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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sue Lani Madsen: Bicyclists, get smart and drop the urban camouflage

Bicyclists were an early transportation special interest group. In the 1880s, they were the first to lobby for good roads, literally paving the way for the horseless carriage. Velodrome races on tightly banked oval courses were hugely popular from the 1890s through the 1920s. The predecessor to Nascar, intensely competitive cyclists held crowds on the edge of their seats waiting for a spectacular crash. Bicycles have been part of the transportation scene for over a hundred years.

The history lesson is a reminder that bicycles have long shared the road with cars, following the same rules of the road. There was a time before bikes had their own lanes and cyclists insisted on their right of way. The first rule of sharing the road is to drive defensively. Even if a bike has the right of way, the bike loses.

From the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center ( “Bicycle fatalities represent less than 2 percent of all traffic fatalities, and yet bicycle trips account for only 1 percent of all trips in the United States.”

One of the reasons for this relatively high casualty rate became apparent to me on a trip through downtown Spokane this fall – bicycle ninjas. What on earth possesses bicyclists to dress in black from head to toe and ride through dark city streets? Tail lights and headlights aren’t enough. Why bother with a helmet when dressed in urban camouflage?

My neighbors and I regularly share complaints about bicycles on our country roads. Planning a recreational ride through wheat country at the height of spring field work or summer harvest makes as much sense as planning a field trip for first graders to an accountant’s office during tax season. Recreational cyclists seem oblivious to the potentially lethal combination of blind corners, absent shoulders and heavy farm equipment, but at least they are usually wearing bright-colored shirts and it’s daylight.

In an informal survey of Spokane drivers, the invisible bicyclist is a major urban headache. Bike commuters on the road after dark need to drive defensively, and that means dropping the camouflage and making themselves visible.

Forget the chic urban black from head to toe. Take a page from the hunting community where “a minimum of 400 square inches of fluorescent hunter orange exterior clothing is required. It must be worn above the waist and be visible from all sides,” subject to a fine for each infraction. Maybe hunter orange isn’t destined to be the new bicycle black, but how about adopting safety green? Bicyclists are always happy to tell everyone how green they are.

Washington Bikes is the pacesetter for two-wheeled transportation statewide. I searched their website ( hoping to find a campaign for the latest in defensive fashion trends. I was disappointed. One photo showed a group of two dozen children with their bikes, all dutifully wearing helmets, but all in black or dark blue clothing. Not a hint of high visibility color. Another photo captured 10 adults ready to set off on a ride, and six of the 10 were all in black. Clearly there’s a need for change.

After a couple of close calls with bicycle ninjas in downtown Spokane last month, I grumbled “there oughta be a law” requiring a minimum of 400 square inches of fluorescent bicycle green exterior clothing, worn above the waist and visible from all sides. But we can’t legislate common sense and courtesy by adding more unenforceable laws to the books.

A bicyclist who chooses not to dress defensively should automatically be heavily responsible for any resulting collision. The State of Washington Motor Vehicle Accident Report form is required for any driver, cyclist or pedestrian accident resulting in more than $1,000 in property damage or injury. It already asks about helmets in use - it would be easy to add a check box for whether bicycle green was in use. Let the insurance companies enforce in the marketplace by refusing to cover camouflaged bicyclists claims.

Spokane has a strong history of bicycle commuting and can lead the way in doing it safely. There doesn’t need to be a law. There needs to be more common sense. Be a trendsetter. Wear bicycle green.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at