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« Alien Nation | Main | Recognition »

The Invisible Cyclist

I posted this as a two part article a year and a half ago, (How time flies.) I am putting the same two pieces up again as a single article.

There will be new readers who haven’t seen it, and those who have I hope will realize that it doesn’t hurt to be reminded to be vigilant when riding on busy streets.

Often the cyclist has the right of way and is not at fault when hit by a motorized vehicle, but that is of little consolation if he/she is seriously injured, or worse.

At best they come out of the incident bruised, bleeding and their bike smashed up; with a little thinking ahead and defensive riding you can often avoid a situation before it gets worse.    

So often a car will turn or pull out in front of cyclist causing serious injury, then claim, “I didn’t see him.” The cyclist might ask, “Why am I invisible? I am wearing a bright lime green jacket?”

It is not a case of the cyclist being invisible, but one of the position of the cyclist and other vehicles on the road giving the illusion that he is not there.

Take the common scenario in the picture above. A cyclist is following the red SUV that has just overtaken him; the driver of the SUV wants to make a right turn, and is indicating so with his turn signal.

The red SUV is slowing to less than the cyclist’s speed, so the cyclist moves over to the left to go around the red vehicle. He figures he can do this safely as he can hear no other cars immediately behind him.

This lack of traffic behind him is actually the cyclist’s downfall, because at this moment the blue car is emerging from this same side road, about to make a left turn to go in the opposite direction to the cyclist.

The driver of the blue car waits until he is sure the red SUV is turning, and then makes his move. He does not see the cyclist because he is hidden behind the red vehicle. For the same reason the cyclist can’t see the blue car either.

The driver of the blue car gets the illusion that there is nothing behind the red SUV, all he sees is a gap in traffic and an opportunity to pull out.

The red SUV turns, the blue car pulls out, and the cyclists runs smack into the side of the blue vehicle.

How to avoid this situation.

1.) Be aware of cars waiting in side roads and driveways ready to turn onto the road you are on.

2.) In this scenario, don’t be in a hurry to get around the turning vehicle. Had the cyclist slowed and stayed the right, he would have seen the blue car, even if the driver had not seen him. Also when the car pulled out the cyclist would have more of a chance to go behind the vehicle to avoid a collision.

3.) Listen for cars immediately behind you, if there is traffic behind this is your safety buffer and people will not pull out if they see other cars approaching.

The British Highway Code illustrates this same incident in rule 211. (Picture left.)

The onus is on the driver pulling out to make sure the road is clear, but that is of little consolation to the cyclist if he is hit

Statistics show that this next scenario, (Above.) more than any other, is the most common cause of serious injury or death to both cyclists and motor-cyclists.

The cyclist is riding to the right of the lane and is going straight. The red SUV has just passed him and is also going straight.

The blue car is stopped with his turn signal on waiting to turn left into the side road. As in the the first scenario, the driver of the blue car can’t see the cyclist because he is behind the red SUV, and also the cyclist cannot see the blue car for the same reason.

It is possible the driver of the blue car has been sitting waiting to turn for some time, and the cyclists has been partially hidden from his view by a steady stream of traffic. Now all the driver sees is a gap in traffic behind the red SUV.

The red SUV passes and the driver of the blue car guns it to turn quickly. It is a small gap in traffic and his only thought is that he must get across before the next car arrives. He is no longer looking down the road otherwise he might still see the cyclist; he is now looking at the side road in the direction he is headed.

The cyclist is either hit broadside by the front of the car, maybe run over, or he runs smack into its side of the vehicle. Even if the driver sees the cyclist at the last moment, car driver and cyclist both have only a split second to act.

The car driver either panics, brakes hard and ends up as a stationary object in the cyclist's direct path; or he underestimates the cyclist's speed and tries the beat him through the intersection. Often a collision is unavoidable the moment the vehicle making the left turn has started the move.

How to avoid this situation.

1.) Think ahead. As I have just mentioned, the blue car has probably been waiting to turn for some time before the cyclist arrives. The cyclist could have made a mental note some 200 yards before he arrived at the point of a potential collision.

2.) If it is safe to do so, take the lane. Signal and move over to the left so you are visible to the driver of the car waiting to turn. Had the cyclist done this, chances are the red SUV would not have passed him, but would have still been behind him. The blue car would have had to wait for both the cyclist and the SUV to pass before turning.

Also, if the cyclist moves to the left, nearer the center of the lane, should the blue car turn, the cyclist has more opportunity to simply steer a course behind the vehicle.

