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.
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.
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?
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!