Stay Seen, Stay Safe: What Every Cyclist Needs To Know About How To Help Drivers See You

By Rick Bernardi

I was walking in a crosswalk in Ithaca, New York when a “careless driver” nearly ran me down.

Fortunately, he saw me and slammed his brakes on at the last moment. Standing there, in front of the car that nearly hit me, I glared angrily at the driver. He apologized and explained that he hadn’t seen me. Now I was really angry. In broad daylight, on a bright, sunny day, a driver nearly ran me down because he hadn’t seen me. How could he have “not seen” me?

I barked out “Pay attention to where you’re going!”

Still apologetic, he explained further. He hadn’t seen me because my clothes were the same color as the street. I looked back at the street. It was a faded black. I looked at my clothes—a faded black T and faded black jeans.

I suddenly saw the entire incident from a new perspective. Of course he hadn’t seen me. My clothes did blend in with the roadway. Feeling sheepish now after angrily confronting him, I acknowledged the situation, said “OK,” and we both continued on our separate ways.

Years later, I still remember the near-miss, and more importantly, the reason a driver didn’t see me when I was right in front of him on a bright sunny day.

Drivers get a bad rap from cyclists, and deservedly so. They are often notoriously careless, displaying only a passing familiarity with the rules of the road, or safe driving practices. It’s common for drivers to pay little more than scant attention to the road in front of them. They often choose to deliberately distract themselves with their gadgets when they should be driving. They all speed—Every. Single. Driver.—even though excessive speed is the single greatest factor in crashes.

And those are just the drivers who aren’t deliberately trying to harm cyclists.

It’s really a miracle that careless drivers don’t injure and kill more cyclists than they already do. And yet when a cyclist is injured or killed by a careless driver, the number one excuse the driver will make is “I never saw the cyclist.” It’s like a talisman that magically wards off accusations of negligence: “I never saw the cyclist.”

But it’s not a talisman. It’s not an excuse. It’s not even an explanation.

Rather, “I never saw the cyclist” is almost always an admission of negligence.

Almost.

If the driver was not paying attention and “never saw the cyclist,” the driver was negligent. If the driver was deliberately distracted by an electronic device and “never saw the cyclist,” the driver was negligent. If the driver “never saw the cyclist” because of sun glare, or because the windshield was fogged, or iced over, the driver was negligent. (Free clue for drivers: If you can’t see what’s ahead of you because of sun glare, or because your windshield is fogged or iced, or for any other reason, you’re required to slow or even come to a complete stop until you can see what’s ahead.)

But what if it’s dusk, or dawn, or even night, and the cyclist is wearing dark-colored clothing and has no lights or reflectors?

You don’t want to be that cyclist.

You don’t want to be me, difficult to see, blending into the sheen of the summer sun on the roadway, like I did all those summers ago. Dusk or dawn, night or day, rain or shine, fog or blizzard, you want to be seen when you’re riding your bike. And because you want to be seen, you’re going to have to help drivers see you.

But first, you need to understand what you’re up against.

The Facts
  • There is a 7:1 size differential between cars and bicycles. You can mitigate this size differential visibility advantage that cars have by helping drivers to see you better.
  • Most car-on-bike collisions occur at night.
  • Perception distance is the distance at which a driver can first see you. This means that the driver sees something (you) but hasn’t yet recognized what that something is (a cyclist).
  • Recognition distance is the distance at which a driver can first recognize that you are a cyclist. Recognition distance is a shorter distance than perception distance, because after first perceiving that there is something (you) on the road, it takes time for the driver to recognize that you are a cyclist.
  • The nighttime perception distance for dark clothing is only 75 feet. At speeds of 60 MPH, this gives drivers less than a second to react once they first perceive the cyclist. Even at speeds of 30 MPH, drivers have less than two seconds to react once they perceive the cyclist.
  • The nighttime perception distance for reflective material ranges from 1,200 to 2,200 feet.
  • The nighttime recognition distance for reflective material ranges from 600 to 700 feet in darkness but decreases to 260 to 325 feet with brighter background lighting.
  • The daytime perception distance for hi-viz clothing can increase from 400 feet to 2,200 feet. The nighttime perception distance for hi-viz clothing can increase from 150 feet to 560 feet.
Your Most Effective Strategy To Help Drivers See You

