Visibility in context

The winter is of course the period of the year when people riding bikes get urged to ‘lighten up’ and to make themselves visible. It is easy to lose count of the number of articles and police campaigns on the subject – the latest in a long line in recent months is this from Oakham Police, covered by the Rutland Times.

Police are advising cyclists to be seen and be safe while riding at night.

During January and February officers in Oakham will target cyclists who ride their bikes without lights at night.

PCSO 6017 Martin Clarke said: “We have received a number of complaints about cyclists riding at night without any lights.

“This is not only illegal, but presents a danger to other road users as well as the cyclist themselves.”

During the campaign police will stop any cyclists not wearing safety equipment and reminding them to use lights, helmets and visible clothing.

PCSO Clarke added: “Persistent offenders may be prosecuted.”

People who persist in wearing invisible clothing may be prosecuted?

But seriously. The subject of illumination and visibility is an interesting one, especially when placed in historical context. Over time, the burden of being seen has increasingly been placed on the people who pose little or no danger – to make themselves more and more obvious to the people who are posing the danger.

Where did this obsession with illumination come from?

Before motor cars arrived on the roads, the only piece of safety equipment someone using a bicycle would possess would be a front lamp. Obviously this showed other people using the roads in the dark that you were approaching, but its primary purpose was to allow you to see where you were going, and what obstacles might be in your way. There was no need to make yourself visible to the rear, because the onus was anyone approaching you from behind to spot you.

Interestingly, even after the numbers of motor cars that were on the roads had increased sharply, a front light remained the only piece of equipment that cyclists were expected to use. No hi-viz. No rear light. There was only one ‘extra’ tool of visibility required – a rear reflector.

The very first Highway Code – dating from 1931 – is quite clear on the subject, in its advice to ‘pedal cyclists’.


Remember that in the dark you are not easily visible to following traffic. Act accordingly and keep well to the left of the road.

If you do not use a red rear lamp remember to keep your red reflector clean and properly fixed. [It is an offence under the Road Transport Lighting Act to ride at night without either a red rear lamp or an obscured and efficient red reflector.]

So in 1931, you could quite happily and legally ride a bicycle that didn’t have a rear light, provided you had a reflector. In today’s world of hyper-illumination and garishness, this probably sounds incredible to most people, but, at the time, even the law requiring just a reflector was met with much grumbling by those who used bicycles. They were merely pedalling along, and it would be the person who was approaching them from behind who should have sufficient illumination to spot them, and to act accordingly.

There is a serious issue here. It is entirely possible that many drivers today simply do not expect there to be obstacles in the road that are not illuminated, or reflective. Trees can be in the road when it is dark. Cars can be parked on the road when it is dark. People can be in the road when it is dark. We don’t expect any of them to be reflective, or clad in hi-viz, or to have lights (although perhaps in the case of pedestrians it is only a matter of time, as we shall see below).

This was something the Cyclists’ Touring Club appreciated back in the 1930s, writing to the Times in 1934 that

The club does not see the necessity for supplementing the reflector (approved by the Minister of Transport after exhaustive tests) with a white patch or any second compulsory device. Anything of this kind merely tends to lessen the responsibility of the motor driver and to encourage faster and more careless driving, to the ever-increasing danger of the unlighted pedestrian.


If motorists drove in accordance with the Highway Code, so that they could pull up within the distance of the road they could see to be clear, they would never have any difficulty in avoiding running down cyclists. To make compulsory the use of rear lights on cycles might be one step towards legalizing a standard of night driving which would increase the dangers on the roads not only to cyclists but to other road users as well.

It was in this year, 1934, that cyclists using just a red rear reflector were now required to additionally have a white patch on the rear of their bike, by the 1934 Road Traffic Act. The traditional design of the classic Dutch bike is an artefact of this period (perhaps Dutch readers could provide some information on the legal history in the Netherlands!).

DSCN9684[UPDATE – see the comments from Bicycle Dutch, below].

From 1939, with restrictions on headlights required during  blackouts, it became compulsory, for the first time, for red rear lights to be used at night, in the Second World War. This proved to be the basis for a permanent law. In March 1945 (while the country was still at war) the government pushed a Bill through Parliament perpetuating the use of rear lights, once the war was over.

