Cyclists should be seen, and sometimes heard….

I’m not a scientist. This piece will not attempt to discuss how the human eye works. It’s all about rods and cones apparently. Sometimes a colour will look brighter than another colour. Sometimes the reverse. It’s like that visit to the Opticians. Is it better on the green or the red. Half the time I feel like it’s some sort of mental test rather than a test of eyesight. Am I getting it right? Does the optician think I’m an idiot?

The biggest debate in cycling is, of itself, debatable. Is it the lack of road tax? The lack of proper training? Why on earth DO we look like that? Why aren’t helmets mandatory (or why isn’t that cyclist wearing a helmet when they (mistaken belief) are mandatory?) A fog of information, misinformation, and straight forward idiocy…..

Let’s be clear. Some drivers wouldn’t see a cyclist in front of them if that cyclist were lit up like the figurative Christmas tree. That’s not a slight on cyclists, it’s not necessarily a slight on drivers (or that driver specifically). It’s just that human beings can be quite inattentive, particularly when carrying out a highly technical, dangerous task. There’s some guidance about what cyclists should do. That guidance, in the Highway Code, is in no way mandatory. The words “should” are not a legal requirement. They reflect good practice and, arguably, breaching them may count against you should the very worst happen.

The Highway Code provides that:

Rule 59
Clothing. You should wear a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations, is the correct size and securely fastened appropriate clothes for cycling. Avoid clothes which may get tangled in the chain, or in a wheel or may obscure your lights, light-coloured or fluorescent clothing which helps other road users to see you in daylight and poor light reflective clothing and/or accessories (belt, arm or ankle bands) in the dark.

(Note the lack of punctuation, should there be a comma after poor light? Or is it suggesting poor light reflective clothing in the dark. The former in my view)

Appropriate clothes for cycling. Well, that rather depends on the discipline doesn’t it? It goes someway to explaining the existence of the lycra clad warrior. Put simply, any training ride is probably best carried out in lycra in exactly the same way that proper swimming is probably best carried out in speedos rather than board shorts. But that doesn’t mean lycra for everything. A commute is fine in MTB gear. It’s ok in a suit if it’s not far, but wear ankle clips. Do what works, do what’s comfortable, don’t worry about what everyone else says or thinks…..

And so, if we ignore the great helmet debate (no, please, let’s really ignore it, I’ve done that one) then let’s get on to discussing fluro evangelism. For it is evangelism in the very worst way. Cyclists must wear bright colours because the Highway Code says so. We start from a basic misreading of the rule. It’s an advice so doesn’t need to be followed. But there seems to be a belief amongst the more vocal social media commentators that it is a requirement. It’s also an evangelical belief amongst cyclists in much the same manner as the helmet debate. Do as I do and do as I say. If you don’t then you’re simply asking for it. Oh God, asking for it. Yes, victim blaming is very often alive and well. So, what of it, is there foundation for this evangelism? Or is it hocus pocus?

Well, let’s start with language. Language can be so very confusing depending on preconception. High Vis is the buzzword now, fluro a subset of it, but the truth is that language is both more complex than that and, ultimately, far simpler.

Let’s start with fluro coloured clothing. It’s not fluorescent, at least not in the sense that a light is, or even true natural fluorescence. It’s a description of something that’s really bright and, arguably, more visible. The sciency thing has to do with turning energy into different wavelengths and thus appearing brighter. So, think of your dayglo oranges, yellows, greens and pinks. Then we have high visibility or high vis for short. Is that any different? Arguably not. Most high visibility clothing uses some sort of fluro colour as its base colour. The Highway code talks about fluorescent clothing. It’s talking about colours which are easier to pick out both in the day and in the hours of dusk and dawn. So what’s high vis all about?

Typically high vis is used interchangeably with fluro. We often see pieces where cyclists are urged to wear high vis clothing? But what is it? A quick google of high viz (sic) leads to many websites dealing in personal protective equipment. That’s right, your jersey might be protective. But the garments are not just fluro, they are also adorned, as alluded to in the Highway Code, with reflective material, typically some sort of silver scotchlite fabric which reflects light sources, be that ambient light or, crucially, car headlights.

