Monday, February 9, 2015

The Importance of Being Seen

Building on the theme of my last post, I'm thinking about the issue of visibility while riding.

I have found it very helpful to be pretty illuminated while out on the streets of Salem. This time of year the skies are often grey, the landscape murky, and combining this with the average harassed and distracted motorist makes for an added sense that being visible is not only desirable but the kind thing to do. I'm not even going to speculate (for now) on what the effect of our new marijuana laws will bring after this summer.

When I drive at dusk or at night, I occasionally come upon cyclists who have only reflectors to illuminate their bike. I usually wish they had a bit more to alert me or others of their presence. I sometimes physically cringe at the risks people take biking. Being sympathetic to cyclists as I am, I still feel that a little investment in lights would be tremendously helpful to all involved.

This brings up the problem with a great many cycles sold in our country--they assume daylight or optimal conditions riding. I realize there are many kinds of cyclists and cycling out there, but using a daylight bike at night is dangerous for rider and driver alike. Having a devil-may-care attitude about this is profoundly unwise, though I realize part of the problem is that suitable lighting costs a fair amount. If more bikes came with suitable lighting when purchased (rather than as an option or an aftermarket add-on), the problem might be diminished some.

Bicycle lighting is required at night, this is often ignored for financial as well as other reasons. I hear a lot about this from folks who only drive cars. They are very quick to point the lack of adequate lighting on some bikes. Yet, interestingly, when I was making my way to church one dark Sunday morning and using my lights, a parishioner remarked that my lights were TOO BRIGHT! He said that having such bright lights on a bike was distracting. Yikes. The lights I own are not top-of-the-line mountain trail models...they are really just good, standard street-rated lights.

What I took away from this interview was that for at least some motorists, the mere fact that there are bikes out there at any time is the problem. I had to inform this person that such a comment presented me with the "damned if you do/damned if you don't" dilemma. I figured I best err on the "do" side.

There are a lot of solutions out there for the visibility problem. Some of the more effective I have found are:

  • A truly bright flashing light in front and back. I know that when I come upon a bike at night that has a bright red LED flasher (especially with an alternating or semi-irregular pattern), I really take notice. Having a flashing white light in front can also help a great deal for oncoming traffic. This is in addition to a steady light that I use to see the road with...I know it seems excessive, but they really are two different things.
  • Some sort of spoke lights. I have something called "The Monkey" that creates multi-colored patterns in my front wheel--quite visible at night. It has proven very effective from long distances, as it is unusual and eye-catching. While weighing a bit, it is worth that weight for the times it has alerted others to my presence. It also makes me rather happy to see it rotate as I make my way along the dark streets early in the morning or at night.
  • Reflective side-walls on tires. These really show up well at night and make very clear that I am riding a bicycle, even from a long distance. 
  • A bright raincoat. On really grey, rainy days I find that having a bright yellow coat helps make me that much more visible to drivers, as it may be seen in over the hoods of cars when one or more of my lights is obscured.

These are all expensive additions to the most basic bike cost. However, it seems to me that we live in an era where folks are intensely distracted and this level of visual insurance is a wise investment...though it is a pity it costs as much as it does.

When I drive at night, I am sometimes aware of just how many signs are stuffed into the visual field all at once, each one demanding my attention for a split-second...and this on top of the attention I should be giving to what is going on with my car, other traffic, and anything that happens to be going through my head at that moment. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but it seems to me that we are asking a great deal of many drivers today.

I was recently at an antique auto museum and was musing about how things might have changed in the traffic department over the years. The relative fragility, slowness, and openness of early automobiles might have engendered a bit of humility that our current crop of isolate and armored machines do not. Being visible as a cyclist and pedestrian is perhaps an unfortunate expense being required of us, but given what we are up against today, it seems increasingly reasonable.

I just wish that it weren't necessary. But, there is fodder for another blog post...the ways in which we live now diminish our humanity.

Until then, stay safe and stay visible!

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