Being Visible

I’ve been riding along some pretty busy roads lately. Most of the time, they have shoulders. Sometimes, they don’t. And shoulders and bike lanes usually end at intersections. So being seen is something I’m always aware of.

It seems whenever I hear of a collision between a car and a bike, the driver often says something like, “I didn’t see you!” Now, that’s generally because the driver was not looking for a cyclist. They were looking for motorized traffic, so didn’t expect to see cyclists.

So I decided early on that I would try to wear clothing that is visible.

Different colors show up differently. Below is a shot from the start of a group ride I attended about a year and a half ago. (It’s kinda nice to see evidence of cooler weather — I’m sure it will be back, eventually!)

Anyway, some colors jump right out. Hi-vis green, for one. On this overcast day, the screaming color makes the cyclists wearing it stand out from the crowd. Another good choice is bright yellow, also obvious in the picture.

Less of a standout — white and black. Again, the overcast sky has an effect. White might work on a day like this, but not as well when the sun is low in the sky. Blue is a popular color. It’s one of my personal favorites, and I have three jerseys that feature blue as a dominant or prominent color. But I don’t think blue is a great choice for visibility. Note the cyclist in blue top and black shorts in the right third of the picture. Not exactly a stand out.

Red and orange show up well. I was following a group several weekends ago, and all were wearing different shades of those. My wife was in her salmon pink and orange jersey, and was riding with a woman in a red flower print top. I could see them clearly well before I could determine who they were.

So I’m at a loss to figure out why black seems to be such a popular jersey color these days. Cyclists in black seem to me to blend in with their surroundings.

In addition to being less of a standout, it strikes me that black jerseys absorb too much heat. I own a jersey with black shoulders and a blue body. I wear it often, but during this hot sunny summer weather we’re having, it is not my first choice. I pick it when my other jerseys are in the wash. Both the Sky and Leopard-Trek teams in the Tour de France wore jerseys that were predominantly black. Ugh. I can’t imagine going more than 100 miles for days on end in the summer, in black.

A lot of cyclists prefer to go the understated way, though. They don’t like to dress in high visibility colors. Why? Often, it’s because they’re engaged in cycling for reasons other than sport. Commuters, for example, would like to wear their work clothes on their bikes. Touring cyclists might want to stop and visit attractions or shops on their routes, and darker clothing makes them less conspicuous in a crowd of non-bikers. Some might think the bright colored cycling jerseys themselves are dorky looking.

Other cyclists argue that color is not important — it’s how you cycle that matters. Make yourself prominent on the road. Take the lane when necessary. Make eye contact with drivers. Just because you’re wearing high-visibility clothing doesn’t mean drivers will see you.

See Me Wear jersey

As in most issues, there can be extremes. A line of cycling gear called See Me Wear is available that — well, see for yourself:

There’s even talk of requiring high-visibility colors when cycling. New Zealand is going through a debate along those lines right now. Proponents say anything that makes cyclists more visible is a good thing. Cycling advocates argue that making mandatory a type of clothing that some might see as “dorky” would discourage some people from riding — and could lull others into a false sense of security.

You wouldn’t find me wearing one of these warning chevron jerseys. But at the same time, I’m not going to take anything for granted. I’ll do what I can to ride safely, and to make myself known to drivers. But I’ll also do it in my red or yellow jerseys, and my hi-vis green jacket. And as I add to my cycling wardrobe, I’ll favor brighter, not duller, colors.

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8 thoughts on “Being Visible

  1. We have a saying in the UK, the incident was a “SMIDSY”. As in “sorry mate I didn’t see you.”

    Which I’ve had said to me by an apparently non visually impaired vehicle driver more than once.

    On my commutes I always wear Hi Vis with flashing LEDS on my bike. For all the good it does.

  2. I like Clive commute daily in the UK and support anything that promotes safety when cycling. I know motorist should be looking out for you, but I alway think its best to lookout for yourself just in case. By the way you could send some of that unwanted warm weather over here if you like. Your photo of cooler weather looks like a very nice summers day over here.

  3. As an American living in the UK, I’ve really noticed the difference in hi-viz culture in the two countries. In London it is very common to wear hi-viz. The only people who don’t are the true hipsters of East London. It’s one of those things where since everyone else looks silly too, it’s less of an embarrassment for you. When visiting the States I’ve always found it much harder to find hi-viz clothing–it’s there, but much more of a niche item. Every bike shop in London will have multiple hi-viz jackets and jerseys.

    Of course, we do have a lot more of those overcast days over here! And in the winter we spend more hours in darkness. But I think ultimately once you’ve reached a critical mass of hi-viz, people are less reluctant about it.

  4. Visibility of colors overlaps a bit into my other life – the military. Blue, for example, is an excellent color to be seen at night. The human eye can also best detect different shades of green – probably due to hunting for the right plant back in the stone age. Of course, neon will stand out more in virtually an color.

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