Commuting 101: Make Eye Contact

A huge issue for bike commuters is being seen by drivers on the road. Lot’s of times since they’ve trained themselves only to look for big metal boxes, they can look right at you and not even have it register that you’re there.

Making eye contact with a driver is essential in keeping you safe on the road. It let’s you know that the driver realizes you are there and that you can pass safely.

While I’m sure there are more, here are a couple situations that it’s imperative that you make eye contact with drivers:

  • Left turns across your lane – When you see a car in oncoming traffic slowing down to make a left turn across your path.
  • Pulling out of driveways, parking lots and side streets – This is the most necessary place to make sure you have eye contact. In to many cases the drivers are in a hurry and merely do a quick glance for other cars and then pull swiftly into traffic.

And here’s some tips on how to get the driver’s attention and make eye contact:

  • Slow down – Assume the driver is not going to see you and slow down. Don’t cross their path until you have eye contact. This saved my ass one time.
  • Go aroundIf you’re on the sidewalk, you can slow down and circle around behind the car in most cases.
  • Stare – You know how you can be in a big, crowded room but easily realize if somebody is staring at you from a distance? This works on the road as well. Stare a hole through the driver and many cases, as they scan for cars, they’ll notice you and make eye contact.
  • Wave your hands – Similar to staring, this will easily get a drivers a attention. If you’re going at a pretty good clip and are hoping you won’t have to slow down, try waving your hands long before to make sure the driver sees you. I’ve tried this by waving wildly and merely waving as if I’m saying ‘hello’ to the driver, and both work really well.

Making eye contact with drivers is an essential part of staying safe on the road.

Do you have any other tips for making eye contact on your bike commute?

Photo Credit: Jef Poskanzer

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0 thoughts on “Commuting 101: Make Eye Contact”

  1. Cafn8 says:

    If the conditions are safe, it also helps to ride way out in the lane. The closer to the center, the better. I come down a few hills on my commute where I can gear up and easily keep up with traffic. In these cases I generally ride a couple of feet from the center line. I’m easier to see for drivers looking for cars that way.

    Slowing down when someone appears ready to cross your path is a good idea, though, as most drivers don’t realize that a bicycle may be capable of speeds close to or as fast as other traffic in town, and may pull out even if they see you.

  2. GeekCyclist says:

    In low light it’s hard to make eye contact, but I usually do one of two things to increase my visibility in these situations:
    1. Shake my handlebars back a forth a little to catch them with the light from my headlight; or
    2. Pass my hand in front of the headlight a couple of times to create a ‘blinking’ effect.

  3. S Carrico says:

    I ring my bell and give a strong head nod – a thank you to the ones who are nice enough to even back up when they’re blocking a crosswalk, and a strong Italian “ehh!” hand wave when they pretend I’m not there but clearly saw me. [neither of these helped when I was hit walking my bike through a crosswalk last week, of course…. shame on me for thinking walking in a bright purple sweater was enough…]

  4. david in fla says:

    Staring works really well for me. I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with the 250lumen headlight on my helmet 🙂

  5. Start out by wearing something that will get attention, like a fluorescent green/yellow jacket or vest. Then, when drivers see that and catch that you’re staring at them, they take notice.

  6. Shay says:

    I’m a big fan of the “flamboyant hand gestures” – this is similar to the waving technique, but think really big. That much motion usually gets cars attention. Sometimes I’ll get the “yeah, I saw you already!” wave in response, but I figure I’d rather be paranoid than flattened.

  7. Gavin says:

    Need to be slightly wary with this. Some drivers/peds can take this as permission to pull out. I often shake my head when I see them start to inch out while maintaining eye contact.

    Or just give them a filthy look.

  8. Jen (SLC) says:

    I don’t really trust that making eye contact is effective. I’ve had too many times at stop signs or with drivers making left hand turns where I swear they see me, but then they’re actions clearly indicate that they don’t.

    I’m with S Carrico on the bell. I have two a nice chirpy one and a very loud, shrill one. I use the chirpy one when I’m feeling nice, and the shrill one when I need to get a driver’s attention now. It works really well.

