Cyclology of Guilt

I am a member of an email listserv for the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals.  It is an extremely helpful resource for me at work. Recently there was a thread about people who wear bright clothing at night.  It was kind of technical in that it centered in part around the retroreflectivity of white fabrics compared to the retroreflectivity of hi-vis yellow and orange safety clothing, like vests.  The suggestion was that people should really wear safety clothing when they go out walking at night, because regular white fabric offered little reflective advantage in the dark.  Of course I had to chime in that I don’t want to dress like a highway worker when I go out at night. 

This is as close to a high-vis orange safety vest as I get.

Fortunately for those who are fashion forward but still risk aversive, a number of clothing companies are now manufacturing “cyclechic” safety clothing.  Betabrand makes some thoughtfully designed “Bike to Work Khaki Pants” with retroreflective fabric sewn into them so that when you roll up the cuffs and pull out the pockets, you are more visible at night.  And about as close as off-the-rack gets to Saville Row, the english company Rapha makes some jeans and even a suit that are fit for the most dapper hipsters on two wheels. There are plenty of others who now make safety clothing that fits well and looks good when you ride hunched over on a bike.

Rapha makes some stylish jeans with a retroreflective feature. They are very cool and perhaps the $225 a pair pricing explains why this cyclist could not afford a tail light.

Those clothes are all pretty cool, but what if you already have khaki pants you wear to work or jeans to wear out? Do you have to either invest in a new wardrobe or dress like a highway construction worker to walk or bike at night? I like a lot of these bike specific clothes but I have not broken down to buy any yet, and I don’t wear a vest or even an Illuminite jacket.    Instead I dress in whatever outfit I’m in the mood to wear to go out, and I ride a bicycle that allows me to sit upright. In this way, all my regular clothes all work just as well on the bike as they do sitting at the bar or walking to a movie. Meeting after work?  I wear the same dress clothes I was wearing in the office.  Going to see a band in a club?  Maybe I’ll wear slim (not skinny) cut black jeans and a black t-shirt. I try my best to look hip without fashion Botox.  A guy my age can’t pull off the skinny jeans without looking like he is trying too hard.

Bright idea from Betabrand, and it also sends the message to thieves that you are broke, that's why you can't afford a blinky light for your bike.

So what do I do to be seen at night?  When I’m riding a bicycle I turn on my lights.  I do invest in modern LED technology, which provides me with some very bright lighting.  And when I’m walking, I have a reasonable expectation that I will not be run over on the sidewalk or in a crosswalk, even if I am dressed head to toe in black. I do this all without feeling like a dare-devil or a ninja.

Like the operator of any vehicle, it is my responsibility to have bright lights when I ride my bicycle at night.

There seems to be a pervasive belief that people who get hit walking and riding bicycles must be to blame to some degree, even if they were doing everything else right. A person who gets hit riding a bike at night without a light is certainly partially to blame, just as is a person dressed in black who darts into traffic from between two parked cars. A person dressed in black, walking across the street in a crosswalk on the other hand should not be held responsible if a motorist hits him.  A person riding a bicycle with a good light should not be held responsible if hit by a motorist who fails to yield the right. What a person was wearing has no more bearing on guilt than what color the cars are in the crash.

Not only do others often blame the victim in crashes involving people on bikes or walking, but there seems to be a sense of guilt among cyclists and pedestrians.  This sense of guilt is common among victims of crimes like muggings and rape.  The victims often feel that if only they had done something differently, they wouldn’t have been victims.  I think that a similar behavioral self blame is at the root of the fervorous effort some cyclists go to in order to be “safe.” 

Certainly everyone has a different threshold for perceived risk, and there is nothing wrong with people who want to wear bright clothing in an effort to decrease their exposure to risk.  But that is a different thing than dressing that way because you believe it would be your fault if you were not wearing hi-vis yellow or a helmet.  Motorists should expect to see people in every crosswalk and drive appropriately, which includes using headlights at night and slowing prior to intersections. Certainly pedestrians and bicyclists need to be careful and obey the laws, but no more so than do people driving cars.

I am not careless, heck, I even have headlamps with daytime running lights and I keep my very bright LED tail light on during the day as well.

A case in point came via an email I got after Alterra installed Milwaukee’s first bike corral in the parking lane of Prospect Avenue.  The question came from a self-proclaimed bike commuter who intended to use the rack but wondered “who would the driver sue if he hit the bike corral, Alterra or the City?”  My answer was that Alterra would sue the driver.  The questioner assumes guilt because the things parked in the parking lane were bikes instead of cars.  If a car is parked on the street and some motorist hits it, who is at fault?  The person who parked the car?  No, of course not, the inattentive driver.

Often the first step in cognitive restructuring therapy for victims of crimes is to help them gain awareness of their detrimental thoughts and actions.  The next step is often to challenge those thoughts and finally replace them with positive thoughts and actions.  As people who ride bicycles, we need to stop feeling guilty if we don’t wear our helmets on a ride and definitely stop reminding others to wear helmets, yellow vests and the like.  Wear safety gear if you want because you are risk aversive on a bicycle, not out of guilt or because you have been told it is irresponsible to do otherwise.  Ride your bike, be happy, lose the guilt.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

2 thoughts on “Cyclology of Guilt

  1. Dave, you are my hero.

    I wish I could speak the words you just wrote. But I usually end up lecturing people about forgetting how to live life. I’m going to try to be more like you – well except for putting a light on my bike. They cause too much loss of aerodynamic efficiency on my highly tuned Raleigh Sports 5-speed 😉

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