“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?
CEO/Head Coach of CTS