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?

12 thoughts on “On being not visible enough

  1. I realised a couple months back that putting my lights on flashing mode ought to be more visible; a steady patch of white or red in a driver’s vision could be overlooked compared to blinking several times per second. I do also think it would shout “cyclist!” from some distance as no other vehicle uses a flashing white or red light; a single steady light might get confused with a moped/motorbike/something else. Do you use flashing lights?

  2. In Japan rear lights are not mandatory and the onus is on car drivers to look out – if you hit a cyclist or a pedestrian you lose your license until you’ve done a full or partial re-test. Speed limits are lower in towns and it’s a lot more pleasant than walking or cycling along busy roads in the UK.

    In the UK I go for 2 sets front and rear to give a back up, and use a RSP dual half-watt flasher on the back that are on amazon for about £15. I think the motorists who are looking at their phones are the major problem, and these lights really do register even when you’re not looking. I think the focus on hi viz is a nonsense – drivers are not looking and the only way to change that is to shine a light into the car that they can’t miss. Main front light is a magicshine, dipped. I use it on flash(still dipped) only when I’m filtering. I feel safer in the dark than in daylight with this set up.

  3. Disgruntled: thank you for the link. It is interesting that the Dutch do have to campaign for people to have bike lights (but I suspect that it is the younger people here, just as there, that are most lacking in lights!)

  4. If both of you are complying with the law there is no reason you should ever be hit, therefore each of your responsibilities is to comply with the law. For you that means lights and reflectors, for the driver it means to concentrate on their driving and be looking out for cyclists.

    The visibility issue is a red herring, if you can’t see a large object straight in front of you illuminated either by headlamps or streetlamps you probably shouldn’t be driving. Look at it another way, if you were a car parked at the side of the road who would be responsible if you were hit? That doesn’t even take into account I can’t remember the last time I saw a parked car with its parking lamp on,

    highway code

    You MUST NOT park on a road at night facing against the direction of the traffic flow unless in a recognised parking space. Laws CUR reg 101 & RVLR reg 24

    All vehicles MUST display parking lights when parked on a road or a lay-by on a road with a speed limit greater than 30 mph (48 km/h).
    Law RVLR reg 24

  5. It is not quite clear from what I wrote above, but on both bikes (road and Brompton) I have two rear lights and two front lights. In both cases I have one rear on steady and one on flash: on the Brompton I do the same for the front lights; the front lights on the road bike are usually both on steady. That’s my usual practice. I could write whole new blog post about the non-usual situations!

  6. I agree on this. I think as cyclists we have the responsibility to display clear and bright lights back and front. We also need to comply with reflector rules too. So many people now using clipless pedals, I think your idea of reflective ankle straps are great. I also believe cyclsits should wear something light/bright, but and the big but is, we shouldn’t need to be light up like a Christmas Tree wearing more hi-vis than an M1 maintenance team to negate a motorists lack of attention.

  7. I have to come down on the side of the motorist on this one. Cyclist need to equip themselves with all available from the survivors armoury. Some drivers have the vision equal to Mr Magoo.
    I have a solution to avoid collisions at junctions and have been informed that I will be given an opportunity to present to TfL after Christmas. On success I hope to have a UK rollout soon after. Stay safe. Adrian

    • But if some drivers “have the vision equal to Mr Magoo” (and I’m afraid I don’t know who he is, but I assume he isn’t the most attentive person), should we be tolerating their prescence on the road?

      (Edited to add: a spot of googling reveals Mr Magoo is a short-sighted cartoon character. So now I know.)

      • Thats entirely the point. There should be no need for the cyclist to go above and beyond the legal requirements. There should be a driving restriction on people who can’t cope with night time or low lighting driving. There are too many people who drive appallingly at night, hitting the breaks hard when a car comes the other way or swerving all over the road. They are a danger to everyone not just cyclists. Mt Magoo shouldn’t be driving so cyclists shouldn’t have to make consideration of protecting them sleeves from him.

  8. I’ve cycled every day since the 80’s in the UK, but in the 90’s I did a decade in holland. I think reflective wear – on coats and bags at night is actually better and more reliable than lights. I try to kit my kids out with stuff that has reflective bits and I’ve even gone as far as glueing or sewing scotchlite onto bags and coats for all of us. In daylight, bright clothes don’t have to be hi-viz yellow, I find they might look great on skinny sporty people but I don’t fit that mould, never have.
    I’ve got fairy lights and flower lights on my bike and trailer just for fun really, little bike lights are all fine and good, they don’t glow and move about like someone with even a tiny patch of scotchlite on their bag or coat.
    During rush hour at night, from inside a car, I can see even the most unlit cyclist or pedestrian, humans have excellent vision, but when you add car headlamps, street lights etc to the mix, you start to just look for lights and bright things and that becomes an obsession of everything moving must glow bright. If a driver going slow through town at night can’t see things that aren’t lit up, they shouldn’t really be driving.

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