Soon Oregon may take the somewhat unique step and require, by legislative fiat, that all bicycle riders wear reflective clothing at night. As Portland becomes increasingly bicycle-centric, it may be time to fully adopt such rules to ensure the safety of both riders and drivers.
Oregon, in general, is a dark and rainy place where road visibility can be brutally poor, especially at night. Riding a bicycle at night is often downright dangerous. While there are many rules in place that offer marginal protection to both riders and motorists, those rules seem not to stretch far enough. For instance, bicycle riders are currently required to have a white front-facing light as well as a red rear-facing light on their bicycle. While these are certainly better than nothing, in a crowded city at night, these lights simply blend in with the rest of the landscape and make riding—and driving—an especially daredevil proposition.
A while back I was lucky enough to witness a Zoobomb, also known as The Night That Emergency Room Physicians Get to Treat Lots of Road Rash. Finding a suitable vantage point near a streetlight, I waited for the squadron of adventurers to whiz past me on their quest for glory and fame. Suddenly, out of the darkness a flurry of white lights appeared, followed by the ever-growing sounds of laughter, jeering, hooting and cheering. As the sounds grew closer, the lights began to become more distinct, floating above the pavement in the distance. Within moments, dozens of people on their tiny bicycles whizzed past me like hipster ghosts doing performance art. I only managed to get a quick glimpse of a few Pabst Blue Ribbon shirts and North Face jackets before the riders were gone, disappearing into the darkness. Only the faint glow of their red lights and the fading sound of laughter remained.
A Zoobomb is a good way to end up seriously injured or, less often, seriously dead. While I fully support everyone’s constitutional right to act reckless, it surprised me how invisible these participants were. With the exception of the lights on the bicycles (which many, perhaps most, did not have) the riders were almost invisible. Since the riders were sharing the road with actual moving cars, it seemed bizarre to me that the riders weren’t doing more to stay visible to motorists. A couple of lights of a few lumens each, I’m sure, doesn’t cut it.
While riding a dedicated bike path in the city is an altogether different beast than a banzai attack on the West Hills, the fact remains that in both cases the lack of suitable nighttime visibility is a serious liability to bicyclists. Compared to cars, bicycles are small, slow moving, and to be frank, tend to get in the way. This isn’t a bad thing since bicycle transportation is a net benefit to both the city and the riders, but since bikes and cars must share the road, it only seems fitting that bicyclists do what they can to make themselves safer. Since many riders would not take those steps on their own initiative, perhaps it’s time to mandate such measures.