I’ve learned from experience that being seen on the road as a cyclist requires more than just making sure that you are visible.
Have you ever sworn at a motorist who almost hit you, only to have him or her respond, “It’s not my fault – I didn’t see you”? I have.
As much as I used to think, “I’m right here, of course he can see me,” it is a reality that some drivers have poorer vision than others, some are not paying the attention they should and some may be distracted by something else.
This really hit home for me during the time I left my house by car every morning before dark to swim before work. When I saw cyclists with a good light a mile ahead of me on Foothill Expressway, I paid attention to them until I caught and passed them and made sure to give them plenty of room.
You may be visible without a light, but it is also important to draw attention to yourself.
There are several ways to do this. The best way is to invest in a good lighting system – even if you are not going to ride after dark.
The front light serves two purposes: It announces your presence to someone approaching you, and it enables you to see the road in front of you to avoid obstacles.
Modern lights come in all sizes, and generally speaking, the more lumens the better. But if you have a high-power light, make sure it is not blinding approaching drivers.
Also make sure that it is adjusted to light the road in front of you and not at the eyes of someone approaching you. Even if this does not increase the danger, it is not going to endear you to motorists.
In addition, think twice before setting the light to blink, as that can be very distracting to oncoming traffic (but I do that in areas of congestion, to differentiate myself from all the other light sources).
A good rear light is something that helps even in broad daylight. A cyclist in the shadows under a tree on the side of the road can be hard to see. And it can only help if motorists first notice you 200 feet away rather than 100. Setting it to blink can be helpful – and also doubles the battery life.
Next comes light clothing. If you are going to regularly ride after dark, items of reflective clothing are a no-brainer, but don’t wear only dark clothes. I drive regularly on Stanford University roads after dark, and as attentive as I am, I can’t believe I haven’t hit a Stanford student appearing out of nowhere on a bike and in a black jacket.
As important as the proper lighting and clothing are, these are passive actions to take. The way you ride (active actions) is equally important. By incorporating active actions in your repertoire, you can heighten your awareness of a potentially dangerous situation.
For example, hugging the right-hand side of the road can lead to other problems. It can encourage a driver to try to pass you when it is unsafe. Whatever you do, don’t be ambiguous. If it is not safe to pass, it is much safer to take the lane and make it clear that you don’t want the person behind you to pass. You can make this palatable to drivers by pulling over when possible so that you don’t appear discourteous. If it is safe, make sure to leave lots of room to pass.
The second problem is more subtle; the closer you are to the edge of the roadway, the more likely you will be going in and out of shadows that may camouflage you or put you outside the driver’s range of vision.
Finally, signal your intent. Even if a driver can see you, that doesn’t help if he is expecting you to go straight and you turn (or vice versa). There are three ways to do this. Signaling is the simplest, and when doing so, make sure the signal is obvious. When moving left, are you about to make a 90-degree left turn or are you trying to avoid a rock in the road?
The best way to make your intention obvious is to point in the direction you want to go (that is why I am not in favor of using your right arm to signal a left turn, even though it is legal).
But that is not enough. Proper lane positioning is just as important; don’t expect three lanes of traffic behind you to slam to a halt when you signal a left turn from the right-hand edge of the road.
Turning your head to look can clearly signal your desire to make a move, and making eye contact with the driver and smiling or nodding to acknowledge him or her can encourage the driver to allow you to move over.