While he’s driving around Seattle for Uber, Roger Corbin said, he sees so many downtowners on the street wearing black that he sometimes shouts “Thank you!” at someone wearing white.
“I really appreciate it,” he said. “For me, it’s a safety thing.”
Corbin is not alone. Over roughly a week, the Seattle Times’ Traffic Lab fielded emails and phone calls from people who drive, bike and walk around the city saying that others wearing dark clothing – a staple of Pacific Northwest style – are hard to see on the road. A few said the dark attire nearly caused collisions.
Dozens shared their thoughts on Seattle-area roadway behavior, including on attire, as part of Traffic Lab’s recent request for readers’ stories about transportation pet peeves. They also cited traffic violations and problematic intersections, and recounted frightening cases of crashing into others on roads and trails.
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“I have also had some close calls driving a car when a very stealthy bike rider appears ‘out of nowhere' wearing dark clothing and a dark helmet, becoming a sudden factor to avoid,” said Terry Dudley, of Edmonds.
“In a city with rain and fog, this is a real problem,” said Ellen Taft, 65, of Capitol Hill.
It’s simple, and a lot of it has to do with our weather. Black speaks to everyone.
Teresa Springer, CEO of Seattle Fashion Week
Corbin, a 57-year-old former Microsoft Connector driver from Bothell, occasionally tallies the number of black-clad walkers or cyclists he passes while toting Uber passengers. Capitol Hill and downtown seem to have the most, he said.
“People in Seattle tend to wear black – black trench coats, black pants, black umbrellas,” Corbin said. “They blend into dark asphalt streets,” he said, or the darkness at night.
In terms of colliding because of the visibility challenge, he said he’s had many close calls.
Based on Corbin’s observational research, straight from his Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, only about one in 10 Seattleites is wearing bright colors when he’s driving, he said. The statistic fluctuates with the weather, though, as Seattle’s soggy, dark winter brings out mood-matching clothes.
That connection between weather and fashion is deeply rooted in the region’s aesthetic. The trend of flannel, boots and sweaters that shaped mass culture in the ‘90s, for instance, grew from locals’ desire to dress for the region’s cool temperatures and rain.
“A flannel shirt worn around the waist is a precaution against the Pacific Northwest’s mercurial clime,” says a 1992 New York Times story, describing grunge in Seattle. “Army boots slog effectively through mud.”
And a local fashion connoisseur said the same about the trend toward black.
“It’s simple, and a lot of it has to do with our weather,” said Teresa Springer, CEO of Seattle Fashion Week. “Black speaks to everyone.”
If you wear black, even if you are following the rules of the road, you can terrify the very people trying to look out for you.
Catherine Austin, a bicycle commuter
But to some cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, a saturation of dark clothing poses a safety risk while they’re trying to get around.
Briana Orr, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based advocacy group Cascade Bicycle Club, said the organization regularly hears concerns from riders about clothing and visibility, especially when it comes to using paths in the winter.
“In Seattle, we have pretty dark spots,” she said, advising cyclists to opt for outfits that aren’t dark, uncomfortable or hazardous with dangling parts. “Clothing that helps give folks a peace of mind – knowing that you’re a little brighter makes you feel safer.”
Additionally, King County and the city of Seattle require riders to wear helmets. And attire aside, under Washington law cyclists must have lights on the front of their bikes and red reflectors on the back, as a safety minimum to help others see them at night.
Those precautions could help cyclists avoid becoming a crash statistic.
According to the city’s 2015 traffic report, the most recent available, officials documented 473 pedestrian-related crashes and 380 more involving bicyclists in 2014. The incidents, which involved various traffic violations, ranged in severity but resulted in seven deaths.
Catherine Austin, 34, a daily bicycle commuter from Shoreline to Seattle’s University District, has learned firsthand how clothes impact safety. She traded a red raincoat for a neon-yellow one for her rides, and said the sight of the bright jacket has stopped cars from jumping in front of her at stop signs.
“If you wear black, even if you are following the rules of the road, you can terrify the very people trying to look out for you,” she said. “Wear reflectors, lights and bright colors. It helps.”