Morning Warning

I love riding in the morning; the air is cool, the wind is still, the birds are singing, and promise of a new day colors my view. But morning is, in my opinion, the absolute most dangerous time of day to ride, and I was reminded of this by an recent awful accident. Please take a moment to consider the special circumstances of your morning commute.

Picture of sunrise

Oh say, can you see by the dawn’s early light? Nope, you’re blinded.

Last Friday, a friend of mine was coming down a steep hill early in the morning when car pulled out if front of him causing a collision that sent him flying. He has had multiple surgeries in recent days and I hope he will recover fully, but it is going to be rough.

While I don’t know all the details of the accident, I do know that riding in the morning presents three special safety challenges. One of the challenges is a physical condition and other two are behavioral, but either way, you need to prepare for them and even watch for the effect of the second two in your own riding.

The Dawn’s Early Light Can Be Dangerous

For most people, sunshine is only dangerous as a cause of skin cancer, but for a bike rider, the early morning sun, low on the horizon, is like a cloaking device. And while Romulan warbirds may want to go unseen, bike riders never do. Take a look at the picture above: this is what I see for five or so weeks in the spring and fall as I try to merge onto a main arterial road. As I approach this intersection, I know that at this time of year I can’t see cars coming from my right, and cars coming from my left can’t see me; I ride as if I am invisible.

The bright sunlight also casts deep shadows in which a bicycle (or a pedestrian) can hide from a fast moving car. The shadows cast by trees and mountains mean that drivers’ eyes have to constantly adjust to changing light conditions, making it harder to see you. As my riding buddy noted on our way in to work this morning, I should be wearing florescent clothes to make myself more visible.

Mitigate the hazard of poor light conditions be being a visible as possible.

Drivers are distracted in the morning

Yes, drivers are distracted all the time with the radio, the phone, the big gulp, etc. But it is significantly worse in the morning and drivers consistently engage their transmission before their brains. They are thinking about the presentation at 10, the client meeting at lunch, the thumb drive they may or may not have forgotten to pack, the smartphone they may have forgotten to charge, and the cup of coffee they are trying to drink. Most car commuters are already mentally at the office, not behind the wheel.

(As a bike commuter, you probably have a pre-ride ritual that gets you mentally focused. When I was a driver, my pre-trip ritual was generally limited to searching for my keys.)

But the morning has one more factor turns the distraction knob to 11…kids. On your afternoon, commute, you are unlikely to encounter an SUV full of kids being dropped off at school. But in the morning, a substantial number of the drivers on the road are trying to operate a vehicle while having conversations with questions like, “Why didn’t you put it in your backpack?” “Did you remember your lunch?” and “The field trip payment is due today?!”

Anticipate and plan for distracted drivers by 1) being super aware of your surroundings, 2) watching for erratic drivers in traffic ahead and behind you, and 3) riding as much as possible on streets with little and slow traffic.

Running late

Of course, people are late all day, but they are more stressed about it in the morning. There are eight o’clock staff meetings, school bells, snooze buttons, lost shoes, and the boss to impress. This leads to cutting corners on safety, driving a little to fast, and trying to multitask behind the wheel (see distraction). Mitigate the threat of stressed late drivers by being predictable in traffic, signaling your intentions, and not being late yourself.

My friend was injured when a car full of kids, being driven by an adult who was running late, pulled out in front of him on a hill in the early morning. Accidents happen, of course, but you owe it to yourself to be extra careful when riding in the morning. With spring bringing riders again onto the roads and the sun rising earlier in the day, please take time to think about how the special challenges of morning affect your safety.

  • BluesCat

    This time of year, I start out before the sun comes up. I always put my headlight and tail light on blinky to help me stand out from the background.

    When I’m approaching the end of my commute I turn east just as the sun has cleared the horizon. I have learned how to place my helmet mirror so that when the sun hits me in the eyes, I can close my right eye and eclipse the sun with the mirror so I can see clearly out of my left eye. Has saved my butt a couple of times from cars pulling out in front of me.

    • http://twitter.com/Biketoworkblog Biketoworkblog

      Thanks for the mirror tip. This is my first spring using a mirror and I’ve been zapped by the early morning sun a few times.

  • bdw120

    For my commute in Boston I find the opposite. I find that people tend to be more distracted and agitated on the way home form work. It seems that their pent up frustrations from their day at work are channeled through driving. They drive more aggressively and talk on their phone and stomp on the gas pedal before they look. But on the way to work people seem more calm and relaxed.

    • http://twitter.com/Biketoworkblog Biketoworkblog

      Interesting. Another one of those East US/West US differences. I’ve been thinking about which drivers I’d rather have and I think morning, if only because there are few of them. Traffic seems much denser in the afternoon.

      • BluesCat

        Yeah, I think mornings, too. At 5:15 AM, there a couple of 5-lane major arterials in Phoenix that I have all to myself and my bike for a mile or so.

  • http://twitter.com/Biketoworkblog Biketoworkblog

    Just the other day, as I rode through an intersection strewn with bits of taillight, I was thinking about how many car accidents I see (and how expensive they are) and how few bike accidents I hear about.

  • cam

    I pass through a school zone every morning and talk about distracted drivers, kids and pedestrians! It really pays to have your head on a swivel and alert. Commuting by bike has made me a better driver. Glad summer break is almost here.

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