From a cyclist’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine drivers can’t see us. We’re riding in a group, we’re wearing blinding shades of neon, we’re taking up lane space in a way that feels impossible to avoid. But read a motorist-cyclist crash report, and the same phrase will come up time and time again: “I just didn’t see those bikes on the road.”
Often the culprit is negligence caused by distracted driving. According to the CDC, in 2013, nearly one in five crashes (not specific to car-bike crashes) in which someone was injured involved distracted driving. And that number is expected to grow even bigger as cellphone use increases, and people find more excuses to look at anything other than the road. The CDC has also reported that at 55mph, the average text takes a driver’s eyes off the road long enough to cover a football field—scary stuff when you’re a cyclist easily overtaken in that amount of space.
So how can we make sure that we’re a bigger distraction on the road than a negligent driver’s cellphone? While the onus is always, always on drivers to obey the rules of the road and remain alert, here’s what we can do as cyclists to increase our chances of being seen.
Of course you’re using front lights and rear bike lights while riding at night, right? But did you know that lights are effective during the daytime, too? According to a study on the safety effects of permanent running lights for bicycles by Madsen (2013) the incident rate of all bicycle accidents with personal injury to the cyclist was 19 percent lower for cyclists using permanent running lights.
Daytime running lights use a more focused output to intensify the beam and extend the light’s range, so it can be seen from at least a quarter mile. Some daytime lights even vary the intensity and pattern of the flash so that the light will be more noticeable. Check out Bontrager’s Flare R Tail Light with 65 Lumens, designed to help you be seen from up to two kilometers away.
At night all that carefully calculated neon doesn’t mean much—you’re no more detectable wearing bright yellow in the dark than you would be in all black. That’s why reflective clothing is the way to go—and incorporating more accessories with reflective panels, particularly around your moving ankles and knees. In a 2010 study by Wood and colleagues, results of a closed-road driving experiment revealed that drivers recognized 90 percent of cyclists wearing a reflective vest plus ankle and knee reflectors compared to 50 percent of cyclists wearing a reflective vest alone, 15 percent of those wearing a fluorescent vest, and only 2 percent of those wearing black clothing. Big cycling brands like Sugoi, Specialized, and Bontrager all make reflective cycling gear; here’s where you can find more commuter-oriented wear.
Safety in numbers has certainly proven to be true in terms of total cyclists on the road; this 2003 study showed that an increase in pedestrians and cyclists leads to a decrease in motorists hitting them. But on a smaller level, it’s also apparent that riding two abreast (where legal) creates a more noticeable presence on the road and forces motorists to wait to safely pass instead of trying to squeeze by. Just make sure you use that increased visibility wisely and act as an ambassador for cycling—or in other words, obey the rules of the road and encourage your riding buddies to do the same.
When there aren’t any bike lanes, we often feel like hovering at the edge of the road will keep us out of harm’s way, but there are plenty of times when the safest move is to take the full lane of traffic and demand drivers notice our presence. For example, when we’re traveling at the speed of traffic, when the lane is too narrow to share, when there’s more than one lane of traffic going our direction, when approaching an intersection through which we’re riding straight, and more. Taking the full lane prevents the most common cause of car-bike crashes: a car making a right-hook turn in front of a cyclist—often without even noticing the cyclist is there. The best way to be seen is to make yourself a brightly covered vehicle in the middle of the lane.
It sounds counterintuitive. How could riding according to rules and expectations make a driver actually more likely to see you? Shouldn’t you try to stand out and be noticed? But drivers will look for you where they’re expecting a cyclist to appear. This means riding in bike lanes, taking the full lane when necessary, and clearly signaling turns in advance because—according to one Bicycling editor—“it reminds drivers that you have arms just like they do and would prefer not to lose them.” A further way to signal to drivers that you’re in this together is to wave when someone yields to you. It’s not required, but it goes a long way toward getting the attention and appreciation of other road users.