'Watch where you're going!'
A friend of mine was recently on his scooter at a stop sign, waiting to pull out into a busy street here in Wausau, Wisconsin. As he sat there, an approaching SUV turned, cut the corner, almost clipping the near curb and just missed him sitting there like a proverbial dead duck. He said what frightened him most was the driver's side mirror whizzing inches past his head and that he seemed paralyzed and left watching the scene unfold. The woman driving had her head down, most likely texting, my friend thought.
Normally very Zen-like, my friend pulled a U-turn and tailed her through suburban neighborhoods until she dropped him. "Was that road rage?" he asked me.
Sarcastically, I suggested he install a bicycle safety flag, the ones that were popular in the '70s, although I still see one now and then on the road. A commuter who occasionally pedals past our house has one flapping on the back of his bike. The flag, however, has about a foot of surface area and doesn't seem all that effective in increasing the rider's visibility, especially when motorists drive with their heads down. Typing "btw what r u doing 2nite?" is seemingly more important than avoiding crashes. You could have as many sails as the USS Constitution painted blaze orange and a texting driver might still not see you. You're more likely to get hit and then hear, "Gee, I never saw them until it was too late."
We have laws against such irresponsible practices in Wisconsin, yet they rarely get enforced. For once I'd like some justice when I see a texter driving, like the license Nazi descending from heaven and confiscating that precious piece of Department of Transportation-issued plastic. "No license for you. You will not drive for 100 years."
Naturally, many cyclists worry about our visibility on the road - or "conspicuity" as it's referred to in traffic and accident studies. We have nightmares about getting hit from behind or blindsided or, like my friend, getting plowed into head-on. If a driver isn't even looking, because they're too busy texting or reading a map, it doesn't matter how conspicuous we appear. In that horrifying situation, we have absolutely no control over our fate.
However, if a driver is paying attention, we can do things to enhance our visibility. According to a 2009 Federal Emergency Management Agency document titled "Emergency Vehicle Visibility and Conspicuity Study," fluorescent colors, especially orange and green, increase visibility during the day while cycling, which is the why highway workers don fluorescent green. This is also why hunters wear blaze orange, which shows up remarkably well against a natural backdrop like the woods.
When I'm heading out for a solo road ride, I like to pick the brightest jersey in my closet. And on dark drizzly days, I might wear a fluorescent green safety vest. I'm glad I saved all of those chartreuse-colored team jerseys from the late '80s and early '90s. Their ongoing utility vindicates my pack rat habits. If I owned blaze orange clothing that was suitable for cycling, I would probably wear that as well.
Bright colors should not lead us to believe that we are conspicuous and therefore invulnerable. They should not give us false confidence. Research shows that some colors may not be as important in enhancing visibility as we think (see Car Color and Safety at www.aaafoundation.org/pdf/carcolorandsafety.pdf). Traditional colors, like the yellows of school buses and the reds of fire engines, are not as visible as we once thought they were, which is why we now see fluorescent green emergency vehicles. On the other hand, black shows up surprisingly well during the day, especially against a busy background - a plus for all of us who wear black shorts. Predictably, silver and gray are poor choices for foggy, misty days, a reminder that my silver rain jacket may keep me dry but it also might render me inconspicuous. What really matters in determining conspicuity is background color, which unfortunately, constantly changes in an urban setting of neon signs, colored buildings and black to gray pavement.
At night our conspicuity is obviously low. White shows up well at night, an excuse to wear a T-shirt, but lights, reflectors and reflective paint are all musts for night riding. If I think I might be out past dark cycling, I always strap lights onto my bike, and I also keep spare lights in my bags, just in case. See Josh Putnam's Cycling Pages at www.phred.org/~josh/bike/visible.html for more tips on increasing nighttime conspicuity.
The Taupo Bicycle Study (injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/14/1/11.full), which queried thousands of New Zealand bicyclists, did find that "low cyclist conspicuity may increase the rate of crash-related injury" and wearing high-visibility clothing can cause accident rates to drop. The 2005 study also found that our low speed and low body mass, relative to cars and trucks on the roads, might contribute to our rate of crashes. In other words, because we travel at considerably slower speeds and we're a lot smaller than the typical SUV, we remain ever vulnerable.
I wonder sometimes if drivers are looking for us, even at a subconscious level. Drivers get trained to look out for other cars, trucks and SUVs, and not smaller motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and people on foot. Psychologically, it makes sense that we fear larger vehicles, likes semis and cement trucks. When I'm on my bike and get passed by one on the road, I'm sure my heart rate and blood pressure increases. Such mammoth vehicles make me feel like a bug waiting to get smashed into a windshield or grill.
Years ago I adopted the idea that while cycling I was the Invisible Man. Consequently I don't expect drivers to see me crossing the street and I don't play chicken with 3-ton vehicles in intersections. I know what those flattened bugs look like on my windshield.
Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.