How many vehicles do you see on this road?
As the equinox approaches and daylight closes down on our commutes, I’ve been contemplating a post about the hazards of the rising and setting sun. Tonight I stopped on my way home to take a photo. I kid you not, I had no idea there was a cyclist coming when I took this photo! I didn’t see him because the setting sun was blinding. It wasn’t until after I took the photo and he was in the intersection that I saw him. Had I been in a car (or on my bike) turning left at that intersection, I would likely have violated his right-of-way and might have hit him.
I don’t like harping on the hazards of cycling because, frankly, there are not many hazards which can’t be avoided with a few simple skills. Cycling is very safe when we follow the rules and best-practices. Understanding the dangers and where they come from is the key to staying crash-free. The rising and setting sun creates a visibility hazard we need to understand.
Sun in my eyes
Few situations frighten me on the road. I’m not fearful of being on the road in the rain. I actually enjoy riding in the dark. But a low sun on the horizon has always made me a little nervous—especially when it was in front of me. I know that if I can’t see, the motorists behind me are having the same difficulty. That state of alarm causes me to have a little more awareness of what’s going on behind me, and I’ll usually try to avoid riding into the sun on roads with faster traffic. It’s a valid concern, because cyclists do occasionally get hit from behind by blinded motorists.
Sun at my back
For a long time, I never had a second thought about having the sun at my back. The world in front of me was crystal clear. It wasn’t until one morning when I was riding west and wanting to make a left turn. There was a line of slow-moving traffic in the oncoming lane but they kept drifting through the intersection and wouldn’t let me turn. I was stopped and standing next to the centerline, signaling. Then one motorist, who had just driven through the intersection, looked at me through his open window and said “Oh! I’m sorry!” The sun was blinding them and completely obscuring my small presence even though I was only a few feet away.
Here is a photo of the same cyclist from above riding away from me.
When you look at this image, can you see how easy it is to be complacent about your visibility? Remember, 95% of crashes happen in front of you—crossing and turning conflicts. If crossing and turning motorists are blinded by the sun, you are at risk of not being seen. If your shadow is long in front of you, this is likely the case!
So what can you do?
Here’s what I do:
- I turn on my NightRider HID headlight and my flashing tail light in the late afternoon. (My NightRider doesn’t flash, but flash mode is useful in this situation. Low-power LEDs are not as effective at cutting through glare, so having a bright light is a good idea.)
- I ride a little slower toward intersections and I am prepared for an emergency maneuver.
- By default, I ride farther out in the lane than the guy in the photo, it makes me more visible (look at that first photo again—the illuminated reflection from the tire tracks) and gives me more options (for instance, if someone turns left in front of me, I can swerve left and pass behind the vehicle… I’ve had to do this).
- I try to avoid riding into blinding sun. Sometimes it’s only a matter of a 10-15 minutes to wait out the sunset. Also, if you have a particular problem area on your route, see if you can find alternate roads to avoid it — riding north/south a little longer before turning east in the morning, or choosing a road with features that block the low sun.
EDITED 9/21 to add some great comments from Mighk.
(I’m interested in how others deal with the sun on the horizon… so please tell us or share your experiences in the comments section.)