We all know we need to be visible when riding a bike so we can be seen by other road users and pedestrians. But when we think about increasing the likelihood of being seen we usually think about bike lights and reflectors, that is, items mounted on the bike. But there is another way a rider can improve visibility—clothing. What you wear when you ride a bike can make a big difference in increasing your visibility and safety.
Getting Attention on the Road
The causes of crashes among cyclists are numerous but the most common cause is when a car driver did not see the cyclist until it was too late. This does not mean all drivers are distracted or checking their cell phones, although some are, but perhaps sometimes they are looking but not really seeing. Even when motorists are expecting to see cyclists on the road, they may not really notice them or be able to react in time. Unlike the pinpoint of a bike light, reflective clothing shows a larger human form which is vital information in traffic.
How Fluorescent Clothing Helps
You probably know you should wear bright clothing while on your bike, but certain colors are more visible than others. Bright colors help you be seen from a greater distance. When the sun interacts with fluorescent dyes it gives a sheen or glowing appearance allowing the person to stand out.
Color is also important in fluorescent clothing. The highest visibility colors are yellow and orange, with light green also near the top of the list. Fluorescent colors are of a wavelength that reflects up to 300% of a color in the spectrum, compared with conventional colors which can reflect up to 90%. This is why you often see professional work wear reflective vests used by road crews, construction workers, crossing guards, police, and even hunters utilize these lifesaving reflective colors.
There are other colors used in fluorescent clothing, such as pink, green, red, and blue but these are less effective and wearing these colors increases the risk of not being seen. The color blue is especially problematic. A lot of people like shades of blue but because it does not reflect light as much as other fluorescent colors there is a greater risk of not being seen when wearing it.
Another way to look at clothing colors is the distance it is visible from:
The results of a Danish study published in August, 2017 had cyclists wearing high visibility cycling jackets with reflective strips and they had a 47% reduction in crashes for a year versus the control group that did not. Another benefit of being visible is that when you know drivers can see you it makes you more confident cycling on the road.
Daytime Versus Nighttime Apparel
When the sun shines on clothing with fluorescent colors it enhances the material’s visibility during the daytime providing the greatest contrast with a variety of backgrounds. It also is effective in reduced lighting situations such as after dusk, dawn, during rain or fog, heavily shaded areas such as in an underpass or wooded trails. At night, fluorescent dyes are less effective which is why outdoor clothing often includes reflective strips that are visible when light, like from the headlights of cars, is shown directly on them. Sometimes reflective strips employ symbols such as arrows that communicate with drivers. But you should not be overconfident with reflective strips at night because, although providing additional visibility, it is only at a short distance.
,Cycling Clothing Options
A cycling jersey is a shirt or top designed to accommodate the unique requirements of riding a bike. Cycling jerseys have been around since the 1800s when high wheel bicycles rolled on the scene. Initially they were long sleeved and wool. In spite of the heavy weight, wool has the advantage of wicking away moisture and absorbing perspiration better than cotton. But the disadvantages of wool are that it does not perform well when it gets wet, becoming heavy and uncomfortable, and is not wicking, i.e. allowing air to pass through its fibers. Initially, wool jerseys were not very colorful but as time went on jerseys were designed with different colors, stripes, and designs that sometimes included the team name or racing position.
In the 1940s cycling jerseys were developed that were made from silk. These were lighter than wool and came with other amenities such as pockets, zippers, and more colors.
The biggest advances in cycling jersey fabrics were made in the 1950s with the development of polyester, spandex, nylon and lycra. For athletic clothing it afforded greater elasticity, less weight, moisture wicking, colors, and patterns. Fluorescent colors were incorporated also at this time with the discovery of daylight fluorescent pigments that contrast with the environment and employs strong, visible patterns that help a cyclist be seen from great distances.
Cycling jerseys are available today in new fabrics:
Besides cycling jerseys, cycling jackets are another option for cold and wet temperatures. Fluorescent colors along with lightweight, packable, breathable fabric as an outer layer allows flexibility to wear any type of layers underneath. Other apparel designed just for cycling includes cycling shorts, tights, vests, socks, gloves, and bandanas. Accessories include backpacks, bike bags, and helmets. These also come in high visibility fabrics and/or with reflectors.
The Downside of Fashion
Much athletic clothing is designed for style or fashion first. This is okay if the clothes are worn in the gym or to lounge around the house but if they are worn outside biking next to cars and other hazards, it is important that they also allow you to be seen by drivers of cars, pedestrians, and other cyclists. On a bike you will have flashing lights and spinning wheels to draw the attention of other traffic but what you wear will add extra visibility.
Some people think wearing bright clothing makes them look geeky, but bicycle safety starts with being seen and safety is always in style. New companies are emerging such as Vespertine, NYC that creates “eco-chic, high fashion, environmentally-friendly, reflective outerwear and accessories.”
Making Cycling Safer
The National Transportation Safety Board published a recommendation in November, 2019 for how to improve safety of cyclists that had three recommendations: 1) cyclists should enhance their visibility, 2) riders should mitigate head injury by wearing a helmet, and 3) communities should improve roadway infrastructure such as building more protected bike lanes. The first two are actions we can take as individuals to be safer on our bikes.
Sharon Kaminecki and others comment on adventures in bicycling and other stories