As we approach the time of year when the clocks go back and evenings get darker, now is a good time to think about bike safety, by looking at what cyclists can do to be seen on the roads. It’s also a good opportunity to take stock of where you stand legally in common accident scenarios that can occur when cyclists can’t be seen.
At the risk of stating the obvious, at night you should always use lights. The UK legal minimum is one front and rear light, which should both conform to British Standard, as well as a rear reflector and amber pedal reflectors. There are various specific legal requirements about where lights can be positioned, how bright it should be (which differs depending on whether they flash or not) and all sorts of other things that can be readily Googled.
Rural bike safety
More practically, as well as ensuring they’re legal, look at your lights and assess whether they will allow you to be seen, depending on where you’re riding: one of each light is the absolute minimum – ideally, you want more. A single set of bright lights might be better on dark rural roads, whereas in town lots of smaller lights, possibly in a combination of steady and flashing, may be better.
Since 2005, flashing lights have been allowed – prior to this, they were technically not legal, based on the (slightly questionable) logic that they would ‘distract’ drivers. This has opened the door to lights that flash in multiple different combinations (I own one that does nine different variations of flashing). In practice, avoid using modes that flash in a convoluted manner and then stop. While they look terribly clever (and probably say something rude in Morse code!), they can often stop for a second or more between cycles, rendering you temporarily invisible on the road.
High visibility clothing
Perhaps just as useful as a good set of lights is a high-visibility jacket (or other clothing). At night, motorists in town are confronted with a dizzying array of lights, flashing and otherwise. Bike lights alone can easily be lost in this, whereas lights combined with a high-vis jacket means you are identifiable as a cyclist rather than just a pinprick of light. I find the most visible cyclists on the road at night are construction-site workers riding home in high-vis trousers, as the familiar shape of a pair of trousers visibly performing the action of pedalling makes it immediately obvious it’s someone on a bike. If not high-vis, then at least try to wear bright clothing. Even in daytime in winter the light can be bad or drivers can be dazzled by low sun or glare from wet roads. Using lights and high-vis clothing in these conditions can help you be seen.
Bike safety advocate
One person at odds with this opinion is Olympic gold medallist turned now cycling safety advocate Chris Boardman, who has long argued that being expected to wear high-vis incorrectly puts the onus on the cyclist, whereas making changes to infrastructure and attitudes to cycling is more effective in preventing accidents (he explains it much more eloquently here). I agree with him entirely in principle – but in the meantime I’m still going to continue to wear a high-vis jacket on my bike.
U-turns and right turns
So you’re draped in high-vis nylon and bedecked with lights: surely no one on the roads could miss you? Unfortunately, they probably could… Firstly, motorists checking for traffic tend to be looking for cars and, often, a driver not expecting to see a bike can simply fail to register its presence.
Secondly, in order for your lights and high-vis to pay off in terms of your bike safety, someone actually has to see it. It’s an unfortunate fact that road users of all types (cyclists included) will often do things without looking (or possibly more accurately: without thinking), especially manoeuvres such as U-turns or turning right from a line of traffic. This problem is one particularly likely to affect cyclists, as we’re often in places that motorists don’t expect, such as filtering past that line of stationary traffic. Cycle lanes marked on the road to the left of traffic are also a potential minefield of people parking, turning left across your path or opening passenger doors in front of you.
All you can really do to avoid these situations is anticipate that drivers may not always see you. Position yourself in the road to give the best chance of being seen depending on the circumstances. If possible, make eye contact to ensure someone has seen you, particularly with traffic waiting to emerge from a side road or onto a roundabout. I’m reluctant to advocate cyclists having to get out of the way of drivers who just haven’t bothered to look properly but, if you’re unsure if someone has seen you, be prepared to react accordingly.
Heavy Goods Vehicles
Also remember that some vehicles, in particular HGVs, will have limited visibility of traffic close to them, so make sure you’re positioned so you can be seen in their mirrors and don’t get too close. Remember both that long vehicles making a sharp turn to one side may first pull the other way to give themselves room to turn and that the rear of a turning vehicle will swing outwards.
Don’t undertake HGVs. Ever. Despite the now-ubiquitous signs on the back of lorries advising against this, a number of cyclists continue to be killed in this way each year. The time you’ll save is never worth the risk.
So what if it all goes wrong and you end up being knocked off your bike because someone hasn’t seen you? There are several common scenarios where this will occur, and we’ll consider where you stand legally in these in the second part of this article on bike safety, which we will publish during Road Safety Week, which runs from 20 to 26 November 2017.
For more information on any of the issues raised in this article or to talk about a cycling accident you have had, contact personal injury Solicitor (and keen cyclist) Matthew Lelliot, by emailing [email protected] or call 0117 904 5714.