Shedding Some Light on “Be Seen, Be Safe”

Along with the shortening of the days and the return of the rain, it appears that the parade of retro-reflectivity brought about by campaigns such as Tri-Met’s “Be Seen Be Safe” is becoming an autumn tradition in these parts. The award-winning initiative, which encourages people walking and riding to dress for maximum visibility, probably sounds great to people who see their city primarily from behind a windshield—it would certainly simplify the driving task if everything you weren’t supposed to drive into started glowing and blinking. But for those of us who rely on some combination of walking, biking, and Tri-Met’s ever-diminishing service to move about town, there’s a patronizing naiveté in the implication that all of our anxious moments would abate if only we’d liven up our dour wardrobes with a few shades of traffic cone.

Perhaps a story can illuminate (ahem) my grievances: One recent evening, I find myself in a bit of an adventurous mood as I’m heading south through downtown, so I decide to take the “bicycle facility” on SW Broadway to enjoy the sights and sounds of one of my favorite streets. Ever the good soldier, my ride is fully loaded with front and rear dynamo lights and I’m sporting a hi-viz jacket with retro-reflective strips sewn into every seam. Alas, not more than a few pedal strokes onto Broadway, I notice that the car next to me is creeping closer. Looking over, I see a driver focused laser-like on the smartphone on her lap, and I brake just in time to place myself behind her as she drifts fully into the bike lane. Just as I’m getting back up to speed (12 mph FTW!), a car door swings into the lane in front of me and I have to break hard again. The surprised driver mutters something to me about slowing down as he exits his vehicle. There are a couple of other tense moments—some aggressive drivers and right-hook near misses. It’s all par for the course on the only continuous “bicycle facility” through downtown in America’s Best Cycling City™.

I can wear all the shiny shit I want, but it won’t make me nearly as bright as a smartphone screen if that’s where a driver’s gaze is fixed. Nor will it bestow the power of backward vision upon anybody who doesn’t look for bicycles before swinging their car door into the bike lane. See, with bike lights, retro-reflective strips, and whatever other accouterments I scrape together, I can control whether I’m visible to the users I’m sharing the road with, but I cannot control whether or not I’m “seen.” That part is up to them.

Being maximally visible when it’s dark is a good idea, but there’s a fine line between offering this sound advice and conferring a disproportionate share of the responsibility for safe travelling upon the street’s most vulnerable users. Aside from a legally-required front white light and rear red light or reflector when riding a bicycle, one needs no “proper gear” to walk or bike, despite the campaign’s implication to the contrary. Legally, however, there is an important burden placed upon motorists through the Basic Speed Rule, which requires that drivers maintain “reasonable and prudent” speeds “having due regard for…weather, visibility, any other conditions then existing.” Thus, during the dark, rainy commutes of the Portland winter, the law actually directs motorists to slow down accordingly. How slow? For starters, any speed where you can’t spot and stop for pedestrians regardless of their attire doesn’t sound “reasonable and prudent” to me.

Of course, there’s no mention of the Basic Speed Rule on the “Be Seen, Be Safe” website. Nor are drivers reminded to make sure their car lights are turned on and properly functioning, though one would presume this is just as important for the two-ton, really fast thing as it is for the 200-lb, 12-mph thing. There’s no appeal for drivers to plaster “reflective stickers or tape” all over their vehicles (though that’d certainly be entertaining to see). There is an admonition against distracted driving worded several different ways, but the title shows that the focus of the campaign is elsewhere, which is perhaps why that message isn’t resonating. That’s a shame—“Look Up, Slow Down” would be a better message that properly places the burden on the most dangerous road users (in addition to using objectively more interesting action verbs).

“Be Seen, Be Safe” is a symptom of an auto-centric worldview where if a pedestrian or bicyclist is unseen by a driver then they must have been unseeable. They must have “come out of nowhere.” While it’s an obvious tacit admission that our law enforcement efforts are inadequate and our facilities are growing obsolete, it does little to protect riders and walkers from the myriad of dangers that result. Until we stop trying to put high-viz vests onto straw men and address the real safety issues, I offer in lieu of “Be Seen, Be Safe” the following bit of more practical advice: Do whatever you can to avoid situations where you rely on a motorist’s sobriety, attentiveness, or lawfulness to ensure your safety. Ride or walk like you’re invisible.

