3: Check Their Vitals

Once you start assessing the person’s injuries, there are two things you need to know right away: First, are they breathing? Second, is their heart beating?

If they’re not breathing but still have a pulse, they’ll need to be ventilated every five to six seconds. This involves opening the airways and ensuring you’re getting air into their lungs. If the heart has also stopped, you will need to administer CPR right away. Darryl suggests maintaining training and certification to ensure you’re ready to do this at any time. 

Step 4: Find Out if They Can Move Safely

Once you have their vitals stabilized and the cyclist is conscious, you need to determine whether it’s safe to move them — and how careful you need to be when applying any further treatment.

If they are alert, the easiest way to do this is simply to ask: what hurts? If they indicate anything related to their neck or back, then it’s critical they don’t move. This will help prevent any potential injuries to the spine. Darryl has even restrained injured riders before to prevent them from moving until emergency personnel arrived to handle the situation.

If you do need to prevent the injured rider from moving, the best way to do it is to sit on the ground above their head and secure their head between your thighs while holding down their shoulders with your lower legs. They won’t love being in this position, so make sure they are as comfortable as possible. Others in the group should block the sun, for instance, so the person isn’t lying on hot pavement in direct sunlight while they wait.

Step 5: Stop the Bleeding 

The next step is to address any bleeding that might be occurring. Stopping any excessive bleeding is just as important as stabilizing and checking vitals. Minor cuts aren’t an issue. 

If there is a serious wound, apply direct pressure to slow down or stop the bleeding. Only use a tourniquet if the wound appears extremely serious. Otherwise, you could easily over-tighten and cause further problems. If you do need to use one, a spare bike tube is perfect for the job. 

Step 6: Check Their Head 

Once you’ve taken those first five steps, you’ve addressed the most critical issues. Now, you can turn to the head. And with bicycle head injuries, the situation can get tricky.  

“A person can tell you ‘My leg just doesn’t feel right,’ but they’re not really good at saying, ‘My brain is just not thinking well at the moment,’” says Coach Darryl.

Hopefully they were wearing protective gear, as bicycle helmets can reduce head injuries. You can then look at their helmet to see if any signs of damage are present. But the best way to assess this is to ask the rider simple questions: What’s your name? What happened? What day is it? Where did you park? What color is your car? These are all questions that should be easy to answer if they’re not cognitively impaired from the accident. 

“If the person doesn’t know the answer to those questions, then they should not be left alone — and their day on the bike is over,” Darryl emphasizes.

Step 7: Assess the Arms and Legs 

If they do pass the head test, you can take a look at their arms and legs to see whether they’re able to get up. If they have any broken limbs, they’re obviously not going to ride and may not be able to walk. However, you can use a hand pump as a temporary splint. This will stabilize any breaks until they can get to an ER.

Step 8: See if They Can Ride 

Assuming there are no broken bones, the cyclist can get up to walk around and determine whether they can ride. Remember, though, that you’re still in charge.

“The first thing they’re going to want to do is check out the bike,” says Darryl. “Don’t allow them to do that immediately after a bicycle crash.”

Preferably, you’ll have someone in your group with a good grasp of bike mechanics who can give the bike a thorough assessment. It needs to be clear that everything is working properly and there’s no frame damage.

If the bike is in good shape, you can talk with the cyclist and observe whether they’re genuinely OK to ride. It’s important to err on the side of caution here, as this can be subjective. 

Step 9: Get Them Home if They Can’t Ride 

Should you determine that they can’t ride, you need to make arrangements to get them home or to an ER. Someone in the group can take them, or you can reach out to an emergency contact. 

After you’ve decided that they can’t ride, they may try to pressure you to let them. But don’t take “no” for an answer. Again, they could be at risk of further injury if they’re not in the right physical or mental condition to get back on the bike.

Step 10: Keep an Eye on Them if They Can Ride 

In the event that they can ride, be sure to stay close to them and observe how they’re doing on the bike. Are they able to get on the bike well? Does their balance look right? Do they seem to have their wits about them on the bike? Stay close behind (not in front of) them and watch carefully. Start slowly to make sure you have time to observe 

What About Calling for Help? 

At this point, you may be wondering why we didn’t say anything about calling for help. That’s because it’s a judgment call you need to make repeatedly at every step in the process. You don’t want to call 911 too quickly, but you really don’t want to call too late, either.

If there is a problem with any serious vitals — the lungs, the heart, the spine, or excessive bleeding — have someone call 911 immediately. You need to get critical care on the scene as fast as possible. But you might also decide to call if they seem mentally out of it or have a broken bone. Again, consider this as you go through each step.

When you do make that call, have someone check the injured rider’s handlebar and cycling bag to ensure they have all their important items, such as their wallet and phone, with them when they go in the ambulance. You might even have them check the medical ID on the person’s phone to call an emergency contact and let them know what’s going on.

There’s No Time To Waste 

Seeing another rider crash — or finding someone on the side of the road — can be frightening. Don’t be paralyzed with fear, though. Acting quickly in order to assess the situation can potentially save someone’s life after a bicycle accident. Review these steps regularly so that you’re ready to take charge when you need to.


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Photo by Dmitrii Vaccinium on Unsplash