  9. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    I use all of the above, plus I have a LOUD air horn. But, the most useful is being in the middle of the lane… As I aproch interstate off ramps I signal and move left about 200 feet before the crossing, then when I can see (or should see) the whites of the eyes I use my airhorn.. Strange, this sometimes seems to aggrovate soccer moms”

  10. Ringer says:

    I definitely agree with riding in the lane, but a few weeks ago an elderly gentleman in a Ford F-150 took a left out of a bank (into my lane of traffic) even though I was right there. I yelled a loud, “Hey!” (and, in the process, scared the bejeebers out of his grandson), but I don’t think it ever registered in his head that I was a legitimate vehicle and that he should wait for me. Luckily, he didn’t hit me, but I did have to do a bit of evasive maneuvering. In that case, it would have been very difficult to make eye contact–if only because it was around noon and there were so many other cars headed in different directions (which one do you choose?). So eye contact can be good, but vigilance, lung power, and evasive maneuvers are also helpful.

  11. Juan says:

    Commuter buddy! One of the best ways to make eye contact is to be seen first, and the best way to be seen is if there are more of you to see. My girlfriend and I commute together since we work about a minute down the street from each other. Don’t have a commuter buddy yet? Then get one! It is 2008 after all.

  12. Ghost Rider says:

    I’m with Jen (SLC). You might think you’re making eye contact with a motorist, but they might not actually see you (the fabled “thousand yard stare” of military lore). I’ve been in numerous near-incidents where a motorist just went ahead after I thought I had clearly a) made eye contact and b) made my intentions known with common hand signals.

    Ring a bell, hog a lane, wear a bright vest, shine a light at them — but don’t count on a mere perception of mutual eye contact.

  13. Quinn says:

    I am not always make I contact, but I always look and acknowledge, 2 main times, 1 when I have to take a left turn at a multi lane, lighted intersection, I always put myself in the middle of the L turn lane, and look back and nod when a car pulls up behind me, Also when times call for a quick/scetchy move into the road, I always wave at the car(s) that stop and let me go.

  14. tadster says:

    These are very good tips. I am very much in agreement with being highly visible. I usually try to wear something hi-vis and I also use a bright blinker light, even in daylight. Here are some of my other rules:
    1) Always be ready to brake, ESPECIALLY when you think they see you
    2) Always be ready AND willing to yield, even when you have right of way. For example, when a car is backing out of a driveway.
    3) Give a polite “thank you” wave to the motorist that yields to you, especially left turners from the oncoming lane. Doing so rewards them for their proper behavior and reinforces the fact that not all cyclists are fanatic jerks.

  15. tadster says:

    oh, and a general tip:
    4) Do NOT look over your shoulder when you are approaching a side street, store entrance, etc. If you do so, you risk colliding with a car that wants to exit quickly. Instead, wait until after you pass the side street.

  16. JP says:

    I find eye contact to be a very useful technique. It is something I teach my kids when riding around with them. I’m also a big fan of taking the lane. I like to own the road when I’m riding. Not all the time. I’m not looking to piss people off. But when safety dictates – through intersections, when crossing busy sidestreets or on/off ramps, etc. I find that people are less tlikely to pull out in front of me or cut me off if I am taking the whole lane. Defintely a more dangerous maneuver I admit.

  17. Chester says:

    One thing I’ll do, when I know or suspect that the driver hasn’t seen me is to give a loud whistle. Then, when they turn and see me, make eye contact. Then give ’em a nod for not running me over as I roll past.

  18. jamesmallon says:

    Put a lamp on your helmet. It points where you look, and drivers finally wake up when the lamp is ‘looking’ them straight in the retina. Also, yell and swear like a sailor. Sure, I’m rude, but I’m alive. I’ll ride civil when I am not in danger of my life (I never swore riding in Japan, because I wasn’t in danger, N. America is different).

  19. As several commenters mentioned, making eye contact is most definitely NOT a guarantee that the driver sees you. I have had people stare directly at me and not see me. When this happens, the driver’s eyes appear to be looking right at you, and then, without moving, his or her face gets a startled expression when they suddenly perceive you.

    Physiologically, the human eye perceives motion best at the edges of the visual field, while acuity is best at the center. Remember also that the human eye has a dead spot where the optic nerve connects to the retina. The brain extrapolates visual information to fill in the blank space, but an object small enough to fit entirely in that dead spot (like a cyclist a block away who is not wearing high-vis clothing or otherwise contrasting with the environment) will not be seen if the person is staring directly at the cyclist.

