Be seen, be safe
Darker nights are coming. I have to say the weather this summer (2008) has been so appalling that many daylight hours have been pretty murky too. While out driving my car today I was startled not only by the increased number of Bank Holiday cyclists on the road but by the difficulty of spotting them when they weren’t wearing high visibility clothing or displaying lamps. On major roads, when traffic is travelling up to the 60 mph speed limit, it seems crazy not to give cars as much notice of your existence as possible. Anything that makes you, as a vulnerable road user, more visible, will help to keep you alive. The further ahead car drivers can see you, the more easily they can slow down and give you room as they pass. This doesn’t just apply to cyclists. You as a carriage driver are highly vulnerable, and your horse even more so.
I know that traditionally the appearance of the private carriage was quiet, almost understated. But think about it; when we’re out exercising today do we use our good holly whip, our show harness, our glossily painted and patent-leathered gig and our candle powered lamps? No, we drive battle wagons and exercise carts, for practicality not tradition. We share the roads now with cars and heavy goods vehicles, not to mention tractors and farm implements, and they all travel much faster than we do and are very much more likely to hurt us than we are to hurt them. We need to make our working carts and carriages as visible as possible, and reserve our sober traditional turnout for ceremonial occasions.
Adding visibility is not difficult. A visit to any cycling web site will give you lots of tips. For a start, the driver (or cyclist) who wears a high visibility waistcoat, fluorescent yellow with reflective strips, will be seen from a greater distance than one who blends into the landscape in grey, dark green or brown as many of us do in winter waterproofs. My coat’s pillar box red but I still put a waistcoat over it, and that only cost me £3.
You’re lucky if you have a grey or a piebald or skewbald horse, whose white coat will be readily seen out on the road. For those of us with darker coloured animals, reflective leg bands for the horse will be highly visible on account of their rapid movement, while a reflective noseband or browband sleeve should make it obvious where the front of your turnout is!
Many carts and carriages are painted very soberly in green, black, maroon or dark blue, which again blend too easily into their surroundings. My everyday cart has a black body but I’ve redone the wheels and shafts in Hammerite scarlet. Yes, it’s loud, but black and scarlet is quite a traditional combination, and it gets seen. Cost, about £7. Tip: avoid blue, which is a “receding colour”, in other words less visible than the red end of the spectrum.
Down narrow country lanes, a fluorescent flag displayed above hedge height may well be useful to warn oncoming traffic of your presence, and there’s no harm either in hanging a fluorescent banner of some kind, possibly with a warning triangle on it, from the back of the carriage. However, legal minds in America have sometimes advised against also displaying messages or advice, such as “Caution Young Horse” or “Please Pass Wide and Slow” reasoning that in the aftermath of an accident (which God forbid) these might be construed as an admission that you were not in control. Concentrate on being visible.
Does your vehicle carry lamps, or reflectors? In the Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989 most of the attention is focused on the lamps and reflectors of motorised vehicles, while the poor old carriage horse is pretty well ignored. However, we’re told that “Nothing in these Regulations shall require any lamp or reflector to be fitted between sunrise and sunset to - (e) a horse-drawn vehicle”. It doesn’t say you can’t carry working lamps in daylight though, and it certainly helps your visibility to do so.
I’m not supposing you intend to drive on the roads in darkness, though having once been overtaken by twilight when hacking back from a show in the 1980s, I can say it was a very pleasant experience to drive a trap with the lamps lit – but only so long as the roads were quiet! You probably wouldn’t want to use your good carriage lamps for everyday work, and even the best traditional candle powered lamp only gives 25% of the minimum required light (4 candelas) legally required for use on the roads at night.
Cycle lamps, however, are not expensive, and they come with mountings that adapt very kindly to the metal frames of modern carriages. All you need is a screwdriver; they don’t require any drilling and they don’t damage paintwork. I carry a red lamp on the rear of the cart, and a white on the front. I put the white lamp well out to the right, at car headlamp level, by fixing it on the stem of the front step. Two would probably be even better. Bike lights using LEDs are surprisingly powerful, and by using rechargeable batteries – about £8 for a set of 4 AA NiMH – you don’t have to keep on forking out for fresh ones. They last pretty well; I’ve only recharged mine twice this year, and I drove for over 50 hours between May and the end of August. A pair of cycle lamps, a front white and a rear red, will set you back anything from about £12 to whatever you feel like paying (some are very expensive). They stand up to weather and cross country work without complaint, and they do get you noticed. Neighbours who see me regularly on our rural roads tell me they spot the pony and me from much further off when we’re carrying lit lamps, even though we’ve always got the red wheels and the yellow waistcoat.
Up to 2005, flashing lights were reserved for the emergency services because of their high visibility, but cyclists may now ride with flashing lamps provided that the “light shown by the lamp when flashing shall be displayed not less than 60 nor more than 240 equal times per minute and the intervals between each display of light shall be constant.” So now you know. Flashing lights are particularly noticeable when the light sequence is “chaser” mode. This rapid sequence is very different from the binary flash of the emergency services, but it’s highly visible and motorists certainly associate such LEDs with a vulnerable road user. Flashing lights are not discussed in the Statutory Instrument as a mode of lighting for carriages, but I often flash when I’m out driving, and I haven’t been told off by a policeman yet!
NB I make these observations as a regular carriage driver, NOT a lawyer.