Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Dinky little lights

The early onset of snow and ice forced me into the car more than a month sooner than in past years. This has given me a lot of time to look at fellow road users through the windshield, the way the vast majority of road users view those of us who aren't in a motor vehicle.

I've seen the whole range, from people with no lights to people with conspicuous outfits combining illuminated and reflective elements. The more brightly lighted are certainly more noticeable, but even the most conspicuous is hard to see.

I've discussed the drawbacks of aggressively conspicuous lighting before. That's a different problem. What I noticed most recently is the way night lighting and reflectivity for non-motorized users fails to define them even if it makes them quite noticeable.

Starting at the dark end of the spectrum, pedestrians and cyclists start right out with different minimum recommended lighting. Way back when I was a kid, my father said we should carry a flashlight when walking the dog at night, so that drivers could see us when cars came by. Flashlights are a lot better now, and pedestrians are a lot rarer. I appreciate it when I'm in my car or on the bike and people on foot have a light. But from the car it still doesn't provide instant and definite positioning. The same goes for cyclists with the minimum required lighting, or even a notch better. Any oncoming motor vehicle blasts out the smaller lights of the non-motorized travelers and narrows the space in which to pass safely. More than once I have pulled over and stopped completely rather than go forward into the visual field of blaze and blackness. Any normal driver will just bull through and hope for the best.

More powerful lighting definitely improves the situation for a bicyclist at night. The most powerful head and tail lights define you as a vehicle better than in daylight. But the sheer size of the headlight is never as large and definitive as the lights on a car or truck. If you're on a road where it's inadvisable to take the full lane, you're off to the side a bit, ambiguously lighted and generally moving more slowly than the large, motorized sensory deprivation tanks in which most teens and adults spend most of their lives in developed countries.

The lights on motor vehicles are designed not only to allow drivers to see where they are going in the absence of other light. They also define the shape and size of the vehicle. They are a symbolic language and an aid to navigation. At a glance, a driver can identify the other vehicles by their lights, determine their direction of travel and approximate their speed. Non-standard lighting causes immediate confusion. You will notice this at accident scenes where emergency vehicles are in unusual positions and emergency responders with reflective vests and lights are moving around a scene, particularly early in the response, when drivers are still flowing through the area. You'll see it at construction zones. You'll see it when a motor vehicle is escorting people on foot who might for some reason be using the public right of way for something like a long-distance charity relay or similar event. I have been unable to dig up a link to a story about it, but I recall years ago -- pre-internet -- that a mixed group of fraternity and sorority students were doing a charity run, escorted by a truck with floodlights on the back of it. They were in the right lane of a four-lane, divided highway when a driver ploughed into the runners, killing several. The white floods on the back of the escort truck made it visible, but not identifiable.

At highway speeds -- and even at the lower speeds -- drivers need automatic cues that trigger automatic responses, because they are so conditioned to business as usual. Are they wrong? Of course they're wrong. Drivers should be on the alert at all times for unusual circumstances that require them actually to pilot their craft. Wrong they may be, but they are also normal. The vast majority of the time, they only encounter each other, normally lighted and operating within a fairly narrow range of deviations. Even the speed changes and weaving of a texting idiot fall closer to the norm than the dinky little lights of a bike or pedestrian, or the bright but unfamiliar look of a motor vehicle engaged in non-standard activity.

Take your super-equipped rider with fully reflective garments and lots of lights. You will trigger reports of space aliens, but you still don't give drivers a quickly assimilated spatial reference that they can use to set up a seamless pass. You're just weird looking. I don't say that you shouldn't do it. Just don't be surprised when it fails to provide anything close to perfect safety and confidence. On the approach, even that display can be obliterated by the lights of oncoming traffic. And it didn't really claim your space in the first place. The illuminated human outline of a full reflective suit does reinforce that you are at least humanoid. But that very spectacle might lead to target fixation, as the driver gravitates toward you, gaping in fascination at this apparition floating through the darkness. You're little better off than the rider with just a really decent head and tail light, reflector leg bands and an odd couple of blinkies.

Are there statistics on this? Probably not. Someone would have to care, and get the funding for the study, tabulate and publish the results. I base my conclusions on my own observations as a prisoner in my car, going off to grub for my pittance each day.

Out of the car, we riders and walkers have adapted to the night. It's easy to forget how invisible you are under even the best of circumstances. That's why I don't feel like a pampered pet of the machine age, wallowing in my privilege as I loll in the recliner and pilot my chariot. I feel like I'm making a sacrifice for the team, performing anthropological and sociological research by spending time as a motorist, and studying its effects both physical and psychological. I would prefer to spend more of the time as a brave outrider, facing the elements and making the world a better place one pedal stroke at a time. But the world isn't there yet. Someone has to guide the transition.

Autonomous elements in a semi-autonomous vehicle would improve the passing situation independent of lighting at night. If motor vehicles had sensor systems that could identify the size, speed, and direction of any object in their space, both oncoming and overtaking vehicles could take over from their meat pilots to slow down and make space for a bicyclist or pedestrian. With the push for fully autonomous vehicles, and new models advertising range-finding features, this could be a reality fairly soon. Meanwhile, most of us poor schmucks have to drive vehicles from the current fleet of rust buckets, and depend on our own poor senses to get us safely around.

Evolution could be hastened -- albeit harshly -- by equipping the newer vehicles with weapon systems that would identify and destroy older motor vehicles and their occupants, thus reinforcing the de facto minimum financial threshold for full participation in society and making the roads and highways safer at the same time. I'm not saying this is a good idea. But I guarantee that someone, somewhere, has been thinking it, along with plenty of other judgmental prescriptions for "improving" our species. Real classic antique cars would have to be equipped with transponders to mark them as better than old junkers driven by low-income dregs.

Of course in America the powers that be would rather keep requiring low income people to dig up some kind of personal transportation, preferably a junky car, than expend public monies on public transportation or alternative transportation infrastructure. There's no profit in that stuff, and profit is God.


Eli said...

I believe the incident you refer to involved the Chi Omega sorority's walk-a-thon in Oxford, Mississippi in 1987. Here is a firsthand account: http://www.oprah.com/relationships/women-of-chi-omega-accident-paige-williams.

cafiend said...

Thanks, Eli.