The media, and in particular social media, conflates and confuses many of these terms. It over complicates what is actually needed. The rule of thumb is that light colours are better in the day, fluro colours catch the eye. After dark you need reflectives. Or, to put it more simply, try to be seen.

And consider this piece here Fluro might not be as safe as you think Let’s start with the fallacy in the title. Fluro cannot, absolutely cannot, make you safer. It has no magical properties to turn you into a cycling God. It may make cycling safer to the extent that others see you, but the suggestion is that it may well not do so. The article says that there is limited success at night. Well, hello, it’s just a colour and requires light. Stick someone in black and someone in yellow down a mine shaft. I guarantee you won’t find either of them.

What IS important though, and it seems like a matter of common sense, is contrast, that is the difference in your colour choice to that of the natural environment around you. It’s even possible for fluro yellow to go missing in low sun or spring colours. In those cases perhaps fluro pink is the option. Or white. White is actually a pretty great colour for being seen. Makes you look fat mind.

Black and yellow, hello?

fluro

Just look at that. Orange and yellow in the dark. Note that the only other colour which stands any real chance here is white, you can see the white car off to the right there. Indeed, the black tights are almost entirely invisible. This is typical of many a picture of fluro clothing. But, does it reflect reality? I suspect not. The orange and yellow jackets are visible because they are cast in light. They are capable of reflecting light rather than absorbing it.Black is the darkest color, the result of the absence of or complete absorption of light. Science. But you can still see black, in the right conditions. Particularly when you shine a light on it. The problem with black is that it blends into other blacks. So, in the photo above the road is black and there is little or no definition between the tights and the road surface. Photoshop or truth? I don’t know, I suspect somewhere in between.

But there is another reality at play. The runners appear to be more visible as a result of their clothing. But try this. Dress someone like a ninja, stand them in front of a car at the same distance as above, put your headlights on. Can you see the ninja? Of course. You know they should be there and you can see them. Repeat the experiment at distance. Move them further away. At what point does even the fluro clothing disappear altogether? That’s an oversimplification of course. The clothing will continue to reflect whatever light is present. So you’d need a very dark, cloudy place to test the true efficiency of fluro clothing. I suspect the answer is that the fluro clothing will be more visible at any given distance. Probably.

It’s complicated. The real world has ever changing weather conditions, it has different sources of light both direct and indirect, there are multiple things competing to be seen and numerous distractions for the driver and the rider. Anything static which suggests that one thing is better than another thing is flawed. Any attempt to decide what is definite is doomed to failure, we can only really deal with what is likely to be true. So, let’s turn what is likely to keep you safe(r).

What is important is being seen. That is clearly the case in the dark and dusk but, increasingly, it seems to be the case that being seen in the day is important. Short of subliminal mind control our only choices are clothing and lighting. Let’s deal with each in turn.

Clothing

It seems to be the case that light coloured and fluro clothing are more likely, subject to contrast, to get you seen, and to be seen in the widest variety of conditions. That is almost certainly the case in daylight and in the hours leading up to dusk and dawn. Certainly there’s no real disadvantage to wearing light coloured clothing during those hours. Whether that clothing is more visible in car headlights, street lights or ambient light in the hours of darkness is an arguable point. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support this but it would be perhaps foolhardy to decide on an exclusively dark night ride and dress all in black simply because of a lack of evidence.

One of the arguments cited against black in the day is that it’s the colour of the road surface. Well, that might be true when viewed from above or in the vertical plane. But, generally, riders hover above the road surface and unless the horizontal plane is also black they should be visible against the multitude of surrounding colours. Indeed, there may be occasions when a light coloured jersey might blend in with a surrounding colour depending on the environment. Equally, if your ride is through the Forest of Dean then the ever changing lighting conditions might be challenging to varying shades of green etc. It’s hard to generalise on whether one particular colour is better than another in all conditions. It’s a compromise. Nevertheless, it’s fairly accepted that the truly searing “fluro” colours such as exhibited in the dhb aeron range (see elsewhere on this site) and my very orange Mossa are more likely to contribute to, rather than hinder, your safety.