3.) Listen for cars behind you, they are your safety buffer. If there are none and there is any doubt that the turning driver has seen you; be ready to make a panic stop.

If the car driver has not seen the cyclist, an accident can still be avoided if the cyclist is aware ahead of time, what could happen. Otherwise, given the cyclist's speed, the reaction time, and the distance it takes to stop on a bicycle..... Well, you get the picture.

In these scenarios I have used an SUV as an example of a vehicle blocking the view of a turning driver. More often than not the vehicle you are following is a large commercial box van, truck, or bus, making the situation even worse.

The onus is of course on the driver of the vehicle entering or turning from a highway, but as it is the cyclist has the most to lose in such a situation, it behooves him or her to ride defensively at all times.

Don’t be a victim. Always think ahead and look for potential hazards. Remember it is not that you are actually invisible; it is more an illusion that the cyclist is not there, brought on by years of conditioning and not being aware of bicycles.

Multiple times, every day for years a driver waits for a gap in traffic to make a left turn. When he sees it he goes for it; always without mishap. Then one day there is a cyclist in that gap.

Don’t let it be you; don't be the Invisible Cyclist





Reader Comments (12)

Not only cyclists but pedestrians are vulnerable in the second scenario. I used to walk my son to school and back, and we were almost hit (In the crosswalk) several times by turning cars that did not see us. I yelled at the motorist, and he stopped each time. Fortunately I was prepared for this, if not I and my son would surely have been struck by the drivers.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDoug P

Regarding the first example:

Is overtaking in intersections even legal? Where I live it is not. So don't break the law by trying to overtake cars in intersections and you're fine.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTorben Putkonen

You are probably right, but not a good idea to overtake at an intersection anyway, motorcyclists are more likely to fall prey to this one, but can happen to cyclists if they are really moving at a high rate of speed.

August 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

It is worse than you think. If you haven't, you need to read Tom Vanderbilt's great book, "Traffic." Drivers basically see only what they are looking for, and bikes, (or motorcycles, or pedestrians) are not part of it.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdvenable


Great piece and a good reminder to us all.


August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Almond


Thank you for posting these scenarios. It will benefit me on my commutes in Northern New Jersey (close to your old stomping grounds). I now, as much as possible, make sure that I make eye contact with the driver of a car pulling out or making a left turn. The eye contact allows me to know that the driver sees me, and allows me the opportunity mouth a "Thank you" and give a nod or wave. More often then not the nod or wave is returned.


August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJay

If you have to ride on the roads, How about a pole with a white (for surrender) flag on it? use to see this all the time around Denver. I know a bloody pain right! but could help others to see you. Just a thought, Mirrors also help

August 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn GRUMP

Good (re)post about danger zones. Thanks for the reminder.

"Don't be in a hurry." That's wonderfully simple yet critical safety advice.

Speed is a recipe for disaster when it comes to urban cycling/commuting. As a long-time bike commuter, I've come to the reality that every ride need not be a TdF stage--I want to make it home to the wife and kids safely rather than in record time, so I commute slower and much more aware nowadays. Stopping for red lights need not be the end of the world--but it's just a bad habit that many cyclists pick up for a variety of reasons. Been there, over that. Now, however, my rides through busy Los Angeles streets are just as enjoyable and invigorating and driver/cyclist reaction times are increased--thereby reducing stress and risk at the same time.

August 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Hirsch

And in response to John Grump's suggestion of a flag--it's a great idea. I mounted the garden-variety safety flag atop a 6-foot fiberglass pole on my rear axle about a year ago, and you'd be surprised how much more room I instantly got from drivers. They must have thought I was either a child (because that's typically who you see with a flag mounted to a bike) or a goofy beginner cyclist and figured they'd better steer clear. I'll admit it looked somewhat out of place on a sporty fixed gear, but it certainly increased my visibility.

But it's not white as in "surrender," though.

August 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Hirsch

A THOUGHT! Maybe when riding a bike, you should TRY to dismiss your car driving instincts, ON YOUR BIKE! Don't try to beat that car to the stop light that you would when driving a CAR, Dont turn without looking first, don't drive LIKE AN IDIOT! you are on a bloody bike now! Even if you are right, YOUR GOING TO BE WRONG AND LOOSE ANYWAY. NO WAY YOU CAN WIN. Hope for the best and pray a lot! By the way my flag idea will work, try it.

August 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn GRUMP

great information thanks for sharing

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbike repairs reigate

Dave, thanks for posting it. Good points.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMicheal Blue

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