So, curiously, it is World War II blackouts that gave rise to the compulsory use of rear lights in on bicycles. Before this period, it was up to drivers – and indeed anyone cycling – to spot the presence of un-illuminated cyclists ahead of them.

Doubtless this use of lights was, and still is, largely a pragmatic measure. It just ‘helps’ to have a bit of illumination to allow drivers to spot you more easily, especially on dark roads, and with the speeds of motor vehicles increasing. In the modern world, it is unthinkable to cycle on dark country roads – where vehicles could have an approaching speed of 40-50mph – without a rear light. I certainly wouldn’t dream of doing this.

The picture in urban areas is rather different, however. Here street lights are almost universal, and vehicle speeds are (or at least should be) much lower – no more than 30mph. A reasonable question here is that, if it is so difficult to perceive a bicycle without a rear light, what does that mean for pedestrians without lights on their person, who are crossing the road, either at junctions or on zebra crossings? Bear in mind that a bicycle will be travelling away from a driver, giving an extra amount of time to be spotted, unlike a pedestrian, who will typically be stationary in the direction the driver is approaching from. Pedestrians are also far less likely to be wearing clothing with reflective patches. Or lights.

The absence of a rear bicycle light, when cycling in urban areas, under streetlights, is widely seen as reckless and dangerous, yet we do not insist on these standards of illumination for pedestrians who will, very often, be in the road. The increasing prevalence of ‘shared space’ – which has the intention of making it easier for pedestrians to mingle in places where people will be driving – makes this philosophical question all the more pertinent.

I always have a rear light on my bike, but it is entirely reasonable to argue that my higher standard of illumination puts un-illuminated pedestrians at greater risk when they venture into the road. Rear lights on bikes creates a general precedent for objects in the road being illuminated; un-illuminated objects (or people) will be less readily perceived under these conditions than otherwise.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the standards that used to be applied solely to people riding bikes are now shifting towards people walking too. There was the notable case last year of an insurance company appealing against a payout for a brain-damaged young girl, hit by a driver on a country road, because she wasn’t wearing a hi-visibility vest. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before we expect people crossing the road not just to have reflective clothing, but even lights. I hope that day never comes, but this is the direction we are travelling in.

Of course this doesn’t mean I think bicycles should not have front and rear lights, or that I ever ride without them. Indeed, the two bikes I use on a regular basis have lights permanently attached to the bike, and that will always be ready to go, at the flick of a switch – powered by a dynamo. The bicycle itself is my visibility tool, with reflective elements built into it – pedal reflectors, reflective sidewalls, and reflectors (in addition to lights) both front and rear.

This kind of visibility is largely unobjectionable, because it is subtly built into the vehicle, and requires no extra cost on my part – I don’t need to wear any special clothing, or carry around any extra items. Unfortunately bicycles in Britain are rarely sold with lights fitted to them, as part of the bike. When autumn rolls around, people find themselves caught out. This is true even for bikes which are explicitly marketed as ‘city’ or ‘utility’ bikes. You wouldn’t expect to buy a car without headlights, and yet it is apparently the norm for bicycles, even for those that will never be used for sporting purposes.

Riding without lights is, of course, illegal, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it – but it is not hard to feel that the reaction to people who do ride at night in urban areas without lights is often overblown. If you ‘nearly hit’ someone riding without lights, well you could just as equally have ‘nearly hit’ a pedestrian in the road. You should be driving – or riding – to the limits of your own visibility, not relying upon people or objects in the road to make themselves visible to you, because we don’t expect them to, unless they happen to be on a bike.

I suspect many people who fixate on this issue would have a heart attack in Dutch cities like Utrecht or Amsterdam where, at night, the levels of people who have functional lights on their bikes is considerably lower than in Britain – on some evenings, at a rough guess, typically around 50 percent are riding without any lights at all. Reflective clothing is non-existent.


