Research shows that cyclists drastically overestimate the distance at which they are detectable by motorists. Unless we’re actively doing something to increase our detectability, we may not be seen at all. And that’s an alarming reality. But there are simple steps we can all be taking to stand out. The following guidelines were developed using research conducted by students of Clemson University’s Perceptual Awareness department. The ABCs of Awareness—Always on, Biomotion, and Contrast—are presented here in a good, better, best hierarchy. Using daytime running lights is a good way to be noticed, but a combination of daytime running lights, highlighting your body’s moving parts, and choosing gear that contrasts with the environment is the best option. The more of the ABCs you practice on every ride, the more you’ll stand out.
Front and rear lights, day and night
Cycling has taken some of its best cues from the automotive industry. We can thank cars and motorcycles for suspension and disc brakes, for instance. These days, cars come standard with daytime running lights because cars with DRLs are less likely to be involved in a collision. Applying that logic to bikes is a no-brainer.
But not all lights are created equal. Even lights designed for superior brightness may not be particularly effective during daylight hours. A true DRL has a specific focus, flash, and range. Without these three things, you just have a light.
Highlight your body’s moving parts
The brain has identified ways of protecting itself, beginning with its uncanny ability to recognize a biological form with only a few clues to the form’s shape. In other words, we’re really good at seeing ourselves. This isn’t something that needs to be taught— it is an instinctual perceptual phenomenon called “sensitivity to biomotion.”
On a bike, the unique up and down pedaling motion is what makes you recognizable as human. At night, highlight your feet, ankles, and legs with products that feature reflective materials. During daylight, wear fluorescent socks, shoes, covers, or warmers.
Choose the right gear for day and night
Visibility relies on contrast.
Fluorescent is effective for cyclists during daylight because it helps us stand out from the surrounding environment. But without the sun, fluorescent apparel is no more effective than darker apparel.
It’s amazing that it takes a team of highly trained vision experts to remind us all of this simple fact: you can’t see a damned thing in the dark.
When it comes to apparel, fluorescent works during daylight. At night, reflective is what makes you stand out.