But at night reflectives work. There is no doubt about it. As long as your reflectives are caught by a decent light source then you should be seen. Have a look at this picture of an otherwise black Altura Night Vision Evo.

alt

I don’t know if that’s been photoshopped or enhanced in any way. But, in my experience of having owned one, that’s fairly representative of how they react to light. Useful to have. Some companies take this even further. Have a look at the Proviz jacket. It’s a dull greyish colour in the day. But cast a light source on it or take a picture with a flash and it becomes a searing bright silver. Guaranteed to get you seen, provided that the driver isn’t distracted by one of a thousand quite distracting things. Good jacket and good idea? I don’t know. The theory is great but I picked one up in Halfords and found it quite inflexible and my gut feeling is that it would be waterproof but lacking breathability. The same goes for the Night Vision Evo above. It’s great at keeping the rain out, and your body heat and vapour in. Undeniably a tidy safety option overall but not one that is conducive to getting you out there. Not for anything other than a medium length commute in my view.

But reflectives are useful. As I noted on another review, the Castelli Alpha was particularly poor in this respect, which is particularly annoying for a winter piece. There are no reflectives at all. dhb’s Aeron range offered much more in this regard and combined it with some nice fluro colours to catch the eye in the daylight or dusk. My Parentini Mossa and Mossa.2 are also adorned with a large amount of reflective trim. Lusso’s nitelife is brilliant. It costs pennies to add. So, manufacturers please, just add it.

Conclusions? My evidence base is my experience and dash of common sense. Look around you at what colours stand out in most situations. For me the advice in the highway code makes sense. Try to be seen in the day, add something at night. Do what you can do but always be prepared for that person who claims to be your mate but who’s really sorry that they didn’t see you.

Lighting

You can ride with as much fluro and reflective material as you want. If you really want to be seen then you need lights. Good ones and, ideally in my view, more than you legally need.

Remember that cyclists only need lights to comply with the law between the hours of dusk and dawn. The points where the sun set and rises. At all other times, regardless of light levels, you don’t need any lights. That’s probably unwise, certainly at the rear of the bike. Indeed there’s a move towards running with a rear light on even the brightest of summer days. The new breed of lights are very bright. Many of them come with daylight modes which are designed to catch the eye of those around you. But let’s leave that aside for the moment and deal with lighting in the darkest of conditions. What do I need.

Well, it depends. Where do you live? Try this. Stand in an unlit country lane after sunset. Wait till there’s nothing and no-one around. In the absence of moonlight you’ll be lucky to see your own feet. You won’t be able to make out colours. You’ll be the invisible man. Then take any light you want, turn it on. You will be seen. Indeed, you’ll be seen from some distance. There’s nothing to distract, no sea of headlights, no neon signage. Pretty much most lights you use will offer some degree of visibility. Front or rear, white or red, makes no difference. You’ll be seen. Provided the sight lines are good and you’re not wiped out by some fool coming at speed round a bend, most of what you do will be good enough to be seen. So, if your commute or night time club run is rural you won’t need much. A tidy cree based LED at the back will make you stand out. A good flashing unit at the front will provide a decent warning. Of course, you won’t be able to see where you’re going. At all. But you will be seen.

So, if you’re lucky enough to live out in the sticks, you may or may not need much. In the city you need something different. The light pollution is potentially massive. The traffic jams are full of cars with tail lights, brake lights and high level lights. There will be the odd idiot with front and rear fogs. Along you come with a weedy light system. Can you be picked out as a separate entity among all of that? It’s difficult. You need something decent. There are hundreds of options available to you. Moon, Knog, Lezyne, whatever. My preference is for the See Sense lights, front and rear, at least to be seen. Pay your money take your choice. Something that flashes is better, it catches the eye. Technically, if those things are capable of a steady light then, remember, if you run them on flash then you need a BS standard steady light to supplement them. But, as I said on my light review, ignore that BS part, it’s largely BS. Get something that is decent and works and you will be fine. In the city being able to light your way is not, in the bigger cities at least, a big issue. There should be enough light to get you where you’re going.

