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Announce Your Presence: Staying Visible on the Road

“Well, it really comes down to whether it’ll be an open or a closed casket.” This rather grim quote was spoken to a friend of mine by a coworker during a conversation centered on motorcycle helmets—specifically, the only difference between full and open face options. And while the rather gruesome visual that accompanies what this guy was saying is bad enough, what’s worse is the damned-regardless-of-what-you-choose message that was being implied. It was the classic case of phrases we bike riders, motor-equipped or otherwise, are all too familiar with; “The car always wins” and “You’re no match for a multi-ton vehicle out there,” usually top the list.

So, for those of us who spend a majority of our time sharing the roadways with cars, trucks, and other large motorized vehicles, this fear and defensiveness that comes with the territory is always lurking in some back corner of our minds. We’re well aware that we run the risk of getting crunched every time that we join the flow of traffic, but there are precautions we can, and usually do, take to increase our odds of remaining safe.

Aside from always wearing a helmet, obeying traffic laws, and using some common sense, staying as visible as possible to motorists is another—commonly overlooked—component to the cyclist’s safety equation. And as we get on later in the riding season, with daylight hours becoming fewer every day, it’s as good a time as any to address this subject of visibility.

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Clothing selection is always a good starting point. While apparel manufacturers have long incorporated reflective accents and piping in outerwear designs, these don’t help you during the day. Perhaps this is why we’re starting to see this notion pushed even further with generous applications of neon color palettes. The fluorescent, or “fluro,” rage isn’t disappearing anytime soon, which, regardless of your on-the-bike-loudness-meter, can be viewed as a good thing. Adding bits of color to your kit helps serve the function of announcing your on-road presence to others. This can be achieved in the form of a bright helmet, gloves, or even shoe covers, as anything that will catch a distracted driver’s eye works in the cyclist’s favor.

But remaining visible involves more than simply mimicking the ultra-high-viz look of your neighborhood crossing guard. Reflective and brightly-colored apparel are certainly part of the mix, but so too is proper bicycle lighting. Regardless of whether you choose the flashing or solid beam variety, making sure that your bicycle is equipped with some type of front and rear glowing orb is key in helping others see you out there. And speaking strictly in terms of visibility, you might not need a 1000 lumen headlight, but I always recommend going brighter for both visibility’s sake, and for the ability to see your surroundings on the road.

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Complementing the illumination aspect involves both assertiveness and defensive riding. Making eye contact with those impatient drivers lurching from neighborhood streets, taking the lane when appropriate, anticipating that others’ eyes aren’t readily trained to see our two-wheeled profiles, etc. are all part of this visibility recipe. The key is to make yourself predictable to motorists, and to do so, you need to cautiously behave like a motorist with the right to the road. This includes, but isn’t limited to, being wary of turnouts and driveways, and never expecting that merging cars are ever going to behave responsibly. I also recommend keeping your speed in check when traffic warrants it, and not riding two-or-more-abreast if it narrows a car’s ability to pass you safely.

It’s important to remember that these are merely guidelines for increasing your visibility to others while on your bike this fall and winter. Riding conditions are as varied as the cyclists who ride in them, but by doing everything in our power to remain seen on the road, we help increase our odds of remaining safe doing what we love.

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Photo Credit: Ian Matteson
Location: Guardsman’s Pass, Utah