Fashion is fickle, but safety is no accident. Visibility, ensuring that we are easily seen, is absolutely a rider’s responsibility. Studies show that effective lights, contrast, and bio-motion combine to make us safer by garnering the attention of drivers. The principles are simple, and the stakes are high. Getting struck by a car is no joke; I know, because I’ve been hit three times.
I began cycling the busy streets of the Maryland side of the Washington, D.C. line on my buddy Jack’s borrowed bike in June of 1980. Not sure if I’d like cycling, Jack let me borrow his bike to test the waters; I hadn’t been riding a month when I managed to be struck from behind at an intersection.
It was approaching midnight, well after dark, and my bicycle was equipped with the legally required accouterments for cycling after the sun sets- a rear reflector and weak-as-a-kitten headlight. I knew I’d be cycling well into the nighttime when I left home so I had also chosen to wear white “painter’s pants,” a fashion must have in the late seventies and early eighties, and a light-colored chambray shirt.
Front light, rear reflector, light colored clothing; I was ready to hit the streets! And I did. Ow!
Days after my close encounter with a VW Beetle I purchased my own ride. (I paid Jack for his tacoed rear wheel from the small amount of insurance money I received.) Fresh from a collision, I added state-of-the-art Berek bike lights front and rear.
In 1980, battery operated bike lights were glorified flash lights- simple, ineffective flashlights that used two “D” cells to fire up a three-volt, low-wattage incandescent bulb. Luckily, the streets I rode on had street lights otherwise I might as well have been riding with my eyes closed.
Riding in street clothes and helmetless in the wee hours of the night is asking for trouble. I quickly added a Belt Beacon, a nine-volt, amber covered incandescent flashing light (Whoa! Fancy!) to my ride along with a huge, ugly reflective arrow and MSR orange bike helmet. I knew that greater visibility equals greater safety, but I was a self-conscious, low budget teen trying to figure this stuff out on my own.
Fast forward forty years and the good news is that the guess work about visibility has been removed, all you have to do is follow the ABC’s of cycling safety. The bad news is that drivers are more distracted than ever.
Think you know your ABC’s? Let’s review.
A is for always on!
Lights are not just for nighttime. At least one leg of my daily commute is in full sunshine, yet I have my Bontrager Ion 800 headlight flashing to a syncopated, eye-catching, seizure inducing beat under the brightest as well as lowest amount of ambient light. Why? So people notice me! My light is visible from over a mile away and I cannot count the number of times drivers have waited for me because they’ve seen me.
And power matters! Don’t think some low level, 2018 version of my 1980 Berek head or taillight is going to catch the eye of distracted drivers. You need power, you need flash, you need to be the bigger distraction, day or night. Through the decades I have graduated from my Berek to a generator operated light to a Velolux and on down the line through the years. If your light is a joke why use it? To satisfy a legal requirement? Trust me, getting hit by a car, to quote Rocky Balboa, “Stings a little.” Bright lights flashing erratically catches the eye of the distracted tiger.
B is bio-motion.
We are programmed to notice movement. Mammals appeared on the Earth 160,000,000 years ago. In the ensuing eons we have been in eat or be eaten mode. As hunter or hunted we notice things that move, it is literally in our DNA, and what “moves” as we ride our bikes? Our feet. Our knees. Our lower legs. These are the parts that bob up and down with every pedal stroke, so these are the parts where bright, eye-catching colors do us the most good. Black shoes? Foregetaboutem! Low or no socks in drab colors? Who are you Charles Bronson? Bruce Willis? You got a Death Wish?
Color counts most when it’s moving. Make sure the parts that bob up and down are as eye catching as possible.
Contrast, like cookie, starts with C.
We know that in the Be the Bigger Distraction game our moving parts count the most, but don’t minimize your biggest and most easily seen billboards. A bright helmet is visible from farther away than bright socks simply because it is up higher. Add a flashing Ion 800 to the front and a Flare R to the back of your helmet and you’ve elevated the, “See me, feel me, (don’t) touch me!” game beyond the realm of Tommy and the Who. And are you really wearing a black jersey?! Bright, mismatched colors catch the human eye. Use that knowledge to make yourself seen.
The last time I was struck by a car was over three decades ago. In the interim I have ridden enough miles to circumnavigate the world six-and-one-half-times, that’s over 155,000 collision free miles, and by using my ABC’s I hope to do at least that many more without having a close encounter of the bumper kind.
We all need to do what we must to be the bigger distraction. Cell phones were not available until 1983 and they cost as much as a Yugo, the king of crappy cars. It was nearly the Twenty-first Century before DVD players started distracting drivers from SIPDE, searching, identifying, predicting, deciding and executing a course of action in our driving. People are texting while driving, watching videos, reading emails, all while holding their phones in one hand, eating a doughnut in the other and drinking coffee with a third; you think they’re gonna see you if you’re dressed in oh so slimming, fashionable black and are riding sans 800 lumens of look at me candle power front and equivalent attention grabber rear? You willing to bet your life on that?
Being seen is as simple as A-B-C. Do it!