Two gentlemen without rear lights on a cycle track in Utrecht

Lightless in Amsterdam - from this video by Thomas Collardeau

Lightless in Amsterdam – from this video by Thomas Collardeau

But this never strikes me as being particularly hazardous – the environment in these city centres feels safe, much more so than British urban areas. Encounters with motor vehicles are limited, and where they do occur, they are at slow speeds, and in areas where pedestrians are mingling in the street anyway.

Indeed, cyclists here essentially amount to wheeled pedestrians. They look like them, they move like them, except at running or jogging speed. Lack of lights just doesn’t seem like a serious problem, although there are frequent operations by Dutch police.  The broader issue is one of civility, and what we want our towns and cities to look like. Reflective clothing, and excessive lighting, just doesn’t feel appropriate in high density areas. It is the wrong answer to the problem posed by motor traffic.

This entry was posted in Cyclists' Touring Club, Lights, Road safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Visibility in context

  1. As far as I can tell unlit cyclists are much less common then the Daily Heil readership would like us all to believe and if driver will insist on moaning about cyclists without lights maybe they could sort their own lighting issues out first? Yes this means actually have 4 functional light and NOT using your fogs lights when it isn’t actually foggy.

    • kraut says:

      And, vice versa, actually using your fog lights (and slowing the hell down) when it IS foggy 😉

      Seriously, though, while I subscribe to the “don’t give the bastards any excuse” theory of lighting my bike, I don’t think any of the recent tragic cycling deaths in London have been attributed to lack of lighting. So it wouldn’t appear to be as dangerous as some make it out to be – and the fact that drivers can actually see unlit objects should hardly be a surprise to anyone.

    • pm says:

      To be honest, as anti-motorist as I am on most topics, my experience in London is that unlit cyclists are _very_ common. Maybe even more than half of them (often I’ll see two of them riding together, one with lights and one without – not sure what that’s about).

      I’ve even had such a ninja cyclist try to pick a fight with me late one night by screaming abuse at me for actually having a rear light. My theory is he’d recently been shouted at by a motorist for _not_ having lights and wanted to take it out on someone.

      I’m not sure about the general argument here with regard to lights in particular, there seem valid points on both sides, but I do resent the general culture (that extends beyond cycling) of putting more-and-more responsibility on the vulnerable to pander to the carelessness of those who create dangers.

  2. Simon says:

    I agree – I do see cyclists in town without lights and I harrumph a little. But I do see them, and see them quite clearly. I’ve never had an incident with a cyclist who didn’t have lights. And, don’t forget, drivers only have to use sidelights in town when there are streetlights so the lighting requirement is much reduced for them compared with the open road too.

    • Matthew.W says:

      My pet theory is that the arms race of bulb manufacturers to produce ever increasing brighter & whiter lights for vehicles is actually having a counter productive effect upon ambient visibility (if there is such a term) in the street lit urban environment.

      When I’m driving, the low position & direction of car headlights mean most oncoming cars dazzle me and objects without lights between the oncoming car & myself are turned into shadows. This is exacerbated when turning from a side road as I don’t have the benefit of my own lights illuminating where I’m looking.

      As a pedestrian/cyclist in an urban environment my eyes are adjusted to light, I can see everything but without a light source I’d be invisible to drivers & reflectives won’t help with cars emerging from a side road. Subjectively I feel safe and visible, objectively I’m not. When cycling I feel I have to be as bright as a car and my front bike light is now a torch reportedly capable of 900 lumens.

      With councils beginning to switch over to LED street lamps producing a whiter brighter light, ambient visibility will increase significantly, and perhaps we can get back to cars just using side lights in urban environments.

    • Cyclists without lights in town are at least as visible as cyclists with lights. Cyclists wearing all black are more visible at night in town than cyclists wearing yellow or orange.

      But being visible isn’t the problem. It’s being noticed, and then respected.

      A cyclist without lights in town after dark is most certainly noticed, and, I would expect, given plenty of space by motorists who will be keeping a close eye on them. A cyclist with lights can be ignored much as a motorist ignores cyclists in the daytime: they are no particular threat, and no particular obstruction to speedy progress.