If it fits your sense of style, feel free to dress the part too.


20 responses to “Shedding Some Light on “Be Seen, Be Safe””

  1. Excellent post, Brian! I only have two real quibbles, one minor, one substantive.

    First, Trimet is planning to restore service on several lines in the spring, and even if they weren’t, describing their service as ever-diminishing seems a bit pessimistic.

    Second, I frequently see the advice to walk or bike as if you are invisible, and I find it almost as useless as Be Seen Be Safe. As you aptly point out, we can only control our visibility, not whether we’re seen — so the more appropriate advice is to always anticipate that you may not be seen. However, you can’t assume you won’t be, or you wouldn’t be able to proceed in a straight line down a street with cars driving on it. If you really thought you were invisible, you would have to stop at every intersection with other traffic, regardless of whether you have the right of way. It’s neither practical nor advisable. As long as we’re thinking of new and different advice to give people, let’s try to think of advice that works!

    • You know, I had a fairly lengthy debate with myself over whether to include that language, and decided to do so for two reasons:

      1) I have a bit of a sentimental attachment to that phrase, having first heard it from bike messenger types in DC about a decade ago. The general philosophy kept me safe on what were still some pretty nasty streets. It’s not to be taken literally, of course. I think the more salient piece of advice I’d offer is the line that precedes it–do what you can to avoid situations where you need a driver to behave “correctly” to ensure your safety.

      2) For some weird reason, I cannot avoid making bad puns to deliver a contrasting (;) message to “Be Seen, Be Safe”

      I share your optimism about the return of cut service, but the performance of the MAX these last few weeks has been frustrating…

    • You DO have to be prepared to stop at every intersection with other traffic, regardless of whether you have the right of way. It’s not practical, but it is advisable.

  2. Brian – very thoughtful post, however, your assumption that there is no campaign directed at motorists during this time of year is simply a bit false. I’ll admit it, it surprised me when I spent a few minutes searching for such a campaign, and I ‘stumbled’ across the following website:

    … now, compare that to the campaign you criticized:

    Hopefully that helps to alleviate some of your concerns ;-)

    • Wow! Nicely done.

      At first I thought you were trolling, but I could not have been more wrong. That’s a hilarious parody!

  3. It’s tyranny of the majority. Until the majority of the public can, at least, sympathize with those walking and cycling, we aren’t going to get anywhere with “driver awareness” campaigns. The fact is, the majority of drivers only spend a few minutes of each day walking in the real world; between their driveway and front door, between their parking space and cubicle, or parking space and store entrance. They just don’t understand our perspective.

  4. Sure would help if the Traffic Division of PPB stopped wasting time with bikers coasting thru stop signs and focused on distracted drivers of motorized vehicles. Or maybe we need a campaign for J-walking…the safest way to cross a street on foot!

    • Or just enforce the violations they see while on patrol. I was behind a PPB cruiser a few nights ago when a Cadillac blew through a stale red light on Grand (light had been red for at least 1-2 seconds before they entered the intersection), and the cop did absolutely nothing about it.

  5. Sure would be nice if the Traffic Division of PPB believed that pedestrians had the right of way at crosswalks at night! Oh, if you’re wearing a bright white jacket like Sharon White, then yes.

    But if you’re dressed like the average Portlander, with perhaps a black jacket, then, according to the PPB officer in charge of the two night crosswalk enforcement actions, “they can’t see you”. So, the officer in charege said, his officers will probably not issue a ticket if the driver does not stop for a pedestrian wearing dark clothes. He said, it’s up to the individual officer to decide if a violation occurred.

    Both these actions were at marked crosswalks, at SE 54th and Powell, and W Burnside and 19th or so. Many drivers were ticketed both times, even without the interference of those pesky dark-wearing pedestrians.

  6. Be warned; Bike Snob NYC will likely call you smug (because that’s what he calls all of us PDXers) and will point out the similar points he made about a notice put by the police in NYC. ( But, relating his post to yours is just pointing out that the premise is the same, and that this tendency to make avoiding accidents solely a bike/pedestrian responsibility is in need of education and rethinking on both coasts, by mayors and police, and by citizens anywhere a bike culture exists.