Because most car-on-bike collisions happen at night, one of your most effective strategies for avoiding collisions would be to avoid riding at night. However, this isn’t always possible, or even desirable. The next best strategy, therefore, will be to minimize your risk by maximizing your conspicuity (how easily seen you are). To do that, you will want to help drivers:

  • Perceive that something is out there;
  • Recognize that what the driver is perceiving is a cyclist on a bicycle;
  • Determine whether the cyclist is on the same road as the driver;
  • Determine the distance of the driver to the cyclist; and
  • Determine the speed and direction of the cyclist’s travel.

With this strategy in mind, factors that you can control to maximize your conspicuity are:

  • Lights: The brighter the lights you have, the greater your chance of being seen, and the greater the chance that drivers will react to your presence sooner. Drivers perceive dim lights as being further away than they really are, and thus are slower to react to the presence of the cyclist. Conversely, drivers perceive bright lights to be closer than they actually are and will react to the presence of the cyclist sooner.
  • Reflectors: The nighttime perception and recognition distance of reflectors will be at least equal to those of bicycle lights and may actually exceed them.
  • Reflective Material: The nighttime perception distance for reflective material will vary from 1,200 to 2,200 feet. This variation is due to the fact that reflective material is more conspicuous against a darker background than it is against a lighter background. Reflective material even aids perception in drivers with elevated blood alcohol levels.Nightime recognition distances of reflective material range from 600 to 700 feet, but with brighter backgrounds the recognition distance is only 260 to 325 feet.However, even with reflective material, drivers have difficulty recognizing what they are seeing, unless the reflective material is used together with a lighting system. The most effective placement for reflective material is on the arms and legs, because motion is what helps drivers recognize that you are a cyclist.
  • Color: Dark and drab colors tend to blend in with the background; this can make a cyclist nearly invisible. But light colors also tend to blend into the background as the motorist is approaching you, making you less visible as the driver gets closer. Nevertheless, lighter colors are still more conspicuous than darker colors.The most conspicuous colors are fluorescent colors. Yellow-green is particularly conspicuous, but yellow, lime green, and orange are also very conspicuous. Be aware of how these colors are seen in your riding environment as well. For example, riding under a tree canopy in sunlight may make your green-hued fluorescent colors seem to blend in with the greenery. For that reason, I favor fluorescent orange.In daylight, fluorescent colors may be up to four times brighter than non-fluorescent colors, and will be particularly effective during periods of low visibility, such as dawn, dusk, haze, and fog. With fluorescent clothing colors, the daytime perception distance can increase from 400 feet to 2,200 feet, and nighttime perception distance can increase from 150 feet to 560 feet. A fluorescent helmet can increase the perception distance to over 600 feet, and even fluorescent bike colors can help drivers recognize what they are seeing.
Legal Requirements

Each state sets its own laws for conspicuity. Typically, these laws specify that a bicycle or rider must be equipped with lights and reflectors during limited visibility conditions. The only federal requirement, set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is that all new bicycles sold in the United States must be equipped with a specific number, color, and placement of reflectors (see 16 C.F.R. 1512.16). There is no similar federal requirement for bicycle lights on new bicycles; instead, the states specify the minimum lighting requirement, and leave it up to the individual cyclist to choose their own lighting system.

There are two types of lighting systems that are typically addressed in state laws—Passive Lighting, and Active Lighting. Passive lighting is reflectors; active lighting is “bicycle lights.” States often require some combination of passive and active lighting, although some states will allow you to choose between a rear reflector and a rear light. Regardless of what lighting equipment is required in a given state, state laws will typically only require passive and active lighting equipment during “conditions of limited visibility.”

