Unsafe Safety Signs

I am a regular bicyclist. I ride to stores, to doctor appointments, to social meetings, and to pretty much any other short commute in clement weather that doesn’t require carrying more than half my weight or volume in cargo. So it generally lightens my heart to see the increasing frequency of bicycle reminders on or around roadways. This bit of road paint, today’s Object at Hand, is on the street near my house.

But the more of these signs I see, the more I am realizing how they actually pose a threat to bikers.

Why? The problem is in the way our minds work. For those who haven’t studied psychology and perception, or neurology, nor read geeky mainstream books such as “Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention“, let me present a couple of things have been proven, that you can research for yourself later:

  • At the primitive levels of our mind, we can only see what we have learned to see.
  • Dissimilar images that evoke a shared idea require more cognitional effort to relate than do similar images. For example, it takes a slower and higher part of the brain to associate the relationship between a penny and a twenty than to recognize two different coins both as valuta.

Given these points, can you see the problem? How about if I show you the driver’s perspective of a bicyclist?

Do you see it, now? This is what almost every bicyclist looks like to a driver. Bikers of both motorized and pedaled two wheelers are always complaining that cars don’t see them.

The problem is that drivers are always shown a particular image of what to expect, and it bears no resemblance to what a bicyclist looks like. It is this basic cognitive problem rather than the relative narrowness of two wheeled vehicles that poses the greatest threat to us. But almost every bicycle warning sign uses the same basic profile image, repeatedly retraining drivers in what to look out for. Here is a sampling from around the world.

Try Googling for bicycle signs, yourself! One motorcyclist friend who has repeatedly been reminded how invisible we are even wears a special shirt to try to draw attention to his invisible presence:

I would like to get a campaign going to make bicycling safer by deploying and requiring signs to look more like this crude mock-up I created. Note how much more like an actual bicyclist it looks, and think about what it tells you to look out for.

For comparison, what sign seems a better warning/reminder of what to look for?

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3 Responses to “Unsafe Safety Signs”


  1. 1 Dan Klarmann August 18, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    The old signs seem to “makes sense” because we are used to them. An accurate simile for “As God intended” is “What I’m used to.”
    The old sign is just an abstraction of the side view of a bicycle, a view that is actually rare on the road. If the the view from the back were the sign we were familiar with, it would be just as intuitive, as natural.

    I agree that it would be best if the new sign had the commonly seen “Watch for Bikes” or “Share the road” message still posted below it, for those who don’t yet recognize it.

  2. 2 David Weintraub August 19, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    That darn reality-based world just keeps showing up.

  3. 3 Phil August 20, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    I think the profile you came up with could be helpful. However, I don’t think most people won’t get the image at first glance.

    I almost always wear day-glo green jerseys, use lights on my bike at all times, and have plenty of reflective tape on my bike and helmet. It’s pretty common for people crack jokes like, “Gee, I didn’t see you” then follow that up moments later with a knowing “Oh!” Driving cars gives us an irrational sense of invulnerability and power (no best selling foot-racing video or bicycling videos out there, eh?). The more signage and public education about safe driving and cycling, the better.


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