Can You See Me Now!? Winning the Fight for Visibility.

 

“You’re invisible out here,” said the older gentleman who turned left out of a driveway on the opposite side of the road and drove across four traffic lanes before nearly pinning me to the curb. Invisible, and therefore responsible for our near collision despite riding in a bike lane, in broad daylight, wearing bright colored clothing on a bike equipped with lights. I was where I was supposed to be, following every applicable traffic law and common-sense safety recommendation I know of. He sped off before I could respond: “I am not invisible; you’re just not looking for me.”

Every cyclist has a litany of similar stories, and unfortunately many of us also have stories of actual collisions. My latest encounter peaked by curiosity about visibility and safety, and here’s what I learned.

There’s no downside to being more visible, but what we do matters way more than anything we can wear or attach to the bike.

How High Vis Falls Short

Fluorescent yellow and orange colors have been shown to improve detection time and distance, meaning drivers pick up those colors sooner and from a farther distance away compared to non-fluorescent colors. But some studies also indicate detection doesn’t necessarily alter behavior. For instance, a 2014 study by Walker, et al. examined the effect of visibility on passing distance and concluded apparel had no effect on the amount of space drivers afforded a cyclist. Even printing “POLICE” on the back of a fluorescent yellow vest only increased passing distance by 2 INCHES! Keep in mind, the study was conducted in Great Britain, where the Highway Code requires drivers to give “plenty of room” when passing cyclists but does not specify a minimum passing distance. Some countries, as well as some States in the US, have 3-foot or 1-meter minimum passing laws.

The Walker study is not the only one to suggest vulnerable road users overestimate the connection between being seen and being safe. A number of research studies from Joanne Wood and her colleagues at Queensland University of Technology indicate cyclists overestimate how visible we are to drivers and underestimate the effectiveness of reflective materials on moving parts of our bodies. What that means in practical terms is that while people may see a reflective vest, they are more likely to recognize the presence of a human if what they see moves in a pattern associated with walking, running, or cycling.

How to Stay Safe

In a lot of ways, cyclists really are invisible. Data from the United States, Great Britain, and Australia indicate that “looked but did not see” is a significant factor in auto-bicycle collisions. My close call this week classifies as such. The driver looked both ways and presumably scanned across the area where I was riding, but did not see I was there. I long ago accepted the fact I could not trust drivers to pay attention or look out for me. I accepted invisibility and changed my riding habits accordingly. Here is some of what has worked for me:

Follow Traffic Laws

Yes, there was a time when I was younger and dumber and disregarded stop signs, red lights, etc. That was a long time ago, and for many years I have recognized the need for cyclists to ride predictably and legally while sharing the road with automobiles. We are all creatures of habit, and the more you ride like you drive the more seamlessly you’ll fit into the flow of traffic at intersections, highway ramps, driveways, etc.

Ride where others ride

There is safety in numbers, even if you’re riding alone. Sounds like an oxymoron, but hear me out. Drivers are creatures of habit. If you never see a cyclist on a road you travel frequently, you’re not expecting or looking for one. When more cyclists use a particular route, drivers in that area are more accustomed to seeing cyclists and are more aware we might be around. It’s certainly doesn’t guarantee your safety, but every little bit helps.

When I travel I use Strava heatmaps to figure out where cyclists in an area ride most. I’ve found there is often a disconnect between where cities put bike lanes and where cyclists actually ride, and I trust the cycling community to gravitate toward the safest and most convenient routes. Some cities appear to be catching on and using heatmap data and consultation with the cycling community to focus infrastructure improvement to routes cyclist already frequent.

Make eye contact

When approaching an intersection or a car emerging from a driveway, try to make eye contact with the driver. If they are looking the other way you know it’s a problem. Even if they are looking toward you it’s important to discern whether they actually see you and if their body language indicates whether they are going to move or stay. In my experience someone who looks hurried or frustrated is more likely to pull into my path.

