Saturday, October 24

Raising the Flag of Cycling Controversy

Staying AWAY from helmet debates, but at the risk of causing ill feelings from some whose opinions I value, I raise the twin questions of "high visibility" clothing and earphones.

Certainly, one might consider that the first is an excellent idea with little downside, and the latter is a potential distraction. I won't argue otherwise. I tend to agree that high visibility clothing can be helpful in low light conditions when one is NOT using lights. HOWEVER, it's also true that litigation has attempted to argue that lack of bright clothing constitutes negligence on the part of a cyclist, and presence of the earphones is a cause of the cyclists' demise. News articles (and the ugly comments on same) make that precise implication, just as they often imply a cyclist would not have had that collision had she/he been wearing a helmet. I find this offensive - that a cyclist's failure to act in accord with peoples' notions of what is safe gives a negligent motorist a license to kill. The idea fosters a mindset in any "jury of peers," that the cyclist has duties in this regard. In effect, a cyclist not wearing high visibility, or wearing earphones deserves to die and is "asking for it." People stopped saying such things about rape and lynching a long time ago. We've got cyclists saying it for the benefit of those who don't know any better - some of whom don't much like cyclists in the road anyway. And they don't cite any hard evidence. Because there pretty much isn't any. It's just opinion.

I don't need a motorist to exercise a LOT of care. Reasonable care is good enough. I happen to agree with John Forester that high visibility clothing is not very effective. You need good lights and an effective rear reflector, and everything else is minor in comparison. I also agree with John Allen that earphones are not a legitimate safety issue. That didn't stop the Fort Worth policeman who told me earphones were illegal, despite there being no Texas or Fort Worth law on the subject. I'm reminded of the saying, "opinions are like armpits, everyone has two and they all stink."

It also raises the question - should I refrain from cycling altogether if my cycling jacket is black rather than high vis and I want to be responsible? I've got two lights on the bike. Soon, I'll also have a 3" amber SAE reflector. My wife tells me she sees that stuff from a full mile back. How much more do I gain with a lime vest? Am I only wearing the thing so if I DO have a collision, I take away one false defense? Is this true at noon as well as at night? Does ChipSeal need to stick reflectors on those Speedplay pedals just in case? Am I truly endangering my life by listening to talk radio and the weather report on my way to work? Heck, should Chandra be blamed because he didn't embroider his high visibility vest with blinking LED lights? The test should be "how much is needed to be REASONABLE," not how much is POSSIBLE." A cyclist can almost always find SOME way to add visibility.

In both cases, I contend that FACTS AND DATA fail to make a convincing case that added actions beyond those enshrined in Texas law are needed to meet the REASONABLE test. Actually, I'll go further; I think the evidence doesn't make any case at all. In the case of clothing, I think John Schubert said what needed to be said in "Chainguard" discussion:

"EASY to see a cyclist in a black jersey from 300 yards. That cyclist should NOT have his right of recovery abridged by the fluorescent fashion police."

It's even easier if that cyclist has two rear lights and a big ol reflector, and is riding down the middle of the lane. Beyond that, Wikipedia says most of what's to be said when they note: "Nonetheless, there seems to be even less research on the effectiveness of high-visibility clothing for the bicyclist than for the motorcyclist."
In the case of earphones, I would simply urge reading of John Allen's excellent discussion, here. It settled the issue in my mind.
We're not only blaming the victim, but we're creating a climate where anti-cycling laws based on groundless prejudice are more likely, rather than holding perpetrators to account. Remember, per my post, here, the reality is a motorist overtaking a cyclist with a closing speed of 30mph needs 3 Escalade lengths to slow down. Last time I checked, Escalades were a lot less than 100 yards long. Last time I checked, the cyclist's earphones were not connected to the Escalade braking system.


ChipSeal said...

I put reflective tape all over my bicycles and helmets because they are passive and they can't hurt. I wear bright clothing because I like bright clothing. (I use loud clothes to distract folks from my less than comely face!)

When dune buggies became popular before the turn of the century, they made these day-glow orange triangles affixed to the top of a fiberglass poles to increase their sight-lines over the crests of sand dunes. They became popular to affix to bicycles as well.

I reasoned that if a tiny orange flag could be seen by a motorist, how much better ought they see the entire mass of a bicycle and it's rider? And if they fail to notice the entire mass of a cyclist, what makes one think they will notice a tiny flag?

So I emphasis Steve's point. It is the DUTY of the operator of every vehicle on the public road to be vigilant enough to avoid hitting other travelers. (Can we all agree on this?) There is no excuse for failing to do so, certainly not the color of the victim's clothing.

What I actively do to be seen by motorists is to ride my bike directly in front of the drivers faces, and evoke in them the primary directive.

I don't need a mirror to check on motorist's compliance, they always do comply. It then naturally follows that if I don't need to see them, I also have no need to hear them.

The overtaking motorist is actually not whom I have traffic conflicts with. (Although, some of them have conflicts with me!) It is the folks in automobiles who are turning across my right of way. Or crossing the road I am traveling on. When is good hearing needed to avoid those threats?

Are we implying that the public roads are too perilous for the deaf to operate on?

There are real hazards to be aware of and concerned with when cycling. Visibility, good hearing and seeing the traffic behind you in a mirror are not among them.

Steve A said...

Thank you. I needed to hear something along those lines.

Steve A said...

Earphones are mainly a problem when stopped at traffic lights. They inhibit conversation with the occupants of adjacent vehicles, especially those with rolled down windows that use the opportunity to ask for directions. I usually remove them before engaging in conversation. This isn't a safety problem as much as a courtesy problem. It'd be the same if I were doing laundry with earphones on.

Keri said...

I agree on both counts. BTW, thanks for the link to John Allen's article. I hadn't read that one.

Motorists should be held to the highest standard of due care. Currently, it seems like they're excused from due care by default. You're right, admonishments about headset use and over-promotion of bright clothing feeds that beast.

That said. I really do like that dayglo green color. I've been known to wear shirts that color even when I'm not riding.

Steve A said...

Even a reasonable standard of due care would be OK by me. I don't mind the lime color, I just find the notion it's necessary to be offensive.

Basic black and the specified lighting ought to be considered plenty. If I NEED more, make it law and prohibit illegal clothing. Then I'll use my black Cannondale cycling jacket only for non-cycling activity.

When black clothes are outlawed, only outlaws will wear black, but Johnny Cash will be spinning in his grave.

Rantwick said...

I the few years I've spent getting smarter about cycling, I've come to believe that where and how you ride is 99% of the safety equation, and rest is gravy or insurance.

That said, some hi-vis stuff, some relective stuff and in my case being able to hear everything I possibly can probably increases my confidence. Being more confident means I ride less fearfully, and riding less fearfully increases my safety.

I think people can ride with just about any level of these things and be about as safe. Whatever makes the individual rider feel comfortable and confident is what they should do... it's all good.

Keri said...

Rantwick makes an excellent point. I know people who need the dayglo green jersey to have the confidence to claim the lane on certain roads. It's the lane position that inspires the safe behavior of other road users and the jersey that facilitates the cyclist's safe behavior.

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