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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.