Watch the wheels

Seconds count when you’re riding 18-25mph and a car has the potential to pull in front of you. If the wheels start rolling, I assume they are going to accelerate. In that instant you have to decide if it’s in your best interest to accelerate or brake. Do you have a better chance of getting across their path before they get there, or stopping or changing direction quickly enough to avoid a collision? Hesitation is often worse than action, because it causes confusion for both rider and driver.

Find your voice

A booming, sharp, guttural “HEY!” has saved my neck on multiple occasions. It’s not 100% effective, but it almost always results in a driver hitting the brakes. It also helps if you’re looking straight at the driver when you yell. It gets their attention, they look in the direction of the sound, and see it’s you yelling AT THEM. Occasionally it leads to a ‘conversation’, but I’ve found that once I explain I was just trying to get their attention most drivers realize being startled was better than being in a collision.

Resist the urge to get angry

It is easy and understandable to get angry after a close call, but it doesn’t really do you any good and it doesn’t make that driver more likely to respect the next cyclist he or she encounters. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t assert your right to use the road or advocate for your safety, just try not to immediately resort to expletives. Time and again, staying calm has worked out much better than losing my cool.

Make yourself visible

While cyclists may overestimate the effectiveness of high-viz apparel, blinking lights, and reflective material, there’s also no downside to using them. There was certainly a time when a “serious” cyclist would have never considered riding with blinking white and red lights on their bike during the daytime, but thankfully those days have passed. New blinkies are smaller, brighter, lighter, and easier to use than ever before. They make so much sense I wouldn’t be surprised if they become standard equipment for new adult bikes (maybe motion activated?), perhaps replacing the reflectors nearly everyone removes.

People often ask me whether I feel less safe riding on the road now compared to 5 or 10 years ago. I understand there are more distracted drivers on the road, but as I travel the country and ride in cities, suburbs, small towns, and rural areas I don’t perceive an increased risk or an increase in the frequency of close passes, close calls, or hostile drivers. Rather, in my view news about collisions and altercations has increased and social media aggregates that news from all over the world, feeding the notion that risks have increased.

What do you think?

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

Comments 27

  1. I have noticed that older drivers often report not seeing me and I believe this may be traced to loss of portions of their visual field to macular degeneration. The problem is that the driver does not see even a large area of lost visual perception as a blacked out area because his brain complete the visual field by filling in a plausible continuation of the surrounding area of actually perceived visual field but unfortunately without me and my bike.

  2. My Rules: 1) Ride with front/rear lights always 2) Take your lane and don’t ride on white line. 3) Make EYE Contact and get out of the saddle and look at approaching vehicle. If you want more respect when people pass, get your butt up out of that saddle and let them know YOU see them. Keeping your head down because you have a bike radar or mirrors, plus riding on the white line is just asking for a close pass. 4) Always assume they are going to pull out in front of you. 5) Ride in a group as much as possible.

  3. why aren`t all new bikes fitted with lights as standard as all bikes are fitted with a bell . Where I live there are numerous cyclists young and old who ri de around with no lights at all even during winter months then if someone is riding without lights they should be fined and if it is a child their parents should be fined or does that seem to extreme to possibly save someone from serious injury or even death?

  4. I think the most important thing you can do to be visible was not even touched on in this article. That thing is lane positioning. If you are positioned at the edge of the lane this communicates that you are fine with being passed within the lane. From far off it looks like enough room.

    If anyone really wants to prevent sideswipes and right hooks or even left crossing conflicts then please consider your lane position. When coming to an intersection it is not a bad idea to move into the straight travel lane to your left to facilitate right turning traffic so that you do not get hooked.

    Stay safe, be visible, be predictable.

