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How Cyclists Can Stay Visible On The Road

Bicyclists riding at night with lights

When the weather turns foggy or rainy across the Bay Area or day melts into dusk, what you’re wearing or how you equip your bicycle might be top of mind. But staying visible to drivers and other road users even when it’s a perfectly clear day is crucial to enhancing safety. 

There are California laws that dictate how cyclists should equip their bicycles for road safety. At night, the following must be attached to the bicycle or bicyclist (VEH 21201(d) #1-4 and VEH 21201(e)):

  1. A white headlight visible from a distance of 300 feet in front and from the sides of the bicycle.
  2. A red reflector or a solid or flashing red light with a built-in reflector on the back of the bike that’s visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful upper beams of headlamps on a motor vehicle.
  3. A white or yellow reflector on each pedal, shoe, or ankle visible from the front and rear of the bicycle from a distance of 200 feet.
  4. A white or yellow reflector on each side forward of the center of the bicycle, and a white or red reflector on each side to the rear of the center of the bicycle, except that bicycles that are equipped with reflectorized tires on the front and the rear need not be equipped with these side reflectors.

To maximize your safety as a cyclist, it’s important to think beyond riding at night and the applicable California laws. Here are a few best practices from experts on equipping you and your bicycle to stay visible in any condition. 

Equipping your bicycle 

When you’re looking for the right light for your bicycle, it’s important to think about seeing and being seen. Both are essential to your safety as a cyclist. 

High output lighting systems: For night riding in dark places, a high output lighting system will be bright and help you navigate the road or trail in front of you. These lighting systems may be more expensive because they are more powerful lights. 

They’re also usually rechargeable, which is an important factor to keep in mind. Remember to check your batteries and lights before you take off on each ride. Most lights are good for up to 500 charges. 

Types of light: Companies are making lights smaller and smaller. This can be a good thing for space, but remember to think about the type of light (LEDs are energy efficient, for example). Additionally, certain beam patterns might perform differently in different scenarios. A narrow beam is great for cities, while a wide beam might be more helpful in quieter, less busy regions. 

Light technology is evolving quickly, and it’s still not clear at what point lights become more distracting to drivers than helpful. Too many flashing lights blinking too quickly or sporadically might do more harm than help, so keep that in mind. 

Reflectors, which are required on pedals and on the side of the bike, work well for night because they reflect light from a headlight and never run out of batteries – think of them as a backup in case something happens to your lights. 

In the daytime, however, they do little to warn drivers of your presence. So, make sure they are attached properly and remember that visibility is a multi-pronged approach.

Contrast and movement: Choosing the right gear 

The human eye is extra sensitive to biological movements, according to Rick Tyrrell, director of the Visual Perception and Performance Lab at the University of Clemson. This is why it’s important to rise above your bike’s reflective pedals or blinking lights. Additional gear on your body may alert a driver more quickly in some cases that your bicycle will. 

Tyrrell, who, in part, studies human conspicuity to drivers, tells Bicycling.com that it’s important for cyclists to create contrast and a sense of motion – both of which send a signal to drivers that there is a human in their line of vision. 

Creating contrast: In day and night, cyclists can blend into their surroundings – especially if there’s a lot of traffic or there’s some type of other distraction that’s vying for a driver’s attention. To create contrast, you’ll want to stick out. Wearing fluorescent colors can help in this instance. 

Another winning combo? White and red. In a 2020 study by Japanese researchers seeking to find the best ways for cyclists to stand out on the road, it was found that white stripes overlaid on the color red provided an “optimal combination in terms of detection distance.” The study was mainly focused around how different styles of bicycle wheel may contribute to visibility, and while it might not be realistic to find a set of candy cane tires for your bicycle, you can adopt their science into your wardrobe to some degree. 

Maintaining motion: Tyrrell’s other big tip is that humans are genetically wired to notice other human motion, so it’s important to remember on your ride that if you’re not moving, it might be more difficult for a driver to see you, increasingly the chance that you could be a target for a crash.

Much of the upper body remains stationary on a bicycle, but the rotation of legs and feet will catch the eye of a driver. This is where you can enhance your safety by wearing reflective or bright pants, socks, and shoes.