  7. Good Writing! I quit riding when cell phones became common, I could see so many drivers not paying any attention to the path of the 2,000lb death machine they were operating.

    This year as a full-time ped, I have been carrying a pocket flashlight which I direct in the direction of any car coming at me. It works to make me visible AND noticed. Everyone on foot should have one, and we should give one to every kid.

  8. Assertive lane position is actually one of the best aids to visibility. The more in a motorist’s forward line of vision you are, the more likely is it that they will see you, even the distracted ones. Peripheral vision is the first to go in a distraction episode. Also, the more in the lane you are, the more wiggle room you have to avoid intersection crashes from different directions. Obviously this requires lights at night, and reflectivity is always a good idea too, but even these things are much more effective the further into the travel lane you are.

  9. Needless to say, there are many contributing factors to crashes, many related to drivers’ behaviors. No one is arguing that fact. However, every transit rider is a pedestrian at some point near our buses and trains. So it does make sense that we use our resources to convey safety messages to our primary customers – pedestrians.

    With that said, the Be Seen Be Safe Campaign also includes messages directed at drivers as evidenced in this KGW TV clip when you see Drew Carney interviewing the two Beaverton police officers. Other campaign materials include this sort of info as well.–229491331.html

    • Thanks, Jeff. Your point about directing safety messages to pedestrians as your primary customers is well taken, but there’s a way to do this that doesn’t shift the burdens of road safety entirely upon them. It’s worth noting, though, that many people access Tri-Met by driving to a park-and-ride, or drive on the days they don’t take transit. And all those buses that are on the street sporting the “Be Seen” message are a missed opportunity to reach drivers as well. Even if Tri-Met doesn’t feel compelled to reach out to drivers, or doesn’t feel it has the platform to do so, it would be a terrific opportunity to partner with agencies such as ODOT or perhaps AAA in order to have a more comprehensive, effective safety message.

      I’m glad you posted that clip, because it epitomizes everything I dislike about the campaign: A quick plea to drivers to do exactly one thing–put down the cell phone (speed is never mentioned)–sandwiched between ridiculous images of people dressed like caricatures. Blinky glasses? Light-up hula-hoops? Hideous umbrellas? C’mon. You guys know most Portlanders don’t even carry umbrellas, right?

  10. I’m thinking of getting one of those telescoping batons. If a vehicle moves over into me, it’s getting a whack. Self defense!

  11. I do disagree a little bit with this articles premise.

    We put the same type of responsibility on automobiles as we are asking for with this ad campaign.

    Let me explain. First, I do think the ad campaign is kind if lame. Second, I walk and ride and drive and ride motorcycles too. I have worked quite a bit in the Portland region for alternative transportation modes (and recognize that calling them alternative is an example of the problem).

    But imagine if all autos were flat black or grey, with no lights and no reflectors. What would happen then?

    We generally don’t need ad campaigns asking people to increase visibility of their cars. Cars by law have to be built with headlights and tail lights and blinkers and reflectors and third brake lights and marker lights. When cars don’t have their lights on people flash them and honk… We know cars need to be seen to be safe too.

    When a car is dark and doesn’t have its lights on, it’s just as hard to see on a rainy night as a pedestrian or bicycle.

    So I think that reminding people that they should try to emulate autos for visibility sake is a good thing, because by default – humans are not equipped with reflectors and lights and blinkers and all that stuff.

    Look, no one *wants* to hit someone. Even when not distracted, in the dark rainy nights when there is rain droplets on windows and water splashing around – it’s hard to see people. Even when trying… It’s not exactly placing the responsibility on the pedestrian to say “help us help you” in effect…

    I try to keep my bicycle and motorcycle as visible as I reasonably can. But I also have had almost this same discussion in motorcycle forums when people bring up modulated headlights.

    Look – people driving will pull out in front of busses, semi trucks, and even freight trains. If an idiot is going to not see a brightly lit usually brightly colored 500,000 pound vehicle as big as a house moving on a fixed guide-way …. There are not enough blindly lights and reflective tape in the world to make them see you.