It’s an over simplification. Most of us who commute, and it is at that cyclist that this is mostly directed at, will have a mix of conditions. Even the London cyclist will find themself on the towpath at some point, or in the dark alley. You will need to see and be seen. What do you need?

There’s no one size, so I’ll tell you what I use and why. My commute is roughly 18 miles each way. Starts in a small town, good streetlights. After about 3 miles I’m out onto A and B roads. Some are busy and well lit, others are less so and unlit. When I get to my large end city (Cardiff) I have around 4 miles of unlit cycle path. When rationalising commuting in the dark I decided, perhaps unscientifically, that my simple choice was overkill versus being killed. I need to see, because much of it was unlit, but above all I needed to be seen. My clothing choice erred on the side of caution, fluro and reflectives. My light choices were designed to get me seen and, crucially, to draw attention in a way that, perhaps, the tiny cheap seatpost mounted “safety rear” did not do. I wanted a driver to look, see and conclude that the thing in front was a cyclist or, if that were not obvious, that it was an unusual thing and that caution should be exercised.

At the front I’ve kept the same sort of setup for a number of years. One flashing light and one to light the way. There have been different combinations. At one point I had a Magicshine with a Lezyne Micro Drive. Worked well but the Magicshine had a separate battery which took up my bottle cage as I didn’t like hanging it on the cross bar. Last year I used a Philips Saferide 80 and a See Sense front. A great combination.

So, this year, I’ve been using a Cateye Volt 1200 and See Sense Icon. We can argue all day about whether the Volt is too bright. I run it in a lower power mode and angled down. It seems ok. It has a “hood” at the top to take some of the oncoming dazzle away. I’ve not had anyone flash me for using it. But short of asking someone to come out and do some driving towards me tests I have on idea whether it’s socially acceptable. It’s visible though and works extremely well on getting me seen. But the main job of getting me seen falls to the Icon. It flashes and it does a shed load of clever stuff.

At the rear, it’s pretty easy. See Sense. First the original 125 lumen model and now the Icon 2 x95. It’s a stunning light. But I supplement it with a Lezyne Strip Drive Pro on the seat stay. I run that on solid. Not because it makes me more visible, though it probably does, and certainly not because the See Sense is defective, which it most certainly is not. No, I do it just to ensure that I comply with the RVLR Regulations. OK, it’s not certified or BS rated, but no one is going to argue about that. I comply, end of, and I’m visible from a LONG way off.

What else? Well, most of the stuff I have has reflectives. My Mossa.2 is resplendent in the stuff. In addition the sidewalls of my Vittoria Hyper Voyager are also reflective. As the weather gets better even the more spring like jerseys I own have sufficient reflectivity.

As I conclude this piece my early morning and evening commutes are now almost exclusively light. Yet I continue to use the See Sense Icon at the rear. Indeed, I use it on the best bike on tempo rides. Why? Well, every little helps and there’s always one idiot out there.

And there we are. Much rambling, a lot of ranting. You don’t need to do as I say, or as I do. You certainly don’t need to do as the media tell you to do. Do what makes sense, do what makes common sense. It should be enough. If that one person doesn’t see you? Frankly, they were never going to.

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2 thoughts on “Cyclists should be seen, and sometimes heard….

  1. Great article.. a lot of sense in there too. You mention the FOD, that’s my home turf and visibility isn’t just poor off road, the roads here are dark, even those which are lit. We’re unfortunately putting our faith in our equipment and (more frighteningly) other road users

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cheers Ian, I’ve had this one written, in various forms, for months. But the article on why fluro doesn’t necessarily protect you made me hit publish. At the end of the day all we can really do is have faith lest we sit on the sofa in our pants instead………

    Liked by 1 person

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