How to stay visible to drivers

Cyclescheme, 10.12.2013

How to stay visible to drivers

December days are short, and drivers might be distracted by low sun, iced-up windscreens or busy social schedules. It's critical to stay conspicuous. 

In the middle of winter, cyclists are sometimes encouraged to 'light up like a Christmas tree' whenever they go out in the dark. This is much better than cycling like a ninja but it's misleading. Your goal isn't to be one more fairy-lit object in an environment that might be saturated by Christmas lights. Instead, you want to be immediately recognisable as a person on a bike. You need to light yourself up like a cyclist. 

Lighting up

To ride on the road legally between sunset and sunrise, your bike (not you) must be fitted with an approved white front light and an approved red rear light. Lights that can only flash – hardly any – must emit at least 4 candela. Lights that have a steady mode must be marked as conforming to BS6102/3 or an equivalent EC standard.

That's the theory. In practice, UK lighting regulations are out of date and it's difficult even to find approved lights in shops. Just fit bright ones, either battery or dynamo powered, and that are visible through an entire quadrant, front or rear.

Flashing lights attract attention best, and flashing red lights have come to be associated with cyclists. However, it's easier for drivers to judge your distance if you show steady lights. So it makes sense to use lights that don't wink out if your commute isn't under streetlights all the way. A steady light up front also lets you see best. Avoid super high-power front lights designed solely for mountain biking at night, as they can dazzle drivers.

So long as they're the right colour, you can legally use additional lights. So you could supplement your steady lights with secondary flashing lights.

Bright ideas

Unlike drivers, cyclists are not legally obliged to use lights between sunrise and sunset when visibility is seriously reduced – for example, by fog. Switch your lights on anyway. They might make all the difference on a gloomy winter's day.

There's a good argument for using pulsing or flashing lights for winter commuting even when it's not foggy, raining or snowing. Brighter cycle lights can be seen in daylight, and if you happen to be riding into a low winter sun or are on a road with a higher speed limit, the lights might help you get seen sooner.

Whatever lights you use, it's worth carrying a pair of secondary lights. The main set might fail, become lost or stolen, or you might forget to recharge them. In this respect, USB-rechargeable lights with a battery indicator are handy, as you can top them up via a computer at work if need be.

Reflectivity

As well as lights, bikes must, by law, have a red rear reflector and amber pedal reflectors. Wheel reflectors and white front reflectors are optional. Of all of these, and even though this law is not enforced, it's the amber pedal reflectors that most immediately say 'cyclist' when they catch car headlights, due to the up-down motion.

Most flat pedals either come with pedal reflectors or can have them fitted. If your bike has clip-in pedals, it's trickier unless they're Shimano SPD ones. Combination flat/SPD pedals such as Shimano's T780 and M324 pedals have (or can have) normal reflectors fitted, while dual-sided SPD pedals can be fitted with a plastic clip-in unit, SM-PD22, which adds reflectors and flat pedalling surface to one side of the pedal.

Reflective ankle bands or cycling shoes with reflective heels are useful for similar reasons as pedal reflectors, as are reflective chevrons on the legs of cycling gear. Reflectivity is also worth having on cycling jackets, tabards, gloves, bags, tyre sidewalls, and more. You can buy ready-made reflective gear, such as Altura's Night Vision equipment, or you can add reflective stickers yourself. 

During the daylight, colours that give contrast help you stand out. That means bright yellows, lime greens, oranges and reds in a grey urban environment.

Road positioning

Good road positioning is more important in winter, because drivers' visibility is worse. Sometimes it's the weather or the quality of the light. Often it's simply that the windscreen is still partially fogged up or hasn't been properly cleared of ice. Where that's the case, drivers may set off if they can see directly ahead, even if their peripheral vision is poor through the windscreen, side windows, and wing mirrors. You need to be where they're looking: ahead. 

You might find that you do this automatically on snowy roads, because the traffic stream is clearly marked by tyre tracks of compressed snow. So long as the snow isn't compressed into ice, these 'tramlines' are easier to cycle in. You'll end up following them, and so will drivers, who won't want to stray too close to a kerb they can't see clearly.

Riding further out from the kerb has an additional benefit when you're on high streets thronged with shoppers: you're less likely to collide with pedestrians who step into the road without looking, having only listened for vehicles.

Spotting drivers

Since drivers may see you later - and brake less effectively if the road is slippery – it's imperative that you see them in plenty of time, so that you can make manoeuvres safely. You need to be ready for adverse conditions even if drivers aren't.

To keep rain, sleet or snow out of your eyes, you need to shield them. A peaked helmet helps. Better yet is a peaked cycling cap – winter versions are available - because you can pull the peak down just above your eyes to give better protection. You can wear a cycling cap underneath a helmet. A cap can also keep low sun out of your eyes, like a sun visor in a car. 

If you need additional eye protection – perhaps the hail is coming straight into your face – wear cycling glasses with clear or light-coloured lenses (e.g. yellow). Cyclists who wear spectacles can use cheap polycarbonate over-specs to keep raindrops off the prescription lenses, where they would distort vision. A cap with a longer peak, maybe even a baseball cap, is also helpful.

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