Ride Like You’re Invisible?

The Advice

“I ride like I’m invisible.”
“You have to assume they don’t see you.”
“I ride so it doesn’t matter if they see me or not.”

How often does some variation of this advice come up on Internet forums? Perhaps you’ve heard it in person from a well-meaning and even experienced cyclist. I’ve even see it as official advice from time to time in articles about “bike safety”.

Maybe you can tell from the language I’m using that I don’t really agree with it.

Why not?

Let’s take a few variations.

“Don’t assume they see you.”

That much is fine. There’s very few things in life that you should assume without verification, and your visibility to other traffic, especially when on a bicycle, is not one of them. But do you see the difference between that and

“Assume they don’t see you”?

From that variation, it’s a short jump to “ride like you’re invisible” and “ride so it doesn’t matter if you are seen”, so let’s talk about those.

The Problem

What would it mean to “ride like you’re invisible”? Obviously, if you were really invisible, you wouldn’t dare put yourself anywhere in the path of any motor vehicle coming from any direction, behind, in front, or from the side. The only way to do that is to stick to the side of the road (to avoid the overtakers you are assuming don’t see you), the farther away from traffic the better, or maybe the sidewalk if the road is really scary. Don’t venture any farther into any intersection than necessary, and if you do, stick to somewhere that looks protected, like a crosswalk. At least then if you do get hit, it will obviously be the motorist’s fault. You better be prepared to yield to any motor vehicle you do encounter at an intersection, so be sure to stop, look, and wait at every intersection you encounter.

Does this sound like familiar behavior?

The problem with this type of behavior is the high demand it places on the bicyclist’s powers of observation, sometimes in 360 degrees. It often asks this of the surrounding motorists as well. At intersections, you’re coming from a different place than motorists are already looking for other traffic, probably faster than a pedestrian, and maybe from a blind spot. (Don’t forget about blind spots!) The crash statistics show that the majority of bike/car collisions happen at intersections. So by riding this way, either you are placing yourself at greater intersection crash risk, or to avoid that, you need to go through them at approximately pedestrian speed. (And even at pedestrian speed, you are less maneuverable than a true pedestrian!)

What if there were a way of riding that minimized the need for constant 360 degree observation, allowing you to focus most of your attention forward, placed you where other drivers were already looking, and at intersection positions that minimized conflicting movement?

You’re in luck! That’s exactly what the rules of the road were developed to do!

But wait. That involves riding in the road. How can you do that if you’re invisible?

The Solution

Well, the bottom line is you can’t. And that’s the problem with the “ride like you’re invisible” advice. If you are really assuming you are invisible, and ride like it doesn’t matter, you can’t really follow the rules of the road at the same time. And frankly, if you’re not taking any measures to make yourself visible, for example if you are not using lights at night, it certainly can be dangerous to try to ride with traffic. What’s the answer?

Let’s go back to the first statement, “don’t assume they see you.” That’s certainly sensible. But instead of giving up and figuring you might as well assume they don’t, why not take steps to increase the probability that they do? Among the obvious ones are bright colored clothing during the day, and lights at night. If you want to go further, you can get high visibility and reflective clothing and gear. Those things are all a good start.

But they’re not all. Another thing that makes you more visible is lane position. The farther into the lane you are, the more noticeable you are. You are in fewer blind spots, and are visible sooner from around corners and curves and when motorists look behind them. Also the farther into the lane you are, the more obvious it is to overtaking motorists, and sooner, that they have to take you into account. You are more relevant to them. At intersections, positioning yourself in the correct lane helps others to see you when they are looking around for other traffic. Sticking to the side makes you less relevant, and puts you in more blind spots and conflicting paths with turning traffic.

If you are assuming you are invisible, putting yourself farther into the lane is probably the last thing you’d want to do, because if you really are not seen, you obviously could get hit. But, paradoxically, lane position actually helps ensure that you are seen. It both depends on and augments the basic visibility steps of clothing, lights and reflectivity. First, you are where other drivers are looking, and because you are also making yourself as conspicuous as possible, the other drivers are much more likely to see you, when and where they look for other traffic.

Still, you can’t assume that you’re seen, can you? No, of course you can’t. How can you avoid making that assumption?