  5. I’ve got about 45 years of perspective on this. When I started my mom really wanted me to use a flag. Not going to happen with a 13 year old. She was however totally on board with the bright pro wool jerseys. Visibility has always been a priority. Daytime lights are now my norm. I agree that not much driver behavior has changed, other than that we all know about the collisions in France, Italy, Kalamazoo, Galesburg, etc. A great concern I have now is the kind rage and hated I see in comment sections. I do fear this may lead to violent action. I did have my first aggressive buzzing passing about 18″ away at about 50mph. A rear view would not have helped. Racing on a velodrome for many years did. Riding at speed in close quarters tames the nerves. Ironically the driver had a pink ribbon on the back. I guess her compassion is narrowly focused.

  6. Thanks so much for writing on this very important topic Chris! I’m glad to see you and other current and/or former pro cyclists talking about this too!!! You would have made a good bike cop!

    This topic is so dear to my heart, as a retired bike cop, still active bike patrol instructor, NICA coach and bicycle safety advocate! It was great to see and read all the replies and interest in your article. I could talk all day on this topic, but I’ll keep it short (lol).

    I liked your statement of “There’s no downside to being more visible, but what we do matters way more than anything we can wear or attach to the bike.” To add, what we as cyclists DON’T want to do is get a false sense of security/safety by the wearing of High Vis apparel and use of active lighting. How we as legitimate users of the roads ride does make a BIG difference in our safety and interaction with motorist and fellow cyclists!

    There are many great resources out there like the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) and others. I’ve personally been involved for several years with the grass-roots organization called CyclingSavvy. Many of their instructors are former LAB instructors. I’ve been working with them bringing Adult Bicycle Safety education (classroom and hands-on) to parts of SoCal. They also have on-line training. Here are some links for them: http://cyclingsavvy.org/, http://iamtraffic.org/ and http://commuteorlando.com/wordpress/.

    HOW HIGH VIS FALLS SHORT
    In the last sentence of this heading, Chris stated “they are more likely to recognize the presence of a human if what they see moves in a pattern associated with walking, running, or cycling.” SO true! This is called “Biomotion.” Trek has a COOL campaign on this and 2 others called the ABCs of Awareness. See link: https://www.trekbikes.com/us/en_US/abcs_of_awareness/.

    WATCH THE WHEELS
    To add to Chris’ comments, the 2 MOST important wheels to look at are the front wheels. Where they turn, so goes ANY vehicle or bicycle!

    FIND YOUR VOICE & RESIST THE URGE TO GET ANGRY
    A cool response towards motorists and fellow cyclists I learned from CyclingSavvy is it’s always better to use 5 fingers vs. 1.

    ONE SUGGESTION TO Chris & CTS
    Ever consider a High Vis option for your CTS jerseys and/or kits?

    Be safe and ride smart and effectively out there everyone!
    CS

  7. I find that I often come across cyclists when I drive. As such, I have some sympathy for the plight of drivers–who really don’t want a collision with a bicycle. I often hear griping from drivers about the arrogance of “Spandes-wearing” bicyclists. In reality, we all need to cooperate on our shared-use roadways, and cyclists should remember and respect that the Laws of Physics reign supreme in bicycle-automobile collisions.

    Attitude means a lot. In addition to being a compulsive user of front and rear flashers along with my omnipresent mirror (I feel naked without them), whenever a driver waits for me to cross an intersection in front of him/her, I always wave and at least mouth “thank you” to them. It builds goodwill, which can help assuage heated emotions, and helps build positivity for cyclists.

    (I also call out a “thank you” to pedestrians who step aside when I call out “on your left” on the muti-use trails. Again, building goodwill for cyclists.)

  8. My wife and I often ride together single file her in the front and me behind. Early this spring I got her a pair of pink DEFEET gloves. After just one ride with her wearing those new gloves I knew they were winners. The high visibility color on the hand while making turn signals caught motorists attention. Since then, I have gotten hi Vis defeat gloves for us and many of the Riders that ride with us. cutting the fingers off for summer use. Wish they would make them fingerless.