  • Limited Visibility Conditions: It’s common to think that the law requires lights at night. But state laws go further than requiring lights at night. Typically, lighting equipment is required during conditions (or periods) of “limited visibility.” Of course, this includes night, which is typically described as between sunset and sunrise. But “limited visibility” covers much more than the hours between sunset and sunrise. For example, in Oregon, any condition which limits your ability to see at least 1,000 feet is a “limited visibility condition.” This could include fog, heavy rain, blizzards, a dust storm, smoke, or any other condition which limits your ability to see. At any time when there are “limited visibility conditions”—even at high noon—your state law requires you to be equipped with whatever lighting equipment is required in your state.
  • Passive Lighting—Reflectors: The idea behind passive lighting—reflectors—is that you don’t have to do anything for them to work. You don’t have to turn them on, you don’t have to buy batteries, you don’t have to charge batteries, you don’t have to remember your lights, you don’t have to do anything. As long as your reflector is in the beams of a car’s headlights, the reflector works. In fact, in the beam of a car’s lights, it works better than many active lighting systems. Some people remove all of the reflectors from their bike for aesthetic appeal. This is perfectly legal, as long as you don’t ride during conditions of “limited visibility.”However, given the importance of helping drivers to see you by maximizing your conspicuity, and considering the simple effectiveness of reflectors coupled with ease of use, you’re better off leaving your reflectors on your bike, or replacing them if your bike isn’t equipped with reflectors.
  • Active Lighting—Bicycle Lights: In contrast, active lighting—in other words, bicycle lights—don’t require a car’s headlights to work. You turn on your lights, and they work, even in broad daylight.Lighting systems will vary greatly in features, effectiveness, and price, and the minimum state requirements are not stringent. However, if you want to help drivers see you, you should strive to do more than meet the minimum legal requirement, which even a lighted match would meet.
  • Floors, Not Ceilings: The state laws are a minimum legal requirement, and can be thought of as a floor below which you cannot go. They are not a ceiling beyond which you cannot go. You are free to go above the minimum, and by going above the minimum, you will be helping drivers to see you. This applies both in terms of lighting equipment, and when to use it. For example, at a minimum, you are required to be equipped with a state-mandated minimum level of lights during limited visibility conditions. But nothing prohibits you from going beyond the minimum lighting requirement, and nothing prohibits you from using your lights during daylight hours.However, if you choose to follow the minimum requirement, but not go above and beyond what the law requires, you are still legal, and you can’t be found negligent for not going above and beyond what the law requires. What you’re actually doing when you go above and beyond the minimum legal requirement is helping drivers to see you better than what the law requires. And while that’s a good strategy for avoiding collisions before they happen, it’s not a legal requirement, and if you don’t go above and beyond what the law requires, you’re no more negligent than a driver would be if they chose not to paint their car in fluorescent colors (which is also not a legal requirement).
  • Reflective Clothing: There have been legislative efforts in several states to require cyclists to wear reflective clothing at night. So far, these efforts have failed, although there are some borderline exceptions that could be construed as a requirement, or at least an option to wear reflective material. For example, in New Hampshire, cyclists must wear reflective leg bands at night if the bicycle is equipped with clipless pedals. And in Oregon, a cyclist has the option to choose between a red rear light, a red rear reflector, or “reflective material.” Generally, however, wearing reflective clothing is not required, and should be thought of as going beyond the minimum requirement.Reflective clothing will vastly increase nighttime perception and recognition differences, although it is most effective against darker backgrounds. Because reflective clothing only works when you are in the beams of a driver’s headlights, it will not increase your conspicuity during daylight hours, unless drivers have their headlights on—when there is fog, or rain, for example. Reflective clothing will be most effective when used together with your lighting system; the most effective placement for reflective clothing will be on your arms and legs, because movement of the reflective material helps drivers recognize that you are a cyclist.

Again, however, you can’t be held negligent for failing to wear reflective clothing if it is not required.

