Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Memoirs of an Invisible Man

The other night as I was riding home in the dark rain, a woman's voice called out to me from within her SUV. "Those are very nice lights. Thank you," the voice said. I responded with a quick "thanks" of my own and we both proceeded on our respective journeys.

I do try to be visible and vigilant and with my bright yellow jacket, reflective tape, glow gloves, 4 rear lights, front bike and helmet lights. I like to think that I mostly succeed. But at best all these attempts at conspicuity only partially counteract the one amazing super power I possess. This super power isn’t super because it’s rare or because it’s a really cool like the ability to fly. Unfortunately my super power is far too common and it’s a curse.

 I am invisible.

 At some points every day we all are invisible. We are trees falling in the forest but no one is listening. We are clad in bright yellow and we have flashing lights and we signal and make eye contact and all the rest of the things we are supposed to do and yet somehow someone does not see us. And it’s easy to think that the people who don’t see us are idiots or evil. And while there certainly are idiots and evil people in this world, there are far more people who are simply harried human beings.

I know I am not one hundred percent focused one hundred percent of the time. I am human. I make mistakes. I try to hold myself in the moment to be here now, to pay attention to what is going on. I try to be the traveler I'd like to encounter, to be the calm and not the storm. But I know that I do not succeed one hundred percent of the time.

As a cyclist, I have many advantages. I am traffic. I am small and vulnerable and my bike has no illusion that it is a place. And I’m rolling through the world at a pace that is slower than most of my fellow travelers. I have more time to think and react. My brain and body know I am small and vulnerable. My ingrained instincts view cars and their ilk as big metal monsters. I try to keep track of those monsters. My life does depend on it.

I know that drivers are not monsters, they are humans like me, but the metaphor of cars as fast dangerous, dumb beasts is a handy one. I can feel empathy for the driver and still maintain a healthy fear of the vehicle. The car is not really a beast, but to its pilot it is a rolling illusion of place. It is a cocoon, a capsule insulating the driver from the outside world. And that outside world is encountered at in-human speeds. The human brain is a remarkable instrument, but it has limits. Add in a packed 24/7 schedule, a cell-phone or perhaps a screaming kid in the back and you have information overload. The brain can’t process all the signals fast enough, so some signals get lost. We don’t even know we are missing things but we are missing things. This happens to all of us. Even the best driver. Even the best cyclist. I’m not “here” 100% of the time and neither are you. But most of us are “here”, most of the time. Think about all the interactions you have with drivers every day. In general, things work. But sometimes they don’t. Whoever you are, wherever you travel, remember this. At some point you will be invisible to someone.

I don’t have a great recipe to cure this condition; I’m merely pointing it out. Never assume you are seen. Where bright yellow and deck yourself out in lights. But don’t think that will make everyone see you. It’s worth doing and it increases the odds but to someone you’ll still be invisible. But maybe that flash of yellow will break through and save you from a dicey situation. Or maybe remembering your own invisibility will help keep you alive.

Let me leave you with one more story. A few years ago I was retrieving my bike from a fire station. A van had turned in front of me in a sequence of events that led to my bike and I being taken away in an ambulance. I wound up at the hospital and my bike wound up at the fire station. While I was chatting with one of the fire fighters about my accident, I was brainstorming what else I could do to be more visible. The van driver, of course, had commented that he never saw me. While the fire fighter approved of my various schemes for brighter clothes, more lights and more reflective gear, he also cautioned me. “You’ll never make everybody see you. The other night we were out on a call in that,” he said pointing to a large, bright yellow hook and ladder truck. “It was parked in front of a burning house and a guy driving down the road slammed right into the back of it. When we pried him out of the car the first thing he said was ‘I never saw you.’”

Be careful out there. Keep ‘em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson 
Issaquah WA USA


Jon said...

What a great post. I plan on linking to it. I really liked "I never saw you."

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I needed that. Although I try not to sometimes I am guilty of forgetting Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity."

The Old Bag said...

an excellent write!

Anonymous said...


You wrote, "And while there certainly are idiots and evil people in this world, there are far more people who are simply harried human beings."

In my view, there is nothing "simply" about it. People are harried, rushed, impatient because they are in the grip of a complicated (and unnatural) social system that demands that they maximize their production. Many embrace that system, while the rest acquiesce because they have no choice or feel that they have no choice. That system is called capitalism.

Bicycling is radical (and even defiant, in some cases) disobedience to the imperatives of capitalism. Bicyclists purposefully go slower than the mainstream, and they purposefully reduce their consumption. Slow speed and simple living are heretical to an ideology designed for abundance.

You further wrote, "I don’t have a great recipe to cure this condition" [information overload].

I think that living one's life on a human scale and at a human speed is a sufficient cure. At least it works for me.


Anonymous said...

Great writ indeed!

About the word simply,
Mahatma Ghandi once said:
Live simply so others can simply live!

About the cure for invisibility
one remedy is numbers,
more numerous cyclists
fewer motorists
smaller risk!

Ghandi also said!
Be the change you want to see in the world!

That guy must have been some cyclist!

French urban cyclist
"La Ville à Vélo"

Clement said...

About bikes and not seeing the obvious:

VChre said...

Well done ;)