Predictable, Alert, Lawful. And invisible?

I’m reading Aaron’s Five Laws of Bicycling Survival, which is mostly a New Yorker’s slightly flippant description of what Bike Arlington (Virginia) calls “Predictable, Alert, and Lawful” or PAL.

Take the lane

I especially like Aaron questioning the conventional wisdom that cycling is “scary” or unwise, but he follows up with advice about safe cycling with traffic, which can mostly be summed up as “don’t be a moron.” Among the items in his list, though, I’ve always had difficulty with what Aaron calls his 2nd Law: “You Are Invisible To Cars.”

I know “you’re invisible” is a shortcut way to write “ride defensively,” but advice to assume invisibility still bugs the stupidly pedantic part of me. “Invisible riding” suggests, to me, a paranoid riding style that makes getting from point A-to-B impossible for more than trivial distances, and would probably wreck my mental health. People who ride the wrong way on the sidewalk and in the gutter tell me I’m insane for riding in traffic because those anthropomorphic cars don’t see me. A couple of people have even told me in all earnestness that they won’t ride with lights at night because “if they don’t see you, they can’t hit you.”

If I’m riding with traffic, I ride to be seen. My default assumption about other road users is that they see me, though of course I’m alert for the unaware obliviots on the road. This philosophy has served me well over the past three decades plus of adult cycling. Bike Arlington’s PAL program sums up my general style of riding pretty well, though it also includes a good dose of asserting my right to use the road.

Being a PAL means being:

  • Predictable – travel in a predictable way; don’t make sudden unexpected moves
  • Alert – pay attention to your surroundings and to others
  • Lawful – obey traffic laws, whether in a car, on a bike, or on foot

H/T to Dave S of WABA for telling me about PAL.


  1. I agree with you. The “act like you are invisible” line drives me nuts. Why do I spend money on lights and visibility gear if I am invisible. PAL actually depends on people seeing you hence the Predictable.
    OTOH I also get annoyed at the lawful part. There are numerous places where sidewalks and crosswalks are not supposed to be used for cyclists and then road planners will route a bike path through certain sidewalks and crosswalks. The 520 bike path on the Eastside of Seattle is one such. I will sometimes run a red light when on the top bar of a T intersection and there is a bike lane. There is one spot on my old commute where I did that nearly every day since running the light allowed me to get left on a 4 lane stroad so I could make the left turn lane. I will ride through crosswalks even though it is legal in some places and not in others. There is a lot of traffic planning that is not safe for cyclists.
    Basically without proper planning and awareness of the real peak traffic levels a cyclist may well have to bend the rules. Of course for me the L often stands for Loud. I make a lot of noise when I feel threatened. Loud HELLoooos as I see intersecting traffic on the right hand side that feels threatening. The same near right turn lanes that I need to be on the left off.
    I understand that a cyclist lobbyist group cannot easily advocate lawlessness or even the considered breaking of the law.

  2. I like what John Brooking wrote at I DO subscribe to the notion of “Don’t assume they see you.” After all, we ALL know what assume stands for – there’s a REASON fire trucks and police cars are all plastered with reflective tape on their rears. If a motorist can’t see a fire truck, we should not assume they see something less obvious. Being very watchful is a good policy and one can often spot distracted/impaired drivers before they present a serious danger to other traffic (like me). Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of motorists crashing into bigger items. I even (at the weblink) posted of a motorist who crashed into our local post office after jumping the curb.

  3. Aaron has been carrying on discussion about this piece on Reddit:

    I talk a lot about the invisibility law at this time of year. There’s still plenty of nice weather, and the sky is bright after work, but it doesn’t last as long into the evening as it did a month or so ago. It’s easy for an outing to spill into twilight or dark, and hard to remember to carry lights if you got out of the habit last spring.

    I started riding way back in the dark ages, almost literally. Bright lights for cycling were heavy and expensive, and really not all that bright, especially compared to the 2xAA size “1,000 lumen” flashlights I’m using these days. In that era we weren’t riding as if we were invisible, we actually were, in fact, pretty much.

    That carries into this era too, and even with an array of lights forward and aft, starboard and port, reflectorized from head to toe and wearing hi-viz gear, drivers are often surprised to find bikes riding in the predictably and legally correct way. They still didn’t see them, somehow.

    It’s moments like that when the things I learned about survival while invisible come in handy. Even when I’m sure I could be easily seen, between 20% and 90% of how I pick my lane and position how I modulate my speed is based on the presumption that drivers simply won’t see me there.

    “You are invisible” isn’t about what we do, it’s acknowledging what drivers do. I feel far more paranoid when I worry that one bright rear blinky on my bike may not be enough so I add one on my backpack and one on my helmet, then dangle my bike ball lights from the seat and think “if they think that’s disgusting or offensive, at least they’ll know they saw me!” And yet some still won’t, so the I take the active protection step to do my best to be where they can’t really hit me anyway.

    BTW, the only way I’m “of WABA” is as a longtime member.

  4. In a town like my own (Lisbon, Portugal) bke users sede lawfully invisible. Nós se are not. If ou are run by a dar at least you are covered by the car insurance.
    In spite of the difficulties O have allways refused to be invisible. The roads are also país with my taxes. People should get used to share the road and have an amount of respectivo for the others. Staying invisible is like asking forgiveness to ride a bke. And that I won’t do.

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