Skip to main content

Many years ago, while riding a motorbike from Vancouver to Victoria after dark, I was struck by the lack of attention of other drivers.

They pulled out in front of me – apparently without looking – changed lanes on top of me, and generally behaved as though it was their mission to take me out that night. It was like I was invisible.

When I arrived at the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, I realized that I was, in fact, invisible. The low beam on my all-black 1982 Suzuki had died. I was riding blind – or at least unseen. Realizing that the high beam still worked, I tilted the headlight down so as not to blind other drivers and made the rest of the trip without incident.

I felt lucky. I mean, who in his right mind would be on the road, in traffic, on a black bike and wearing dark clothing without having a functioning headlight?

The answer, I have discovered, is a lot of cyclists in Vancouver.

According to the Canadian Automobile Association, the majority of bicycle crashes that result in injuries occur during the afternoon rush hour. One out of three fatal bike accidents happens at night.

The time change means that a great many evening cyclists are now making their way home in pitch blackness – and a stunning number of them do so without a headlight, a tail light or reflective clothing of any kind. (Never mind helmets – they've opted instead for tuques of invincibility.)

The hardiest among them do it in the rain, which camouflages them further and simultaneously reduces the ability of drivers to see them – a dangerous combination.

When I'm behind the wheel of a car, before I make a move, I now check my mirrors three or four times, and if I'm getting out of the car, I actually open the door a crack and look back down the street to see if an invisible cyclist might be approaching.

There are several additional mirror checks and a shoulder check before I pull out. Even then, at the last minute, there is still a chance that a black-clad and completely unlit cyclist will apparate out of thin air, as with a Hogwarts headmaster.

When I learned to drive a motorcycle, I was frequently reminded of the potential hazards of cars parked in the curb lane. Did the car just pull in? Is there someone behind the wheel? That could mean a door is about to open. Are the lights on? Is it signalling? Are the reverse lights lit? Are the wheels turned in or out? Is there exhaust coming from the tailpipe? All of that will help you assess risk.

And yet, I can sit in my own car, exhibiting any or all of those telltale signs, and an unlit cyclist dressed like a Famous People Players puppeteer will whiz past within inches of my rear-view mirror.

No question, the onus is on me as a driver not to door them or pull out in front of them, but you would think that they would exercise at least some caution when it comes to passing – maybe just allowing a few extra inches of space. Nope.

To be fair, many of the daily cycle commuters appear to get it. Walking home along the bikeway, I see cyclists who are the best-lit, most reflective, rainproof (and yet remarkably breathable) objects on the road. You can identify them by their panniers and their gear. Also, they tend to wear helmets, gloves and sometimes even reflective vests.

But it's later in the evening, after the first wave has passed, that the "just getting from A to B" people take over.

Think, "Dude let me borrow your bike so I can go fill my growler!" Those are the ones I just don't get. The ones who make no effort to be seen and, as a result, put their lives in the hands of the terrible, unskilled, aggressive, self-entitled and distracted drivers of Vancouver. I often see them riding side by side, hands in pockets, chatting merrily and oblivious to that fact that they are virtually invisible.

I know, wearing black is cool. Being able to ride with your hands in your pockets is cool too. And that tuque really frames your face.

I have vowed never to be one of those people who has to utter the tragic line "I didn't see you."

But I swear, I worry that it's just a matter of time.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.