Friday, November 4, 2016

Shine a light: Illuminating bike and pedestrian safety during dark days

By Bart Treece

It’s that time of year in the Pacific Northwest, when the rain is a frequent companion on the roads and the days are getting shorter. That means on my 45 – 50-minute bike commute, I could be riding to work and home in the dark, and arrive a little soaked. There’s only so much I can do on the streets to be seen and be safe. I have my reflective clothing, a bright headlight, a flashing red light behind, and I focus on riding defensively. All of these steps help add visibility, but it takes two to tango, which means all users of the road need to watch out for one another to avoid a potential injury or worse.

The reality of low-light conditions
I find myself riding slower in the dark. Seeing other people and other objects in low-light conditions is tough for anyone. For people behind the wheel, they need to be able to perceive what they are seeing and recognize the importance of a pedestrian or bike rider in order to take action. This could mean stopping for someone crossing the street or giving a rider at least three feet. According to the Washington State Strategic Highway Safety Plan 2016, 69 percent of pedestrian-related crashes happen during the nighttime hours or dusk. Nationwide, there is an increase in pedestrian fatalities in the fall and winter months. For cyclists, those numbers also track seasonally with a spike during nighttime hours in fall and winter.

Having good reflectors or lights can help keep bike riders and pedestrians safe in the dark.

See and be seen – No surprises
Visibility is key. For people pounding the pavement or those like me who use pedal-power, wearing bright and reflective clothing, and flashing red tail lights helps us stand out. It’s also important to be predictable and clear on your intent to other users of the road. If you’re on foot, make it clear to on-coming traffic that you’re about to step off the curb. When I’m on my bike, I use hand signals ahead of turns, stops and lane changes.

Intersections and crossings are a common vehicle/bicycle crash location, resulting in 72 percent of all serious reported cycling injuries. While I’m on a ride, if I see a vehicle about to turn right at an adjacent stop sign or at a light while I’m heading straight, I try to make eye contact with the driver, and even give a wave to make sure I’m seen. I usually get a smile and wave in return. Besides avoiding a collision, we help make the road a friendlier and safer place.

Know your route
If you’re walking or riding at night, it helps to know your route so you can focus on the other variables such as traffic, instead of trying to navigate on the fly. If you want to start walking or riding, make a couple trial runs during daylight hours on the weekend.

Check in with people who care about you
It also helps to let your family and coworkers know where and when you will be on the road walking or riding. I always let my wife know when I get to work, and when I start my trip home. It’s peace of mind for her, and she can pick me up if I get stuck.

Bart Treece rides to work most days and says a key is to know your route, let your intentions
be known to others and check in with friends/family to let them know your plan.

Put down the cellphone
When I see people behind the wheel on their phone, or with earbuds in while they are riding, I cringe. I don’t have a lot of confidence that those folks are focused on their safety or mine. Distractions such as electronic devices should be packed away until you’re out of traffic, period.

Hit the road with a clear head
Impairments such as alcohol and drugs have been a known factor for both bicycle and pedestrian fatalities. In Washington, 16 percent of fatal bike collisions were attributed to driver impairment; 21 percent were attributed to rider impairment. Need to get home after a night out? Snag a ride with someone else – there are plenty of options.

Regardless of how you roll, we all have places to go during the dark days of fall and winter. Wherever your final destination may be, usually there’s someone depending on you to arrive safely. Just remember that other folks are out there trying to do the same thing.


jputnam said...

Maybe nitpicky, but could you clarify "reflective clothing, and flashing lights helps us stand out" to specify flashing *tail* lights, since flashing headlights are prohibited by state law? [RCW 46.37.280(3) and WAC 204-21-230(5)]

Flashing headlights make it much harder to judge the position, direction, and speed of a bicycle, and they can trigger photo-sensitive conditions including vertigo, migraines, and epilepsy. The ban on them was clarified in the 1997 Traffic Safety package backed by the Bicycle Alliance, but is widely ignored. Cascade has been trying to raise awareness of this issue recently, but every little bit helps, especially in a blog from a state agency.

Bart Treece said...

Hi @jputnam,
Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and share your thoughts. In the beginning of the blog I mentioned headlight, and omitted the term "flashing" intentionally. I followed this with "flashing red light behind," but will clarify for the additional reference in the text below.

Anecdotally, I worked with a bike commuter who was lit up like a space ship with both red and white lights on the front and back. One morning we was stopped by a police officer who explained the rules. It's a good reminder for folks

jputnam said...


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