  • Hi-Viz Clothing: Like reflective clothing, hi-viz clothing is not required by state laws, just like hi-viz car colors are not required by state laws. While hi-viz might help drivers see a hi-viz car better, there’s no legal requirement to paint your car in hi-viz. And neither is there a legal requirement to wear hi-viz clothing. It’s perfectly legal to wear whatever you want to wear while riding your bike, and you can’t be held negligent for failing to wear hi-viz, just like drivers can’t be held negligent for failing to paint their cars in hi-viz colors.That said, you can gain tremendous increases in your daytime and nighttime perception and distances with hi-viz clothing, with perception distances increasing from 400 feet to 2,200 feet in the daytime, and from 150 feet to 560 feet at night. This is a significant advantage in helping drivers to see you better.
One More Danger You Must Be Aware Of

All of the strategies cyclists use to boost their visibility tend to be based on helping drivers see you better in limited visibility conditions—nighttime, fog, heavy rain, smoke, haze, and so on. Daytime conspicuity strategies just apply those same conspicuity strategies to daytime riding. But there’s another limited visibility condition cyclists face that that is extremely hazardous, and which these standard conspicuity strategies do little or nothing to mitigate.

At sunrise, and as sunset approaches, when the sun is low in the sky, drivers facing into the sun can be temporarily blinded by the sun’s glare. If the driver can’t see, the law requires the driver to slow to a speed at which the driver can safely proceed. This may mean slowing to a crawl, or even a stop. And yet the vast majority of drivers tend to continue driving, even when they can’t see anything beyond the hood of their vehicle. It’s illegal, but they do it anyway, hoping that they don’t hit anything while they’re driving blinded by the glare.

If you are on the road in these conditions, your life is in danger, because it’s likely that the drivers around you can’t see you, no matter how conspicuous you’ve made yourself. If you are riding facing into the sun, the drivers behind you will be blinded by the sun’s glare, and likely won’t see you. You will know this because the sun’s glare will be in your eyes too. And if you are riding with the sun to your back, the drivers in oncoming traffic will be blinded by the sun’s glare, and likely won’t see you. You will know this by the length of your shadow on the road, and by the sun’s glare coming off the windshields of oncoming vehicles.

In either situation, for your safety you should either pull over and wait a few minutes for the angle of the sun’s rays to change, or get off that road and take a different route that will not have you in the path of drivers blinded by the sun’s glare.

A Final Word

All of the strategies for helping drivers to see you are directed at one goal—to avoid a crash before it happens. Avoiding a crash before it happens will always be preferable to trying to put your life back together again after a crash. After all, no amount of money can take the place of your good health. And one of the best strategies you have to avoid a crash before it happens is to help drivers to see you better.

Still, despite your best efforts to help drivers see you better, there are some drivers out there who just aren’t paying attention, and will say they “never saw” a cyclist who did everything possible to help drivers see them better. If you do happen to get hit by a careless driver, contact bicyclelaw.com or another personal injury attorney who understands bicycling. While many attorneys are competent to handle general injury cases, make sure your attorney has experience and is familiar with:

  • Bicycle traffic laws
  • Negotiating bicycle accident cases with insurance companies
  • Trying bicycle accident cases in court
  • The prevailing prejudice against cyclists by motorists and juries
  • The names and functions of all bicycle components
  • The speed bikes travel as well as braking and cornering
  • Bicycle handling skills, techniques, and customs
  • How to get the full replacement value property damage estimates for your bicycle
  • Establishing the value of lost riding time
  • Leading bicycle accident reconstruction experts
  • Licensed forensic bicycle engineers
  • Establishing the value of permanent diminished riding ability

If you have been injured in a bicycle accident that may be the result of another party’s negligence, contact bicyclelaw.com for a free consultation with bicycle attorney Bob Mionske.

For more information

For more information about avoiding crashes before they happen, see How to Avoid Car-On-Bike Accidents

For more information about using situational awareness to avoid crashes before they happen, see Riding with Situational Awareness

For more information about using emergency maneuvers to avoid a crash, see Emergency Maneuvers Every Bicyclist Should Know

For more information about car-on-bike crashes, see About Bicycle Accidents

For more information about protecting yourself with insurance, see About Insurance

For more information about conspicuity, see Bicycling & the Law

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