The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Friday, May 23, 2008
The Value of Visibility
Jennifer wonders what else she can do to make herself more visible to motorists. From the photos I've seen, I think she has done an excellent job of making herself and her bicycles garishly impossible to ignore. She doesn't need most of the following advice, but many others do...

What should a cyclist do to increase visibility? Following the law is a good start:

Every bicycle when in use at nighttime shall be equipped with a lamp on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front and with a red reflector on the rear of a type approved by the Department which shall be visible from all distances from 100 feet to 600 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of headlamps on a motor vehicle. A lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear may be used in addition to the red reflector.
That's Illinois law (Chicago's is similar). Blinking taillights are fairly common in Chicago, but I am amazed how few cyclists use headlights (note above that taillights are optional while headlights are mandatory). My wife is a police officer. When she tells cyclists to get headlights, they actually argue with her. That's pretty nervy considering that she could give them tickets instead of verbal warnings for such equipment violations.

Additional reflectors on pedals and wheels help to draw attention (although the law requires new bikes to be sold with them, it doesn't say bicycles must have them to be operated at night). Light colored clothing, including a white helmet, is good, and reflective clothing is better. You can put reflective stickers all over your bike.

At some point, however, the extra expense isn't worth it. Jennifer's post reminds me of something written by experienced bicycle tourist Peter Saint James on the Touring e-mail list:

When I lived in Colorado, I found an amazingly high number of Front Range motorists doing things like turning in front of me or cutting me off. On occasion I would catch one and confront them with their illegal, dangerous, and impolite act. The answer I always got was, "I didn't see you." I thought about doing things to become more visible until I heard about a woman who crashed into a full-sized, bright yellow, school bus and gave the same excuse. I gave up.
That is not to say that making yourself highly visible is a waste of time and money. But visibility only goes so far, so don't obsess about it. I know of a Chicago cyclist notorious for using multiple headlights and taillights -- proverbially "lit up like a Christmas tree" -- who was critically injured when a car hit him one night.

The most important ways to avoid nighttime accidents are the same as to avoid daytime accidents:

Dress yourself and your bike to be seen, but don't forget that how you ride is more important than how you look.


Hey, the little yellow doodads were like five bucks a sheet. But they aren't very sticky, so I doubt they'll last very long.

On what grounds are people arguing with the police against headlights? I can't imagine that anyone would engage in two very bad ideas at the same time without there being some other logic in there somewhere.
I wasn't thinking about the doodads as expensive -- I was thinking of stuff like powerful lighting systems and high-tech reflective clothing. I own a gigantic $40 taillight, and some headlights cost much more.

Some people argue that they don't need headlights because there's so much light in the city. Others claim there is no such law. Many riders have no clue about bike laws and other basic knowledge we take for granted as informed CBF or LIB members. True, arguing isn't very bright (pun intended), but this is on the North Side. Chicagoans elsewhere have more respect for (okay, fear of) the police.
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