  9. Bravo for this article! Have been waiting to see one like this from a credible source to speak to those who find it ‘not cool’ to use ways to increase one’s safety on the road.

    If pros can state they are using things like lights and mirrors for training, maybe it’ll become cool AND maybe we will have fewer tragedies.

    I was a Kickstarter backer of the original See.Sense bike lights, the smart, motion-activated, reacts to environment, smartphone app–connected, crash-alerting (and more), multiple-award-winning lights. I no longer do any training rides without my front and rear See.Sense ICONs (check them out at https://seesense.cc/).

    I have no scientific proof, but my experience is that I am more noticed at intersections and the brightness of the lights even seem to have a ‘halo’ effect inducing drivers to provide a little more cushion. Living in a state without a 3 foot rule, we need all the help we can get.

  10. Buy a Fly 6 post mounted flasher/video cam. As we will be mowed down nice to have a video version of the facts for the police as it seems most car/cycle accidents are hit-skip.

  11. I wholeheartedly agree with this article and many of the subsequent comments. Particularly the one about Ford F-150 and other large vehicle drivers being less tolerant of cyclists on the road. That said, more and more cyclist are being hit by drivers distracted texting or reading emails on their cellphones. The problem is getting progressively worse and must be addressed by tougher laws, education and enforcement by local authorities.

  12. This is spot on. I have been riding my bikes for 35 years in large east coast cities, small western towns and back roads. I have learned to assume drivers will not see me and that they will do unpredictable and stupid things.

    I have found that the more I behave like a car i.e. Getting in left hand turn lanes to turn left, signal my moves by pointing in the direction of my movement and being as big a presence as I can be on the roads, cars see me and will allow space and time.

    I also wear a mirror when I ride,I know it’s not very cool and the epitome of cycling neediness but again I’m behaving as if I’m driving, the more aware I can be of vehicles around me the safer I am.

    I have also learned that anger is the wrong approach. I see myself as an ambassador of cycling and my attitudes and my behavior represent all of us. Furthermore in a duel between a car and a bike the bike will always loose and you never know who or what is behind the wheel of that car.

  13. Hi Chris, for what it’s worth I have noticed a device and consistent widening of the passing gap since I started to use a blinking red strobe on my seat post. It’s BRIGHT! Not inexpensive but , rechargeable via USB. It has a daytime and nighttime brightness mode as well as flashing and steady on. No affiliation whatsoever but mine is a bontrager transmtr. Would not consider riding without it or anything similar. Best, and stay safe!

  14. My brother reminds me that it’s not if, it’s where… the recent death of Mike Hall and other high profile bike-car accidents prompted me to review my road riding safety habits. I do most a what has been described above. Additionally, at intersections I give a big wave in addition to looking the driver in the eye. I learned this from two 8 y/o girls one day as I was in my car at an intersection. I was looking both ways and prepared to pull out, as they were crossing the street in front of me. I never saw them. As they saw my wheels turn, they gave a big wave with their arms. It was that motion that caught my eye. Although they were still 5-6 ft away, I was terribly shaken. I drove around the block to find them and thank them! I told them if they hadn’t waved, I wouldn’t have seen them. I apologized, thanked them and asked them to keep doing that at intersections!
    One additional thing I’ve added to my toolkit is a piece of paper and small pen in case I need to get driver info or licence plate number.
    Great article and comments! Thanks!
    Susan
    Helena, MT

  15. Your comments are right on. I’ve been a roadie for about 17 years and have developed all of those techniques in order to stay safe. One addition however…a rear view mirror. Every vehicle on the road is required to have side mirrors and rear view mirrors; wellthere must be a reason for that, safety, awareness? I’ve road with a rear view mirror on my drops for 10-12 years. I always feel more safe when I know if and what may be coming up behind me. On my group rides every rider appreciates that extra “car back” being called out. Why don’t all cyclist get after this added safety feature?

