If you've ever driven a car at night only to be surprised by a pedestrian or cyclist who seems to appear out of nowhere, you begin to understand just how important visibility is.
City streets have tons of distracting lights that flash or reflect. Oncoming cars have headlights that literally drown small blinkies in the contrast. Older drivers have pupils that dilate slower making picking out a dark cyclist more difficult. Young drivers are often inexperienced and inattentive. Many drivers seem to multitask, talking on the phone, texting, eating a hamburger, and adjusting the radio at the same time they should be focusing on the road. Bad weather can create blind spots for drivers due to windshield wipers that only clear part of the glass at a time.
Check out this excellent video produced by the City of Chicago to make the point:
So what's a cyclist to do?
MAKE YOURSELF GLOW IN THE DARK! Literally.
All bikes are sold with a basic reflector kit: both wheels, both pedals, front white, and rear red.
If you pick up a bike second hand and it is missing reflectors, your first stop should be the bike shop to update your bike with these simple lifesavers. Note: You can pick up very good reflectors at most car part stores, although they won't be designed to specifically fit a bicycle. I combine both types: bike reflectors from my local bike shop, and car reflectors from the auto store.
Amber is the most visible to car headlights, so consider them before even red, if you are retrofitting your bike. Large amber ovals cost about $3/pair. These are great for attaching to your rear rack, milk crate, fender or seat bag. You can wire them on, attach them using zip ties, wrap them on with electrical tape, or even sew them on with carpet thread.
Your next safety feature should be a front headlight and a rear blinkie. These are the minimum you can get away with, in my opinion. [that is, reflectors and front and rear blinkies] Many municipalities require front and rear lights for night riding (including Chicago), and you can be ticketed for not complying with the law.
There are many, many different styles of blinkies out there. Some mount to your helmet, others to your arm or leg, but most mount to your bike frame (and have some sort of quick release so you can remove them when locking up in a public place). Keep in mind that brighter is better. Play with the samples in your local bike shop to get an idea of which have the best visiblity. Some blinkies are nearly blinding--go for 'em!
Picture shows helmet blinkie, also note the reflective day-glow stickers that are attached (somewhat washed out looking in this photo, but very visible in person).
Take note: most serious bicycle crashes are FRONT end collisions. Front lights are as important to make yourself be SEEN as they are for seeing!
The red blinkies in this picture really show up!
You absolutely need a front light. There are small white or amber blinkies that you can buy which are fine for trails or riding a quiet side street but which provide little or no visiblity on city streets. Flashlights can be attached to your handlebars with a rubber band looped around either end. These are acceptable in a pinch. Better are LED lights that mount to your helmet or handlebars. Best are the extremely powerful H.I.D., lithium, halogen, and high-power LED lights. You can pay a pretty penny for HID and halogen systems, but they do provide huge visibility while on the road. These are rechargeable but have a short battery life (usually 2-3 hours per charge). I personally use a CatEye Compact Opticube handlebar light that has a flashing mode, lasts a long time on a set of batteries, can be rotated, and provides good visibility for the price (http://www.cateye.com/en/product_detail/341). For city riding, where streets are well-lit at night, the blinking option is better than a steady light. You are more noticeable to cars that way.
Safety vests can be a great addition to your basic kit. These can be bought at any bike shop or running store. They are also readily available online. If you ride at night with any regularity, look into vests that meet ANSI class II or III compliance. These provide wrap around visibility (unlike running vests which typically work frontward and backward only). Do a google search for "ANSI vest" and you'll find dozens of sites that sell these for reasonable prices. I wear my safety vest most of the time because of the year-round, day or night visibility it provides me. It's especially helpful for riding in the fog, in snow or light rain, or at dusk (notoriously the most dangerous time for cyclists on the road).
This picture shows you a jogging-style vest on the left, a ANSI safety vest on the right (with wrap around striping), a safety triangle (on a belt strap) below left, and two different kinds of pant clips on the bottom right. All add to your being seen while on the road.
There are also many hi-visibility clothing options out there. Day-Glow t-shirts, jerseys, windbreakers, etc can make you stand out from background 'noise.' Illuminite jerseys or clothing are fine for dark country riding, but I've found them to be less than optimal in city conditions. (note: this is not true for the reflective tape). Save your money for that hi-viz yellow jacket that works in both day and night conditions.
A friend tipped me onto Glo-Gloves (http://www.gloglov.com). These are lightweight, *super-visible* safety gloves that you can wear alone or over another glove (including winter gloves). I cannot rave enough about this product. They make hand signals 100% more visible to drivers--day or night! I get way more respect when I ride with these on, than when I don't have them. Just like with the safety vests, check online with a google search to find the cheapest venue. You can probably find a good vest at the same time and save on shipping costs.
*Note: this photo shows one pair, two different ways--on the left you see the palm side over my winter, windproof gloves; on the right, you see the back side of the Glo-glov alone (showing the day-glow yellow color--it's brighter than it looks in the flash photo).
Finally, your bike itself can be turned into a visibility aid.
There are many, many products that you can use to increase your presence on the road. Reflective tape is inexpensive and can be bought at car part stores, hardware stores, bike shops and online. You can decorate your helmet, bike frame, fenders, rack, etc. to your heart's content. Reflective tape comes in red, amber, yellow, orange, and white/silver (Illuminite brand). The more tape, the better. Bonus: you "uglify" your bike making it less likely to get stolen.
Another cool product is Light weights (www.lightweights.org); these are small pieces of reflective tape that you mount to your wheel spokes. They provide excellent visibility yet are extremely small and well, light. Your entire wheel becomes a reflector. Even better they are made in Chicago and profits go to support child welfare programs.
In the photo above, notice not only the Lightweights on the main bike's wheels, but also notice how well the reflective illuminite tape on the bags and on the frame of the trailercycle shows up!
My favorite wheel products have got to be Hokey spokes and Monkey Lectric Lights. Oh, how I love these things! They are completely over the top, but they are a wonder to behold. I call them my "party lights." (www.hokeyspokes.com and www.monkeylectric.com). They not only make you more visible, but they never fail to draw smiles and a positive comment from people who see them.
Not for the faint hearted, nor if you are light in the pocket, though. A bunch of people from BikeWinter and Critical Mass got together in '05 to do a group purchase that allowed us to get them at the wholesale price. My husband got me 8 Hokey Spoke blades as my Christmas gift that year. Gotta love a man who knows his woman.
If you've seen the Festival of Lights parade up town, you've seen these in action on our bikes. I now have two Monkey Lectric lights--which are brighter and have more colors--in addition to the Hokey Spokes. The HS's communicate with each other, so you get a total wheel light effect even when the wheels are spinning slowly. Totally cool!
This brief video shows Pierogi John's uber-fantastic Christmas bike highlighting Hokey Spoke wheels lights...
Other neat wheel lights include Tireflys and Reflects. These mount to your spokes or your stem valve, respectively. www.tireflys.com New tireflys come in funky shapes like skulls or flowers.
*Note the different colors of Reflects flashers available; here you see citron yellow and orange. They come in cobalt blue, lime green, citron yellow, orange and red). The small blue flasher on the stem valve in the photo is a plain Tirefly. It can be set to strobe constantly, or to flash when the wheel bounces; a negative is that it needs to be unscrewed to be turned off.
You can even tape glow sticks to your spokes for a special event where you want to be visible. They won't last more than one night, and they aren't super bright, but they will add to your visibility.
There are many, many options for making yourself show up while riding. Don't hesitate to explore any and all of the above. Remember: You can never be TOO visible!