Trust but Verify

For traffic in front and to the side, at intersections, identify particular cars which might pose a conflict, and keep an eye on them. Look at where the driver is looking if you can see inside, check if the vehicle is slowing down, or if the front wheels are changing direction. Slow down and keep watching if you’re uncertain. If they appear to see you, you can try to communicate with hand signals, such as stop or go ahead, to confirm what you’re expecting of them.

Is the motorist using a turn signal or not? Take with a large grain of salt.

For overtaking traffic, you can monitor behind with head turns or a mirror. You frankly probably don’t have time to react if you’re about to get run over, but that’s rare if you are visible and riding in a straight line, so that’s not really a very necessary thing to monitor for. But you do always need to verify that you are seen by an overtaker if you are thinking about moving farther into the lane for whatever reason, or changing lanes. Signal and look behind to see if the motorist is reacting to your signal. If they don’t seem to be, stay where you are, let them go, and try again. By the second or third car, usually someone will visibly slow down for you, and that’s your cue. Give them a friendly wave to acknowledge your appreciation.

Negotiation with other traffic can be a bit more challenging on a bike due to the speed differential, but it is still possible, and sometimes is necessary if you are to operate by the rules of the road. Doing so definitely depends on being seen, but not on simply assuming that you are. Trust but verify, as the saying goes.

So don’t ride like you’re invisible – trust but verify instead!

14 replies
  1. Keri
    Keri says:

    The advice, “Ride like you’re invisible” has the same meaning and outcome as would “Ride like you’re irrelevant.”

    • JAT in Seattle
      JAT in Seattle says:

      Which only goes to show that reasonable people disagree sometimes. I’m reminded of the posts, here and elsewhere, at the start of winter regarding low azimuth sun and resulting glare in motorists’ windshields. In that rare instance you may in fact be invisible to them (and not having a big pitted and smeared windshield yourself, you maight be totally unaware that they potentially are having visibility problems), and while drivers have an absolute duty not to plow into slower moving vehicles ahead of them, one suspects that in the real world that duty does not carry so far as actually slowing down their cars…

      I suspect most of us apply different philosphical approaches depending on conditions. I don’t take the lane for every mile of every ride; I don’t need to, and other traffic can get by me a lot more easily if I hug the gutter sometimes – but it’s my choice, and I’ll signal and move over to take the lane when I need to for my safety. I rarely have touble from motorists over it, and if I do, hey, if they wanted to be ahead of me they should have left earlier…

      • John Brooking
        John Brooking says:

        Agreed that you do need to be most concerned with those rare situations where *nothing* you can do will make you more visible, such as riding into a low sun, or in extremely poor weather visibility conditions like snow or fog. Even with poor visibility conditions, where negligent motorists may be overdriving their field of vision, more and brighter lights *might* help. But yes, those are valid concerns.

      • Steve A
        Steve A says:

        I would contend that, in the case of the sun, “assume they don’t see you” covers things. It’s what I would do if I were in the Land Rover instead of on my bike. In such a case I take extra caution and protective actions. In the case of the sun, an operator is readily visible to motorists looking away from the sun. You have to protect against only a subset of the motorists on the road – the ones with the sun in their eyes. I’m lucky my commute puts the sun behind me in both directions. Were it otherwise, I’d consider the sun in my routing choices differently.

        I don’t think John suggests we ALWAYS take the lane. “Be visible” is a different criterion. Taking the lane can be counterproductive on a boulevard, or in other specific situations. I think John agrees with JAT about it being the cyclist’s choice, and that both John and JAT feel an educated choice is better than an automatic “try a hopeless quest to be invisible” mantra. If you are really invisible, it takes a real long time to get places.

        OTOH, being invisible would have major advantages, were this not a “G” rated blog… 😉

  2. Chris Lundberg
    Chris Lundberg says:

    I like to use the slogan “Make yourself visible” to counter the insidious meme of “ride like you’re invisible”, which for the reasons that John expounds is passive and bad advice for cyclists.

    “Make yourself visible” informs the cyclist that they have power over their environment, and neatly encapsulates (and invites discussion of) a variety of behaviors that create or increase visibility, e.g., lane positioning, signaling, lighting, etc.

