On an unusually popular blog post (and more on visibility)

Not many people read my blog, I have to admit. I started it mostly after some persuasion from some people on the City Cycling Edinburgh forum, with a bump on the head being the last straw. I think most of the people who read it come through the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain blog round-up. However my last blog post got lots of comments; I think because the CEoGB twitter feed decided to re-tweet it, and then a couple of people with a lot more twitter followers than me had a conversation about it, and so people came to see what the discussion was about.

It is interesting, though, that a subject like hi-vis which I would have thought has been discussed over and over again would still provoke discussion. My thoughts and practice on this have changed – when I started to cycle regularly again I got a hi-vis tabard with reflective bits on it which I’d throw over whichever office coat I was wearing at the time. However I’ve come to believe that cycling around looking like cycling is dangerous does not actually help the general perception of cyclists, and so these days the tabard lives in my pannier. Most of the time, that is. If it is very, very rainy I sometimes put it on, because I accept that everything is more difficult to see when it is raining hard. The rest of the time I rely on good lights, two at the front and two at the back.

A while back I came across these – little capes/jackets in hi-vis colours with reflective bits that would go over your usual coat but look rather more feminine than my tabard. Part of me thought that they were a nice idea, but I wouldn’t wear one myself.

The trouble is that we seem to be caught up in a situation where everything has to be brighter than everything else (apologies to Meat Loaf). I’m against daylight running lights on cars for this reason – while it might make a car more visible, cyclists and pedestrians become less visible in comparison – the lights I have on my bikes are fine for the dark but only one is powerful enough to make an impact in daylight. (That light cost nearly £100 and is the one I got to see where I’m going when I do my long commute, where some of the roads don’t have streetlights. In flash mode, I think it is too bright in the dark – but I’ve used it on flash a couple of times in early morning light, just to make myself more visible to someone coming the other way who might be considering an overtake. I don’t think one should have to spend £100 on a light to cycle in urban streetlit areas.)

To be honest, if you can’t see a car in broad daylight, you either have very poor vision indeed or you were not looking… I’ve “not seen” cars a couple of times (I describe one incident here) but it would have made no difference if they’d had their lights on or been painted bright yellow – I didn’t see them because I didn’t look. If people don’t look for bikes, if people don’t think that there might be bikes to look for, then people on bicycles are not going to be seen, not matter how many lights or how much hi-vis they have. All of us, as road users, have a responsiblilty to look, look, look, and look again. And yet a lot of the defensive road use that is taught to motorcyclists and bicycle riders is to do with making yourself visible to people who are not looking for you. If, as a cyclist, I could assume that all drivers would treat me in the way I want to be treated, I would actually be a lot less agressive with my road use. As it is, I have to assert my position on the road, because I have to assume all other road users are idiots.

When we get to hi-vis for everyone, what do members of the emergency services wear so that they’re easier to see? Lights on their heads? How do you pick a marshal out of a group of runners all wearing hi-vis? I wonder, too, what the mother of the little boy who I often see walking along with his Mum when I’m heading for the station thinks she’s protecting him from when she gives him a hi-vis tabard to wear. He looks (to my untrained eye) too small to go out on the roads on his own, so she’s going to be supervising his road crossings, and if a car is going to crash onto the pavement the driver is hardly going to spot and avoid the small boy in hi-vis if they’re not in control of their car in the first place…

From all of this, I conclude that what I would like to do and what I actually do are two different things. We talk about and campaign for the roads that we would like to have, while dealing with the roads as they actually are. So I’ll continue to wear hi-vis sometimes, and run my bike lights in daylight sometimes, while hoping that one day there won’t be a need to do that any more.

(Oh, and thanks to “disgruntled” for the link to the Dutch campaign on bike lights. Even that, I noticed, comes phrased in a positive way: “I want to see you”, not “Protect yourself” or “Don’t be foolish” or whatever. No, I as another road user, want to be able to see you on your bike.)

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On being not visible enough

I was folding my bike up at the station the other evening when a very polite and pleasant lady came and spoke to me. She told me that she and her husband had passed me in their car as I was cycling on the way there, and they had felt that I was not very visible. I have two lights, and she agreed that she could see them, but she still felt that I could be more visible, and wondered if I had something reflective to wear.

The conversation was entirely polite – I thanked her for speaking to me and I do think that she was genuinely trying to be helpful, and so I was left feeling a bit conflicted. I do have two identical Cateye rear lights (and I think the batteries were getting a bit low); but other than that I wear a long black coat and a grey hat (and that day I had black trousers on, too). So I do make some demands of drivers to notice me.

I’ve been having a few issues on that stretch of road recently too – it is the bit just after the roadworks where cars are accelerating away after being “held up” behind me while going through the one-way section. I’ve had a few alarming moments there – normally I try and hold primary through a series of pinchpoints and move over a bit between them, but recently I’ve struggled to control the road space along there. At least, I assume that’s where the woman who spoke to me passed me.

I posted about this on the CityCyclingEdinburgh forum, and we had an interesting debate. I replaced the batteries in my rear lights (they did need replacing) but I was still wondering if I should perhaps do something else. And then I cycled to the station again. And I thought
“This is a long, straight road, with plenty of good, bright streetlights. How the hell did you have a problem seeing me?”.
I’m still wondering if some of the streetlights were out, earlier in the week, though. I had spoken to another cyclist whose back light had slipped so that it was pointing down rather than backwards and my recollection is that I did think he wasn’t easy to see.

So, to the broader debate. To what extent should cyclists make ourselves visible, beyond the legal requirements on lights and reflectors on the bike? Some people choose hi-vis, reflectives, the works. On the road bike, I only ride in the dark when I’m commuting, and so I have a rucksack cover with reflectives on, as well as reflective ankle straps (partly to confirm to the spirit of the law about pedal reflectors as I run clipless pedals which are illegal in the dark, as they don’t have reflectors). On the Brompton, though, I only ride in urban areas where there are streetlights. Hi vis isn’t all that good in streetlights – I was following my wonderful boyfriend on his bike the other day when he was wearing hi vis with a pale green rucksack on top and you couldn’t really tell what was hi vis and what was rucksack: the thing that made him good and visible was his nice bright rear light (a present from me, I might add…). So if you have a good light, I really don’t think you need anything else.

In my view, it is back to the issue of responsibility. Who is responsible for my safely – me, or the person who is using a tonne of dangerous machinery (otherwise known as a motor car) in my vicinity? Well, I don’t think that I have no responsibility at all; but I do think that the person in charge of the car has responsibility too, and at the moment our culture of road use does not seem to put much responsibility onto the car driver. Its all better, brighter lights and so forth on the bike – a lumen war, another piece of expense (really bright lights are expensive) that make riding a bike at lot less easy than riding a bike. I wonder: what sort of lights do the Dutch have on their bikes?