Editor’s Note: We’ve spent a lot of time and effort educating you about the tools and the training necessary to be a powerhouse on a bike. Here, Gear Patrol’s Scott Packard offers his view on surviving the perils of the road.
Hey there. Yeah, you, riding along in your cool color-coordinated cycling team kit, all matchy-matchy. You look real spiffy, so neat you’ll make a great hood ornament. Because that’s where you’re going to end up — on someone’s hood, or like me, under one. Those who really need to see you, can’t. In your fancy attire, you’re invisible to motorists.
While cycling represents only 1% of all trips in the U.S., cycling fatalities account for 2% of all traffic deaths — a percentage that has been steadily rising since 2002. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 677 cyclists were killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2011; another 48,000 were injured (a figure many believe to be grossly low due to under-reporting. A comparison of hospital records to police reports suggests only 10% of bicycle accidents are reported to the police).
Over the course of more than 30 years, I have been struck by cars on three occasions while cycling. My father, twice. My brother, twice. My oldest son, once. We’ve all been very fortunate, but in every incident, the driver claimed he or she never saw us. My most harrowing car-meets-bike involved merging traffic: over my shoulder, I saw the driver looking over her shoulder and the passenger’s wide-eyed terror as the front end of her sedan rammed me from behind at 35 mph. My fancy riding shorts and cycling jersey were cut from my body in the emergency room as I was wheeled, bloody and bruised, to Radiology to rule out a broken neck.
Bottom line: you’re invisible, with potentially fatal consequences.
Even then, I resisted visibility. Looking good was more important. It took my son getting hit to really wake me up. That and learning how the human eye really works. Until then, I called “bullshit” on the “I didn’t see you” claim. That was just an excuse for sloppy driving, inattention, recklessness. But the truth is, motorists really don’t see us. Without getting too technical, two functions of the eye work against cyclists: saccadic masking and peripheral vision.
Saccadic what? Saccades are those movements of the eye as you scan your environment. A fixed stare really isn’t very fixed, as the eye wanders in small, jerky motions to build a three-dimensional impression of objects in view at each short pause. While in motion, the brain suppresses the blurred scene of our eyes as they pan, “masking” input while the eyes are moving. Compounding this temporary blindness is the catch of peripheral vision: it captures movement, but not detail. A thin slice of cyclist, moving slowly in relation to the background and other vehicles, doesn’t stand out in a motorist’s peripheral vision and disappears during the masked portion of the eye’s motion.
So: you’re invisible, with potentially fatal consequences. I implore you to employ two techniques. First, make yourself more visible (and perhaps less “cool”, though a corpse is about room temperature). Flashing lights, fore and aft, help immensely, particularly in low light. However, neon colors, unnatural hues not normally found in a tasteful wardrobe, really take visibility to the next level. Even my shoes are neon yellow.
Second, ride defensively. Make eye contact with drivers as you approach intersections. If their head stops, even briefly, in your direction, and if their eyes lock with yours, you have some assurance you’ve been seen. Use your voice — shout out to motorists to gain their attention when you’re unsure you have it.
Take this from a guy with a career of wearing camouflage for survival: on the road, at least, being seen increases survivability. A little obnoxious neon color in your attire, a couple lights; these will take you a long way on the road. You’ll be less cool, maybe, but upright and riding, certainly.
CHEERS, JEERS? We’d love to hear from you. Email the author at spackard [at] gearpatrol.com and let him know what you think. Thanks for reading.