The Wall Street Journal’s July 1 article “How Cyclists Can Stay Safe on the Road” reported on recent research conducted by a Clemson University professor into how conspicuous certain apparel makes cyclists during daytime riding, and how conspicuous are tail lights during daytime riding.
The findings, planned to be submitted this summer to academic journals, according to the article, should be of great interest to safety-conscious roadies and other cyclists who ride during the day.
And they may lead to faster adoption of growing visibility trends in cycling apparel and lighting. (Some companies, including Trek and Pearl Izumi, already advocate lighting and apparel that follows earlier, similar research. And visibility has been a catchword among apparel makers for the past couple of years, at least.)
Rick Tyrrell, Ph.D., is a psychology professor who specializes in research “to improve our understanding of human visual capabilities and limitations” in an effort to “reduce societal problems that result from visual limitations.”
He and his team conducted two studies, both partially funded by Trek Bicycle Corp., titled: “An open-road study of the conspicuity benefits of bicyclist apparel in daylight.” And “An open-road study of the conspicuity of bicycle taillights in daylight.”
Experiment One: How Conspicuous is Certain Apparel?
In the first experiment, according to the WSJ article, 186 college students were separately driven on a route lasting 15 minutes and were asked to push a button each time they “were confident that they saw a cyclist.”
Somewhere on the route, the researchers had placed a stationary bicycle, with a rider wearing “one of four combinations of clothes, from all-black to nearly all-fluorescent yellow.”
To summarize the findings, according to the article: “…the fluorescent jersey didn’t make the cyclist significantly more recognizable as a cyclist than a black jersey. When the cyclist wore fluorescent leg coverings, however, observers recognized he was a cyclist more than three times farther away on average than when he work black leggings and a fluorescent jersey.”
“Humans are really good at recognizing other humans,” Dr. Tyrrell said.
The upshot is that, because of the fluorescent yellow being worn on the legs, which when pedaling a bike churn in a very obvious motion that humans easily recognize, the wearer is more readily identified as a cyclist.
It’s the key difference between a bright color being worn “statically” on the torso, for example, which moves very little when riding a bike, and that same bright color being worn “actively” on the legs, which are nearly constantly in motion when riding.
Experiment Two: How Conspicuous are Tail Lights?
It turns out, that same static-vs.-active dynamic holds when it comes to tail lights, according to the second of Dr. Tyrrell’s experiments.
This time, the researchers found, during the day, “that from a distance of 200 meters…a flashing tail light is significantly more conspicuous than an always-on tail light, which in turn is significantly more conspicuous than” no tail light at all.
But they discovered a type of light even more conspicuous — a solid (always-on) light attached to the back of each ankle. The researchers rigged their own custom ankle-strap lights for the experiment.
As a kicker, the WSJ article reported on a year-long cycling experiment in Denmark among 4,000 cyclists, which found “that those who used front and rear daytime running lights had 19% fewer crashes that caused injury than those in a control group.”
What Does All This Mean for Roadies?
If you’ve been a long-time RBR reader, you know that this topic is something I’m passionate about. I wrote Why Not Lights? a couple of years ago, some three years into using full-time flashers myself. In that piece, I made at least a couple of arguments (and cited my own anecdotal evidence) that these studies bear out. Namely, that a flashing rear light makes you more visible sooner to approaching drivers, and that static colorful clothing is not the panacea some make it out to be.
I urge you to read it (or re-read) that article, and I urge you to take heed of the findings of these studies.
They seem to me to clearly indicate that:
- Running full-time lights is safer than no lights at all.
- A flashing tail light is safer than a steady (always-on) tail light.
- A steady light worn on your ankle or heel makes you even more conspicuous.
- Colorful (and fluorescent) clothing is fine for the torso, but even better at letting drivers know you’re a cyclist if worn on your legs.
Assuming these studies (and others like them) continue to gain traction among cycling company’s apparel and lighting divisions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an even greater push into colorful or fluorescent socks, leggings, and such elements as cuffs on shorts becoming much more commonplace. Likewise, I would not be surprised to see new ankle-strap lights or socks with built in lights. (Heck, I’ve had a pair of SealSkinz boot covers with built-in lights for a couple of years now. And there are numerous jackets on the market with built-in lights.)
I myself will continue to run my See.Sense Icon flashers (click to read my review) front and rear on every single ride. I will also look into what’s available in more colorful socks. I’ve long been a fan of less-colorful, mostly black socks. But I’ve also believed in doing whatever I can to stay as safe as possible on the road. If that means wearing some verging-on-garish socks, so be it.
I think all of this is fascinating and just sort of proves that (like many things) there’s no single 100% solution – but a combination of “right things” is the best approach.
What This Does Not Mean for Roadies
First, I do hope nobody “reads into” this that there’s zero difference between colorful kits and all-black kits. The research didn’t say that. Again, it’s the “static” nature of any color worn on our torso – which we try to keep as motionless as possible – that the researchers were keying on. I do believe colorful, and neon, is more visible in some instances, but it alone is not a panacea.
I also hope none of us roadies loses sight of the fact that distracted driving is the No. 1 most important safety issue of our time. No matter what we do to make ourselves more visible, if a driver is distracted (while texting, using an app, reading email, etc.), we are at risk. So in whatever ways we can support anti-distracted driving measures, we must continue that charge, individually and as a group, and at all levels of government.