      The same effect happens for recumbent riders. My Windcheetah looks dangerous because it’s “so low” and people can imagine their wheels running over me. The fact that an upright cyclist who has fallen off is less than half the height of a Windcheetah never even crosses their mind. But the result of “looking dangerous” is that cars and lorries give me masses of attention and respect, and lots of space.

      Risk compensation in action.

  3. bicycledutch says:

    Here’s your information on the Dutch rules with a little history.
    The white rear fender of at least 30 centimetres (almost a foot) was mandatory in the Netherlands from 1935 until 1995. (The 1979 red rear reflector did a better job than the white fender, so the latter was abolished.) The white front light on bicycles was mandatory since the first Dutch road law in 1905 (although one source mentions 1927 as start date). The red rear light became mandatory on the 1st January 1938. The red rear light had to be placed in the center of the white rear fender. The various reflectors (like on the rim of the wheel) all became mandatory between 1979 and 1987.
    See also my post on lights.

  4. bicycledutch says:

    And about being visible in the dark. Even though there are Dutch people cycling without lights, the majority does have working lights. An investigation in 2009 found that 65% of Dutch cyclists have a working front and rear light. Up from 54% in 2003*. The figure is considerably lower in the 4 largest cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht) so your observation was right. But Dutch authorities do try to get that figure up, because it does help to avoid crashes. Hi-viz is nonexistent in the Netherlands, you don’t see it in the streets and it plays no role in discussions.

    • Alan says:

      Lighting helps to avoid crashes?

      • Visibility aid prevalence is low among injured bicyclists.
      • In daylight, white or light upper body clothing decreased the odds of a bicyclist–motor vehicle crash
      • In the dark, red/orange/yellow upper body clothing and tail lights increased the odds of a bicyclist–motor vehicle crash.
      • [u] Using multiple visibility aids is associated with reduced odds of severe injury in bicyclists.”

      Note particularly the third point

  5. A friend of mine once took me out in his car one night in order to point out how hard it was to see cyclists who weren’t “visible” enough. The funny thing was how easily he spotted these “invisible” cyclists when he actually made an effort to see them, which involved driving slower and paying more attention to *all* road users. When I put this to him he said it was ridiculous that he would have to change his driving behaviour in order to accommodate cyclists who refused to wear hi-vis. And that pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with hi-vis campaigns.

  6. Quite agree. In street lit area, lights really aren’t that important. The only times I have issues with unlit/poorly lit cyclists are on narrow off-road paths- the genome path south of Cambridge is particularly bad for them. I also don’t really get people cycling on unlit paths and roads with flashing front lights- in non-lit areas I’m relying on my lights to see debris, holes, obstructions. It’s surely impossible to do that if your only light is flashing?

  7. So riding home last week, I nearly became a SMIDSY statistic from a driver turning right across my path. After his emergency stop, the driver was shouty and angry, so I went back to apologise and calm him down – the “We scared each other pretty good there” speech…

    … turned out that his problem was that I wasn’t wearing a bright yellow jacket. He’d seen me coming, and seen the bike’s front light. But without a yellow jacket, well, it was clearly all my fault. HE always wore a yellow jacket when cycling. And besides, what was I doing in the middle of the road?

    I pointed out that the street was lit by yellow streetlamps, which would neutralise any yellow jacket, and that my coat was trimmed with about a hundred yards of Scotchlight, but this cut no ice.

    He got shoutier and more insistent, and we did not part as friends.

    The point of this is that I think there is now a willingness by drivers to blame people (pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders, anyone not in a car) for collisions even if they’re clearly seen the victim if the victim isn’t wearing Building Site Chic’s finest. And while I would question the sense that led people in the pre-war period to argue against lighting, I’m starting to wonder if their principle may have been correct – not in the reality that drivers don’t see people, but that they use the possibility of this as an excuse for their might-is-right driving.

    • monchberter says:

      The hi vis yellow jacket as a talisman of ‘doing things right’. Personally I hate the things. Give me a tastefully designed reflective Sam Browne Belt instead. Vizavee do some rather fetching ones and i’m pleased more clothing manufacturers are building discrete reflective material into their clothes. I don’t want to look like a day glo warrior when I just happen to get on a bike.

