Visibility Aids for Cyclists and Runners – Options and Effectiveness

As coach to primarily amateur athletes who live in heavily populated areas, with either school or work responsibilities during the bulk of the daylight hours, tools for increasing athlete safety (particularly during low-light hours) are of great interest to me. If you are an athlete training during low-light hours, and/or in heavily trafficked areas, they should also be of great interest to you!

Endurance athletes want to train, and they need opportunities to train outdoors to develop skills and keep the sport fun. This often necessitates sharing space with motorists and/or other athletes.

How to Make Sure You are Visible and Seen

Visibility aids increase reaction time, providing an opportunity for drivers to respond appropriately should they so choose. For this reason, we strongly encourage all of our athletes to ride and run with visibility aids. Additionally, it is important for athletes to remember that more incidents occur during the day than at night, and therefore visibility is equally important regardless of ambient light. Studies have shown that visibility aids increase reaction time during daytime as well as nighttime hours, so we recommend having effective visibility apparel and/or accessories at all times.

Texas Law for Bicyclists

It is important to note that Texas state law does require cyclists to ride with a functioning red taillight outside of full daylight hours, so regardless of your opinions on the effectiveness of visibility aids, it is worth investing in this item solely in case of an unexpectedly extended ride.

Available options for increased visibility

There are three primary categories of visibility aids: fluorescent clothing and accessories, reflective clothing and accessories, and lights.

Fluorescent clothing and accessories provide bright patches of color designed to attract the eye of individuals in the area. Fluorescent colors actually absorb and emit light differently, making them more notable to the naked eye (orange and “safety” yellow are the two most visible colors available). These items are most effective during daylight hours, especially when it is gray or rainy outside. They become less effective after dark because of reduced ambient light, meaning that fluorescent clothing alone is not an effective nighttime visibility solution. Many apparel items and accessories for cyclists come in a fluorescent option, including jackets, vests, helmets, socks, shoe covers, gloves, etc. Lightweight visibility “vests” (such as the Nathan “Streak” vest) in fluorescent colors also exist for athletes who want one item they can wear repeatedly and comfortably over their regular workout attire (vests usually include reflective panels as well).

Reflective clothing and accessories reflect light and send it back in the direction of its source. Reflective items are useful day or night, and have been found to be particularly helpful at night with drivers utilizing headlights. Among the most effective reflective accessories are ankle bands, which are straps worn around the ankles – due to the constantly changing position of these items, they have more opportunities to “catch” and reflect light, making the athlete’s position known sooner. Many apparel items and accessories now feature reflective materials, such as the 2XU reflective calf sleeves, which have a substantial layer of reflective material covering the sleeve. Reflective “tape” is also available for athletes to apply to specific training items that they use on a regular basis.

Lights for cyclists and runners come in a wide variety of forms and strengths, and I know it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming to try and determine exactly what to get for your personal training needs. I personally keep the following on hand at the house for myself and my husband to use on a regular basis:

  • Red taillights for the bike: We always have a functioning taillight on our bikes, day or night, with the exception of races. That light is on and blinking so other riders and motorists can see us more easily from behind. If we are riding at night, we will often use multiple taillights, or one with a higher lumen count (200 or more). Athletes with multiple bikes may prefer a helmet light solution, and Serfas and Louis Garneau both make an inexpensive and easily removable helmet light that can either fill these need, or add another visibility point.
  • Headlights for the bike: I have become a bigger proponent over time of a substantial headlight, even for daylight riders. I like a light with at least 200 lumens for decent day visibility (for night visibility, I prefer closer to 1000 lumens), and I will pay extra for a USB rechargeable light any day (same goes for taillights, by the way – the days of buying endless watch batteries are finally over!) Most of these lights recharge with a micro USB cable identical to those used to charge many smart phones and other devices. Knog recently came out with a line of headlights that actually include their own power bank, so they can recharge other devices as well (this is already on my Christmas list for active friends and family).

  • Clip on lights: Nathan makes a wide range of clip on lights that runners, walkers and cyclists can all take advantage of. These are cheap and effective, and we always have a few in the garage to clip on the back of our apparel before running or biking at any time of the day.

  • Headlamps: If you are running or walking at night, a good headlamp is an invaluable accessory that will make you easier to see, and will also help prevent trips and falls due to decreased visibility on paths and roads. Lightweight, high lumen solutions exist with most visibility brands, but my favorite headlamp from both a comfort and visibility standpoint currently is made by Nathan. Headlamps are also great for early morning races when you get to the race site before the sun is up, and need to set up and be ready for an early start time.

Additional thoughts

At the end of the day, visibility will only prevent so many accidents. As I tell my youth athletes “the car always wins.” We as athletes must “train defensively,” and take every precaution to avoid unsafe situations whenever possible. I strive to practice the following, in addition to using visibility aids:

Clear and early signaling – Make sure you use clear physical signals to demonstrate intent to turn, slow down, stop, etc. any time you are sharing a road or path.

Obey the law – Cyclists in particular need to remember that they are subject to the same laws as cars, and endeavor to obey those laws.

Use available information – I am a big believer in researching a route before I ride or run it. Asking others about their experiences, or using tools like the Strava Global Heat Map to determine other athletes’ experiences and willingness to ride/run in a certain area can help to determine which areas are better/safer for training.