  16. Hi:

    Since the last three-four years, I am wearing bright colors, especially red and fluo socks. I thanks car drivers not once but twice. It agree totally with you that we need to make contact with car drivers. Since 2013, I ride with a blinking rear light on my Cervélo.

    Last year, I was fortunate to spent three months in France. I was based near Chambéry, in the Alps. I participated to six bike rides/races in five countries. I was never harassed. Not once. Back home, during the first 4 weeks, I was harassed by car drivers 12 times. This occurred on week-ends, civic holidays, on scenic roads. Their arguments were to ride my bike on the bicycle paths. They are not aware of the program/initiative Share the Road. This year, I rode my bike in Taiwan and Mallorca. No issue. In my view, the most dangerous car drivers are the Ford F-150.

    Keep wearing bright colors, start using blinking lights, make eye contacts with car drivers and finally thank them not once but twice.

    Cycling celebrating Life.

    Claude
    Ottawa, Canada

    1. %100 percent in agreement with your observation and opinions. I ride all over the world , hardly ever a problem, except when I am in the US , hate to say this , especially in GA where many roads don’t have even a sidewalk nevermind a bike lane, YES F-150 defiantly the worst !! Especially if there lifted ?

  17. I’ve added a Garmin Varia Radar rear light to my bike and think it’s well worth the money, While not perfect, it reduces the need to be constantly checking my helmet mounted rear view mirror, thus keeping my eyes forward where the greatest danger is. I had an accident a couple of years ago with a car I have no idea where it came from…I’m guessing it made its move just as I was scanning in the opposite direction, or maybe behind via my mirror. The radar has also confirmed what I should have known all along, that I cannot hear most cars until they’re very near. Now I’m warned of approaching traffic long before they become an actual threat, and I’m rarely surprised by a car anymore. I ride mostly lightly traveled suburban and country roads so that helps.

    1. I’m going to second this comment on the Varia radar tail light. I got one about a year ago now and while I would never rely on it exclusively, getting notification that something big is coming up behind me about 140 m back while I’m about to cross a narrow bridge is useful. I agree there is not much you can do about the idiots, but I try to ride “deliberately” and I take my measure of road, until my radar detects traffic coming up behind me, then I move right. As others have also noted, having ridden in Italy, Belgium and France, where cyclists are, for the most part, given a wide berth, it’s frustrating to be honked and yelled at in the U.S.. There’s a great video out of Switzerland (in French) about this cyclist who rides like an idiot to work, smugly talking about how he beats is car driving co-worker who is stuck in traffic….except that he gets himself hit by a bus….sometimes we are our own worst enemy.

      1. I’m going to second the second and just add that the Garmin blinks at an increasing rate as cars approach. I suspect that is why they go by me now at a noticeably slower pace and providing more room.

  18. As usual in the series of such articles very well thought out and articulated.

    My mind immediately turned to the recent tragedy of the motor bike rider in Southern France.

    Not forgetting Chris Froome.

    I came across this extract of another article on the internet and would like to offer it for further consideration/information.
    I’m not sure about the science etc. behind it but thought it might be of interest perhaps.

    “The majority of people are right handed and right eyed. This makes it logical to drive on the left side of the road as it improves your perception and control, so when horses and carts were around every country drove on the left.
    Then Napoleon came along and drove on the wrong side of the road because he is “Hard” and generally wanted to cause havoc, subsequently forced everybody else in his control to use the right hand side of the road”

  19. About three years ago I was riding through town on my way out to my training route when, at an intersection, a motorist stopped at a stop sign, looked both ways, and pulled out about 20 feet in front of me. I had time to grab my brakes but still hit him right behind the front wheel well. The Garmin showed 18.2 mph at its last reading. To the driver’s credit, he was mortified and waited for the police with me. I re-broke my right clavicle from the impact and ended up getting a new bike from the insurance settlement (NOT the way to finance a new bike!). Now when I ride in town I use a headlight (not a blinkie) on “daylight flash” mode. It’s worked so far…

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