    • bertbeerpot says:

      Contrast this with my last smidsy, where I was given the canonical list of excuses:
      – “I’m a cyclist” (natch!)
      – “you’re hard to see” (check)
      – “the sun was in my eyes” (check)
      – “… and you are wearing yellow” (che .. wait, what?)
      Aha – jacket is yellow, sun is yellow, I get it. So I was hard to see *because* I was wearing hi-viz.
      This was more comic than anything else, since I had clocked this driver quite early and stopped without any drama, so I was luxuriating in an impenetrable cloak of smugness.
      Normally I’m only mistaken for the sun by riders who are behind me.

      • Barnie says:

        Isn’t this one reason for orange hi-vis?
        But anyway, point 3 seems to imply the driver hadn’t slowed down enough…

        • bertbeerpot says:

          Yes, I guess you’re right. Wrong shade of hi-viz. My fault after all 😦

        • I seem to remember that studies have shown that PINK is the most noticeable hi-vis colour to wear. Or, if you’re a cyclist and want to be noticed in town after dark, go for all-over black and no lights!

          Yellow hi-vis is starting to become normal, and therefore nothing particularly noticeable any more. What will the police need to wear to distinguish themselves from cyclists, I wonder?

  8. Sarah says:

    The wiring on my hub dynamo has been defeated multiple times by endless bouncing over rough cobbles and potholes, so I’ve given up and am battery powered these days. With rechargeable batteries and modern LED lights, it’s not all that onerous to have decent lights ready to go 95% of the time and to keep a small set of cheap and cheerful spares to hand as a backup. At this stage it’s a good few years since I’ve had to take the back route home through the fields to avoid encountering the police and being fined and lectured for not being lit. I’ll upgrade to a more robust dynamo-powered lighting system eventually, but it can wait until I need a new bike.

    I’m somewhat ambivalent on hi-viz – I don’t feel I should have to wear it, I don’t wear it on typical urban “utility” trips (anymore than I would wear a headtorch to go to my local supermarket) and I sigh a little when I see other cyclists (especially fellow cycle campaigners) wearing it as part of their normal urban attire. But I do wear it when jogging after dark on country roads and sometimes when cycling in dull, rainy conditions that don’t quite seem quite dark enough to warrant lights. The effect is probably completely subjective, but I do find motorists give me more room when I wear it. Maybe I just claim my space more confidently and less cautiously then because I’ve subconsciously bought in to hi-viz ideology.

    What makes me really, really furious, though, is when people advocate that pedestrians or cyclists wear hi-viz and then go on to suggest that pedestrians and cyclists should, perhaps, switch to alternative modes altogether. I came across this only yesterday in advice issued by the German Insurance Association yesterday. Much of what they say is usually sort of sensible and research-based, so I was a bit startled to see them strongly pushing hi-viz. But what really startled me was to see them suggesting taxis instead of walking and cycling – suggesting, in effect, that cyclists and pedestrians should simply disappear, purely to make life easier for motorists at certain times of year.
    [Pedestrians: If there is no footpath on a dark country road and no other means of transport, take a taxi (
    Cyclists: In extreme winter weather, consider getting the bus, underground or a tram (
    The cycling advice goes on to say that cycling in snow is for extreme sports afficionados (who can get winter tyres and even studded tyres in bike shops) and not for everyday cyclists, who should get off and push. I think their definition of ordinary, everyday cyclists as people who switch to other modes or switch to pushing their bikes in winter is very suspect; I’ve got bits and bobs like studded tyres and decent lights NOT because I’m an extreme sports afficionado but because cycling is the main mode that gets me from A to B day in,day out.]

    So not sure if we should fight the hi-viz battle or go straight on to the second one. Or even if these are two issues or really only one (“We’re there – you’ll see us if you look.”)

  9. monchberter says:

    It’s my own experience but i’ve found lights to be important in busy areas too, if anything as an attention getter, particularly for getting absent minded road users (pedestrians in particular) to take note.

