sun glare driving

When the Sun is Low, Don’t Go (Or Find Another Way)

Sun Glare Driving

One of the things we teach savvy cyclists is that a bright sun, low on the horizon, can be a dangerous condition. Google “sun glare driving.” As with operating around big trucks, how to handle this condition is an essential need-to-know for cyclists.

And I do mean essential. Earlier this month my friend Steve Magas chronicled the heartbreaking aftermath of a child killed by a sun-blinded driver in New Philadelphia, Ohio.

CyclingSavvy’s classroom presentation includes photos of how a bike can be hard to see in circumstances when the sun is in the eyes of another vehicle operator. Every driver of every vehicle should be mindful of that, but you don’t want to encounter a driver who isn’t so mindful.

My riding seldom puts me in a position where I have to worry about this. But it happened on June 12.

The longer the shadow, the greater the danger.

I had gone on an important errand. My wife wanted a squirt gun, to do battle with squirrels that trespass our backyard bird feeder. And by gum, I headed straight for the nearest Dollar Tree and got her a good one. It’s a bazooka-style pool toy, with a range of 20 feet or so.

On my way home from the store, the sun was low, less than two hands’ width above the horizon, glaring down the road and causing my eyes to squint.

I remembered the succinct way Bob Sutterfield had summarized what to know:

“Your shadow points in the direction of the people who can’t see you.”

My shadow was pointed straight down the road behind me

I found myself with a perfect example of “sun glare driving” blindness.  The people behind me couldn’t see me.

This was a narrow two-lane road, with no shoulder, no alternatives, and no intersection for the next few furlongs. After a minute of nervous-nellying, I knew what I had to do.

I got off my bicycle. I moved to the other side of the road. And I walked.

Now I was a pedestrian, easily visible to oncoming motorists. No problem.

I stopped and took two photos. The photos aren’t perfect, because I couldn’t prop my bike in the roadway. Instead, I leaned the bike against a signpost in the grassy swale beside the road. Nonetheless, my photos make the point.

sun glare driving

Looking into the sun, straight ahead. Can you see the bicycle?

sun glare driving

It’s right here! With the sun at my back, the world is crystal clear. Therein lies the ironic danger

Your Shadow Points to the Danger

Can you see my bike in the sun-in-the-eyes photo? You’ll have to look for a minute.

Would you see it, if you were wearing sunglasses and looking through a dirty tinted windshield? Why risk that?

In the away-from-the-sun photo, everything in front of you is visible.  But even so, there are still hazards.  Oncoming motorists can’t see you, and motorists at intersections in front of you can’t see you.  So they might turn across your path.

That’s the dangerous irony of this condition. When you’re riding along with the sun at your back, you might think everything’s crystal clear and hunky-dory. It isn’t!

If the sun’s in your face, you may have to go for a walk like I did.  If the sun is behind you, you can probably ride safely, provided you are very aware that motorist in front might not see you.

So, that day, I decided I’d just mellow out and enjoy the walking interlude. And then the road shifted direction slightly, and a combination of terrain and tree canopy blocked the sun somewhat. I got back on the bike and rode the rest of the way.

My decision to stay safe added five or 10 minutes to my trip time. That was time well spent to have 100 percent immunity against that crash cause.

And my wife enjoys her squirt gun.

10 replies
  1. Lance Jacobs
    Lance Jacobs says:

    Hi John!

    I love the fact that you made an informed decision and let discretion be the better part of valor. I too have advocated that occasionally dismounting and walking past a construction site can be a great option.
    But this sentence left me confused as to which way the sun is pointing or why it was dangerous:
    (You wrote) “When you’re riding along with the sun at your back, you might think everything’s crystal clear and hunky-dory. Don’t! ”
    It’s clear that with the sun in front of you, drivers approaching from the rear may be blinded. But what is the “ironic danger” of the sun behind you? Thanks for clarifying!

    Reply
    • larrylem
      larrylem says:

      I believe he was noting that the sun is in the eyes of those coming towards you, to be careful as they may turn left in front of you.

