What does it take to be seen around here?

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At the junction ahead of me two cyclists are waiting for the lights to change. One, a guy dressed in everyday clothes, is positioned at the head of the traffic – directly in front of the line of cars. The other, a girl wearing a fluorescent jacket so bright it makes my eyes hurt, is waiting patiently on the left of the traffic, alongside the front car.

This got me thinking. Which of those two cyclists is most visible?

Well, duh, you might think. The girl in the fluorescent jacket, clearly. There’s a reason why it’s called ‘hi-viz’.

Not necessarily. According to an article in last week’s Guardian, wearing head-to-toe hi-viz doesn’t guarantee a cyclist will actually be seen. Research carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory has found that, in fact, what’s most visible can change depending on things like where you are, what’s around you and how light it is.

(Admittedly the article was based on research into motorcyclists, rather than us humble pedal cyclists – so perhaps there are limitations to this argument.)

I don’t wear hi-viz. I used to. I used to have a fluorescent yellow jacket, just like the one the girl was wearing. But it was ugly. I decided I wanted a jacket I could wear on my bike and off, so I switched to a more tasteful purple jacket.

Am I less visible now than I was before? All cyclists, I think, have times when they assume they must have become invisible. But in the year since I started wearing my purple jacket I don’t think I’ve been any more invisible than I used to be. No-one’s knocked me off. I’ve barely even had any close calls.

But then maybe that’s also because I try to cycle in a way that makes me as easy to see as possible. I try not to sneak up on someone’s left hand side while they’re not looking. I stay away from blind spots, particularly those belonging to large vehicles. I most definitely do not kerb-hug.

And if I’m at a junction and the lights are on red, I try to plonk myself right at the front. Right in front, in fact, of whatever vehicle might also be waiting there too.

Because, frankly, if a driver can’t see me in broad daylight while I’m right in front of their car, then that has to mean one of two things. Either they really shouldn’t be allowed to drive – or they’re simply not looking. And no amount of hi-viz will change that.

Going back to those two cyclists at the junction, I’ve no idea which one was most visible. Maybe it was the girl in the hi-viz jacket after all. But you know what? As long as the other road users could see both cyclists, I don’t think it really matters.

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9 thoughts on “What does it take to be seen around here?

  1. Since I started riding, I’ve tried to pay more attention to what makes a cyclist on the road stand out…One thing I have noticed is that blinking red lights, taillights and on the helmet, make a huge difference even when it’s light out.

    • I’m always amazed at the numbers of cyclists I see riding at night without any lights on. Don’t they realise how hard it is to spot them?? I never go out at night without my lights on and I usually have them blinking because I think they’re more noticeable. I don’t use them in the daytime, though. As long as I’m riding where I can be seen, I don’t think lights are necessary.

  2. Hey Jude – g’day from a hot Sydney day. I saw your comment on womencyclists about the monkeysee harness, and since you’ve just written this great piece thought you might like to take one for a test ride, and see how the harness rocks for yourself. You can contact me at monkeysee.net.au. See you! Denise

  3. Good post. I have a bright yellow jacket, but I tend to wear it only at night or if it’s raining, as I don’t think people really notice bright colors during a sunny or slightly cloudy day anyway. I agree that your position in relationship to cars is actually much more important than what you’re wearing in terms of visibility.

    As for not using lights, I think some people don’t because they’re expensive and at least in my particular neighborhood, a lot of people riding at night are poor. Our local bike advocacy group gives out lights for free a couple times a year, which is great.

    • That’s a good point. Lights can be incredibly expensive, particularly if you can only afford a cheap second-hand bike. It would be good if more places gave out free lights, or if all bikes were sold with them – they are a legal requirement after all! Imagine if cars weren’t sold with lights, and you had to buy them separately…

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