    One additional thing i’ve added to my bike of late is spoke mounted side lights ( to make me more visible to vehicles pulling out of side roads or pedestrians stepping out without looking. They’re not blinding – they don’t have to be, the circular movement itself is eye catching enough.

  10. Felix the cat. says:

    It is significant that Oakham Police do not feel the need to remind drivers of Highway Code paragraph 126.
    “Stopping Distances. Drive at a speed that will allow you to stop well within the distance you can see to be clear.”
    I think that few drivers obey this advice.

  11. Bill says:

    In a Venn diagram how large a cross over would there be between those drivers who cut me up and later apologise for not having seen me (despite my two front and two rear lights, one constant/ one flashing), and those who can pick out unlit cyclists at will?

  12. It seems I’m not the only one who’s noticed how many drivers complain about all the cyclists they ‘cant see’. It our roads are the transportation equivalent of sexual equality in Saudi Arabia. Drivers who won’t share or take responsibility for not hitting things in their path are menaces and bigots. When you take a hard line and say, just follow the flipping highway code, you are the cycling equivalent of a feminist (which nowadays is also becoming a dirty word to the detriment of our species).
    Most supposedly normal people I know who drive seem to equate riding with no lights on the pavement to drunk driving. I don’t do hi-viz, just some scotchlite but not on every coat, I have a right to cycle in normal clothes! I have lights, plenty of lights. If anyone has a problem with it then it’s them that has a problem, not me.
    We have a long way to go.

  13. pm says:

    I’ve cut out the letters “TfL Kill” in reflective cloth, with a view to sewing it onto the back of a t-shirt. But I fear if I do the police will then pull me over for a different reason (is there such an offense as hi-viz libel?)

  14. rdrf says:

    Another good one: I was shocked and stunned when I found out about the CTC position in the 40s and early 50s when I started working on safety issues affecting cyclists – ooh, way back when. But how right they were!

    If any of you are harassed by police talking about the importance of lights in London, ask them to give you the proportion of casualties where contributory factor 506 (cyclist without lights) is listed on the STATS 19 police report. Whenever I have gone through available figures it was about 1% in the Borough(s) in London I looked at – you Londoners can ask your Council for the relevant information which they hold on ACCSTATS. (See my post here on the subject).

    Of course the real issue is the way responsibility is shifted from the motorised on to their actual or potential victims. I take the liberty of directing you to the chapter in my book dealing with this which you can find here:

  15. Barnie says:

    “…and reminding them to use lights, helmets and visible clothing.” (In the case of the last two ) Why would/should the police stop anyone for not doing something that they’re perfectly allowed to do? (Why) are they even allowed to do so?

    • Barnie says:

      Perhaps we should start stopping Police from going about their business in order to remind them to do things that they don’t need to do?

  16. rdrf says:

    Interesting point Barnie.

    See the reference to suggesting that the Police should only be doing this sort of victim-blaming IN THEIR OWN TIME here:

    I am fascinated to see the justifiably angry response on cycling blogs to Police operations such as Operation Safeway (London) and Operation Grimaldi (Manchester), and now in Oakham, as well as Bournemouth.

    I think it very important to engage with the victim-blaming and non-evidence-based activities of the Police and the ideas that sustain them as I have suggested here and here

  17. Tim says:

    “A reasonable question here is that, if it is so difficult to perceive a bicycle without a rear light, what does that mean for pedestrians without lights on their person, who are crossing the road, either at junctions or on zebra crossings?”

    I would have thought the answer here is simple. Pedestrians are forced to only cross roads when they can make a judgement that given their own walking pace and the perceived speed of the vehicle, they will be out of the vehicle’s path before the vehicle arrives. Given that drivers rarely slow, even in clear daylight, this is just the way it is. We see this every day where pedestrians underestimate the vehicle speed and have to break into a run half way across the road.

    So once again, the tragedy is that “might is right” on the roads. Unfortunately cyclists do not have the luxury of waiting until the cars are all safely out of the way before riding home…

    My point does not hold for zebra crossings which have clear lighting, signage and road markings of their own. As we know, this is a rare situation where pedestrians have a clear priority and we might hope drivers slow down and pay more attention accordingly.

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