      Reply
  2. Tim Potter
    Tim Potter says:

    Great article and supporting photos. Unfortunately this “the sun was in my eyes” excuse is a well-known one by motorists who run over and kill bicyclists and pedestrians. Thankfully there are some in the law enforcement / justice system who investigate thoroughly to see if that was truly the case, and whether or not it was in fact the case, tell the motorist that it’s their duty and responsibility to make sure they can clearly see where they’re driving a multi-ton vehicle. Certainly bicyclists and pedestrians need to do everything we can do to avoid being run over and your advice is solid, but as bike safety advocates who sometimes need to make public statements after fatal crashes which often quote motorists’ statements like that it’s good to bear in mind that this excuse shouldn’t be allowed by law enforcement/ judges/ juries to let a motorist off scott-free.

    One other related comment: this lighting scenario is another great reason for cyclists (& peds for that matter) to always be dressing in bright colors and using lights in flash mode to help stand out as much as possible and not assume that lights are only necessary when it’s getting dark or is dark.

    Tim Potter
    Webmaster
    Ride of Silence

    Reply
  3. Judy
    Judy says:

    “When you’re riding along with the sun at your back, you might think everything’s crystal clear and hunky-dory. Don’t!”

    Actually, when the sun is in your eyes, it’s also in the overtaking motorist’s eyes. Unless you’re riding against traffic….

    When the sun’s at your back, you worry that an oncoming driver with the sun in her face will make a left turn into you.

    Reply
    • Karen Karabell
      Karen Karabell says:

      “When the sun’s at your back, you worry that an oncoming driver with the sun in her face will make a left turn into you.”

      Exactly, Judy!

      There’s the drive-out risk, too. Years ago my middle son was hit by a motorist driving onto the road he was riding on. She claimed she had the sun in her eyes and didn’t see him. Thankfully he’s fine.

      We want cyclists to be concerned about this potential issue, rather than thinking: Whaddaya mean you couldn’t see me?! Conditions were totally clear for me!

      Reply
  4. Karen Karabell
    Karen Karabell says:

    Lance & Judy, I’m editor of The Savvy Cyclist. This morning I added these sentences to John’s post: “That’s the dangerous irony of this condition. When you’re riding along with the sun at your back, you might think everything’s crystal clear and hunky-dory.”

    I intended to clarify this sentence of John’s: “In the away-from-the-sun photo, everything is visible.” I apologize for making it clear as mud. But there’s good news: John’s had the opportunity to update his post. Hope it’s all clear now.

    I love the simple rule-of-thumb for keeping yourself safe: When your shadow is long, it points to potential danger.

    That is, oncoming traffic from the direction in which your long shadow points may not be able to see you. As John describes in his post, once you’re aware of the risk, you have a number of ways to protect yourself. Cyclists always have choices. :-)

    Reply
  5. David Erickson
    David Erickson says:

    I often get off my bicycle, move to the other side of the road, and walk my bike as a pedestrian (or if there is a sidewalk, I will walk my bike on the sidewalk as a pedestrian). Not just for sun glare, but for many other reasons such as windy road with fast, heavy traffic (outside of curve gives better visibility of bike by motorists, and better visibility of cars by bicyclist). I know most vehicular cyclists ridicule this type of behavior, and prefer to pretend there is no difference between a two-ton SUV going 50 mph and a 200 pound bike (combined weight of bike and rider) going 12 mph, but I prefer to stay alive.

    Reply
  6. David Erickson
    David Erickson says:

    This is a re-post of a comment I tried to leave a little while ago that disappeared into cyberspace:

    I often cross to the other side of the road to walk my bike as a pedestrian (or walk my bike as a pedestrian on the sidewalk if one is available). Not just for sun glare, but for any reason that makes riding on the road or road shoulder dangerous at that location. I know most vehicular cyclists ridicule this type of behavior, and prefer to pretend there is no difference between a two-ton SUV going 50 mph and a 200 pound bike (combined weight of bike and rider) going 12 mph, but I prefer to stay alive.

    Reply
  7. David Erickson
    David Erickson says:

    I tried twice to post a comment but both comments disappeared into cyberspace. This is just a test (using a different web browser) to see if I can get anything at all to post.

    Reply

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