    When the cyclist comes out of the dead spot (if the driver is still looking that direction), he or she will seem to suddenly appear (but the brain smooths it all out). If the driver looks your way, looks the other way, then looks your way again, the cyclist who was in the dead spot the first time will not be the second time and will appear to the driver to have “come out of nowhere”. If the driver is actually waiting to move until after the second look, all will be well; but most drivers have already started moving as they start their second look and are not giving their second look the attention it needs.

    These are not things that cyclists can control. All cyclists can do is do their best to not blend into the background and assume that they are invisible.

    Bike bells are nice, but the average bike bell cannot be heard inside a car with the windows up (or a car with the windows down and the stereo on). An AirZound air horn works well, as does a loud-but-not-angry “Hey!” or “Yo!”

    Anecdotally, it may also help to have your face “aimed” at the driver to take advantage of the brain’s ability to see faces (we have a large chunk of neurons devoted to this task). I don’t have any data to back this up, though.

    The best advice I have read here so far is to have a commuter buddy (or two or three) and to take the lane (when it is appropriate, safe, and legal).

  20. danielo says:

    I can only reiterate what several now have said. If you trust that eye contact will help you, you’re dead. If you assume that you are invisible, you will live.

  21. jiehrlich says:

    I ride during the day with my headlight blinking. It seems like a no-brainer to me that if cars today have daytime running lamps for safety, bikes should do the same or more.

  22. Ringer says:

    Good point, jiehrlich. I might start doing the same…

  23. tadster says:

    jiehrlich, those are my thoughts exactly.

  24. Maureen says:

    I have a headlight on my bike that can be steady on, or blinking. I generally ride with it blinking (tail light as well), anytime I’m on the bike. Like tadster said, just yield right of way. It’s not worth dying for. I’ve seen too many car wrecks where it looked like the drivers got into a dogfight over right-of-way. When you’re on a bike is no time to take on a car.

  25. Speaking of daytime running lights, I highly recommend DiNotte’s amber daytime running light. This is a small lightweight light with multiple flash modes that is visible for more than 1/2 mile in full sunlight. There are two models: a 4AA model and a model that uses DiNotte’s Li-ion battery packs.

    The light isn’t cheap, but I use mine at all times. There is nothing else like it on the market. I constantly get positive comments from drivers and cyclists on this light.

    The same company also makes the world’s best bike taillight (same technology, also daylight visible for over 1/2 mile). I recommend that one, too! And DiNotte’s customer service is superb, by the way….

    (Disclaimer: No affiliation with DiNotte; just a rabidly happy customer!)

  26. Jen (SLC) says:

    I have a set of Reelights on my bike that are on all the time and run off of the turning of my wheel. I don’t know how much it helps, but it can’t hurt. It’s a nice option if you would forget to turn on a headlight for daytime rides.

  27. mule1 says:

    The more you stick out the better. I’ve taken to wearing a reflective yellow construction vest on my commute.

  28. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    Yesterday (Thursday) afternoon I was riding my bike to the store. The sun was still shinning as I entered an intersection on the green light (yes I waited). I was half way across the intersection when a 1 ton extended-cab pickup ran the red and showed no signs of slowing. It happened kind of fast, I was about to be run over by a LARGE pickup doning 40+ mph. No eye contact, just me screaming at the %#$#ing idiot. He did stop, and hard, about 5 feet from me.
    What is funny, it didn’t faze me, just another stupid motorist. I don’t know if me looking at him screaming helped, but it caught the attention of others as they started blowing there horns, too. Maybe my awarness saved me…. I have seen TOO MANY people mowed down, none of them ever screamed, they never know it…

    I can’t wiat for oil shortages to come, just a year or two to go…

  29. Abby in Northern Virginia says:

    Eye contact is important, I agree. However, there are plenty of drivers in this area who buy car window tint which makes it impossible to make eye contact. My husband bikes to work, and has come home with stories about tinted cars that almost crushed him. Is this something other bicyclists are experiencing around the country?

    Speaking of getting drivers’ attention, both of us got hit yesterday by a car (husband running, me on my bike) who ran a stop sign. Luckily we walked away with only some bruises (physically, emotionally), but MAN, that was beyond scary. I still don’t understand how he didn’t see us, since I started screaming at the top of my lungs when I realized the car wasn’t stopping.

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