    So I don’t feel we are blaming pedestrians and bicyclists. I think it’s just a reality in the northwest in the winter. Everyone needs to understand – it’s just plain hard to see a lot of times.

    As for the PPB – they would rather have bike stings for rolling a stop sign – than ticket a driver for bonehead driving… PPB is notoriously bad at fairness when it comes to bikes and peds.

  12. I’ve avoided commenting in this thread because I have conflicting feelings. As an occasional cyclist, a frequent pedestrian, and a driver who tries to be cognizant of all modes around me when driving. (I’m the sort of driver that tries to spot and stops for peds only to honked at by other drivers who don’t seem to see or respect the peds in the right-of-way.)

    Just 20 minutes ago, on a short run to the grocery store, I had this very thread and in particular John Reinhold’s reply in my mind as I backed out of my driveway. Our back door and driveway have two sets of bright motion-lights, and our car has a backup camera (which presents a brighter-than-normal night view) and the usual complement of mirrors. I was backing slowly, and in part because of this post, was making a point of checking all visual references. Just as my rear tires entered the street, a shape blew past just feet (single-digits) from the rear bumper and I slammed on the brakes. Looking to my left I saw a person on a bicycle in dark clothing, no headlight, no taillight, no helmet.

    I think that while it is greatly important, as the OP points out, that we educate and cite violations for the users of the most dangerous (to others) forms of road travel (multi-thousand-pound cars and trucks), some minimum level of responsibility exists to be easily seen by those who are at least trying to pay attention is borne by more vulnerable road users.

    When I walk, I never want to be hit by anything (and there have been many near-misses). When I ride, I don’t ever want to be unnoticed, right-hooked, intimidated, passed agressively, etc. But when I drive, and when I’m operating within the posted speed limits and am refraining from distracting activities, I’d like to be able to see all other nearby road users in time to take safe evasive action if necessary.

    (And in this particular case, speed limits were not an issue. I was going far less than 1mph, and I’m sure the cyclist was within the speed limit. Some streets have speed limits too high for multi-modal interactions. But in this near-miss, that wasn’t the case.)

    • “I’d like to be able to see all other nearby road users in time to take safe evasive action if necessary.”

      In this case, as it turns out, evasive action was not necessary. :)

      You say you were going “far less than 1mph,” which seems almost comically slow, so let’s round up to 1 mph even. That’s about 1.5 ft/s. You describe the bike as going past “just feet (single digits) from the rear bumper,” which implies something in maybe the 3-8 foot range. So let’s be super conservative and assume 3 feet. Anything less than that and I’m guessing you’d have said “a foot or two.’

      From your description of the bike, attire, time of day, etc., I’m going to go WAY out on a limb and assume this was a fixie rider. That means that the bike would almost certainly be shorter end-to-end than my 71” (6 feet, rounding up) Dutch bike, and the rider would likely have been going somewhat faster than my 12 mph (~17.6 ft/s) uphill cruising speed, but we’ll use these estimates to again be conservative. And as we know, your car is less than 7 feet wide.

      From your description of the event, it sounds like you didn’t perceive the rider until he or she was immediately behind your car, but let’s say that the bike’s front wheel was fully 10 feet to the right of your vehicle when you spotted it. Had you never braked and just continued reversing at 1 mph, the back of the fixie’s rear tire would have already been 12 feet to the left of your vehicle when your rear bumper entered the bike’s travel path.

      Your own criteria–wanting to see other road users well enough to be able to take evasive action when necessary–was met and exceeded, thanks in large part to your prudent driving. It demonstrates exactly what I wish we’d ask of all drivers, and why. (It also inadvertently demonstrates the difference between data and an anecdote–with data, you can do the math!)

      Also, it should be noted that the rider was breaking a law in not having a properly lighted bicycle, which is a point I’m clear on in the OP. While I do not think we should tell people what to wear when they walk or bike any sooner than we should do so when they drive, I’m all for establishing minimal visibility burdens for the “vehicles,” and the law does a reasonably good job of this (I’d go one step further and require a rear red light, not allowing a reflector as an option). If this rider had the legally required lighting, I’m guessing with the level of care you were showing you’d have easily spotted them, making what they were wearing immaterial (;).

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