    For example, one point I always emphasize to reduce the probability of a left-cross is to note that a cyclist proceeding straight through an intersection that can’t see (because of large vehicles proceeding in front of them) the oncoming traffic positioned to make a left turn across their path should “make themselves visible” by taking a more leftward position in the lane.

    • Chris Lundberg
      Chris Lundberg says:

      Hmmm…I hadn’t read Commute Orlando for about a week when I saw this aticle and posted the above comment. Now I see that two articles down the list is “Ferncreek: A Case of Unintentional Manufactured Conflict” (pated Feb 11), which has excellent graphics analyzing the left-cross I described in my comment above – check it out, and thanks to Keri for posting it.

  3. Mighk Wilson
    Mighk Wilson says:

    Taken literally, “Ride as though you’re invisible” means to never ride on the roadway, because if you’re on the roadway and you’re invisible, you run a very high risk of being hit; whether you’re in a bike lane, on the edge of a shared lane, or of course controlling a lane. So you must ride on the sidewalk. And since you’ll have so many more turning and crossing conflicts on the sidewalk than you would on the roadway, you must ride not much faster than a walking pace, AND you must be absolutely perfect in your scanning and stopping.

    People who promote “ride as though you’re invisible” are often making themselves less visible. So they have more close calls; after which the motorists yell out, “I didn’t see you!” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • Dwight Kingsbury
      Dwight Kingsbury says:

      I could never tell (when I used to ride this way on multi-lane arterials) whether oncoming left-turning motorists had indeed not seen me approaching the signalized intersection when they began turning, or simply took it for granted that any cyclist riding so close to the right edge of the roadway could be counted on to yield, turn right, or otherwise stay out of the way of a turning motorist.

      I used to shout at left-turning motorists who didn’t yield to me; it satisfied my sense of outrage but didn’t stop the drama. I acquired a bicycle horn and used it for a while; results were about the same as with shouting. Then the horn broke.

      Been years since I’ve experienced one of those episodes. Don’t miss the drama. Left-turners pause and wait for me to ride through.

  4. Tom
    Tom says:

    I’ve seen the “ride as if you are invisible” stuff before, of course. I used to like Michael Bluejay’s take on it (www.bicyclesafe.com).

    Quoting from Bluejay’s site:

    “It’s often helpful to ride in such a way that motorists won’t hit you even if they don’t see you. You’re not trying to be invisible, you’re trying to make it irrelevant whether cars see you or not. If you ride in such a way that a car has to see you to take action to avoid hitting you (e.g., by their slowing down or changing lanes), then that means they will definitely hit you if they don’t see you. But if you stay out of their way, then you won’t get hit even if they didn’t notice you were there.”

    Even though I find his words generally in agreement with my own take, he does get a little bit into the “stay out of the way” mode later in this paragraph (and more so later in this blurb).

    I still think he largely hits it, and encourages folks to *think* as they ride enough that the points on which I disagree are pretty minor.

    I, of course, go out of my way to make it easier for motorists to see me. If it’s cool enough to wear a wind shell, IllumiNITE is my friend.

    • Mighk Wilson
      Mighk Wilson says:

      The problem with that approach is that the cyclist is usually trying to keep out of the way of the car behind him, but ends up making himself less visible to the drivers coming from the front or the side, where most conflicts originate.

  5. tOM Trottier
    tOM Trottier says:

    Yes, trust but verify, and do the most to make yourself visible. I’ve started wearing a fluorescent & reflective vest.

    It’s also good to try to make eye contact. This makes you a person to other road users and also allows you to see if they notice you.

    tOM

  6. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    Regardless of my clothing choices, motorists still see me just fine in the dark, and make their directional adjustments WAY before they think I’d notice. I actually take my clothing inspiration from John Schubert (run what ya brung), which was definitely a minority opinion in my LCI course.

  7. Dacius
    Dacius says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your opposing point on riding like we are invisible. I ride in a manner where they have to notice me or they truly are blind and have no business being on the road. At night I have reflective gear, reflective bags, reflective tape all over my bike, plus enough lights to make a Christmas tree jealous.
    During the day is generally pretty simple in my opinion. Own your lane, act like you belong and the cars will act like you DO belong.

    I

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