Living in a high-visibility world

I recently rediscovered this sensible Telegraph article about cycling safety from earlier this year. It contains (amongst some useful statistics and comments, particularly from Rachel Aldred) this little anecdote –

There was a hope that the sheer weight of cyclists on the roads would force both drivers and local authorities to create a safer environment. But this has not happened.

One who knows to his cost is John Whiteley, 71, who has been cycling seriously for 55 years – much of it in the dramatic hills surrounding his Halifax home.

John Whiteley, 71, near his Halifax home (Photo: Paul Macnamara/Guzelian)

On January 2 this year, a clear day, he was out with a friend for a pleasure ride on the B6118, a country road that runs around Huddersfield up to the Emley Moor television aerial. As usual, he was wearing his fluorescent orange vest.

“It was about midday. And this Volvo estate came up from behind and the corner of his car hit me.” The impact broke his leg, and he went flying into the grass verge, spraining his ankle into the bargain.

A high visibility jacket in this instance was obviously useless; it failed to deal with the basic problem of a driver who either wasn’t looking, or who failed to overtake with sufficient clearance, at midday, on a bright, clear day.

Likewise it is unlikely that painting yellow stripes on Dartmoor ponies, and cows in the Cotswolds, will make the slightest bit of difference to the rate at which these animals are being killed by drivers.

An earlier trial of reflective collars on cows in Gloucestershire apparently failed to stop road deaths; this has apparently prompted the shift to reflective paint, an idea that seems to have started in Finland, in an attempt to prevent reindeer deaths. 4,000 reindeer are killed every year on Finland’s roads.

A cursory search hasn’t revealed any news on whether these trials of reflective paint on Finnish reindeers have had any effect on the death rate. But that hasn’t stopped Volvo essentially borrowing this reflective paint and promoting it as a cycling safety product – ‘Life Paint’.

Life Paint is the brainchild of spin-doctors, not safety engineers.UK-based Grey London, Volvo’s global creative agency, spent a year developing the Life Paint idea. The paint comes from Swedish startup Albedo100. Prior to supplying its product to Volvo, Albedo100 made headlines by spraying its reflective product on Finnish reindeer, up to 4,000 of which reportedly die in traffic accidents ever year.

“Our job isn’t just to advertise our clients,” Grey London chairman Nils Leonard told Adweek regarding the Life Paint project. “It’s to help them make a positive impact on culture.”

Grey London—and its army of 30-plus people working on the campaign—moved the needle in a way that seat-belt technology and additional airbags don’t. Web stories ahead of free giveaways of a neat product help create real commotion and awareness about a serious, avoidable safety issue for cyclists: visibility.

There’s no evidence of effectiveness; Life Paint is explicitly a marketing gimmick that simultaneously allows Volvo to pretend it cares about ‘safety’ while simultaneously shifting the onus of responsibility onto the people that are being hit, and away from the people doing the hitting, all wrapped up in the issue of ‘visibility’.

What scientific evidence that does actually exist on the effectiveness of high-visibility clothing is mixed, patchy or non-existent. A 2006 Cochrane review found that, while it may improve driver detection during the day,

the effect of visibility aids on pedestrian and cyclist safety remains unknown… Whether visibility aids will make a worthwhile difference needs careful economic evaluation alongside research efforts to quantify their effect on pedestrian and cyclist safety.

In other words, it is not established whether simply being ‘more visible’ makes any difference to whether you actually end up being hit.

A recent literature review is more conclusive.

Wearing visible clothing or a helmet, or having more cycling experience did not reduce the risk of being involved in an accident. Better cyclist-driver awareness and more interaction between car driver and cyclists, and well maintained bicycle-specific infrastructure should improve bicycle safety.

Hi-visibility clothing seems like an obvious safety intervention, but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that it makes a significant difference at the population level. With more and more people, animals and objects now apparently ripe targets for hi-visibility clothing or paint, this satirical article from 2007 comes ever closer to being reality.

Cyclists in Milton Keynes have reacted angrily to a decision by town planners to make buildings, trees, street furniture and the road itself much easier to see by painting them all luminous green.

… Cars, lorries and pedestrians will also be compelled to be repainted in high-visibility luminous yellow paint while cats, squirrels and urban foxes will also be made more visible, following a study that a number of accidents are caused by drivers swerving to avoid badly lit mammals that have strayed onto the highway.


But local cyclists are furious at the plan that has made them the same colour as their immediate surroundings. ‘We’ve all spent a fortune on these luminous jackets, trousers and cycle clips’ said local cyclist Mark Randle. ‘Suddenly our hi-visibility cycling gear has turned into the most effective camouflage available. Now we’re completely invisible.’

But a cycle shop in the town is cashing in on the crisis by advertising ‘normal clothes’ for cyclists to make them stand out.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Living in a high-visibility world

  1. There is no doubt that highly reflective clothes at night and bright fluorescent colours for fast roads in the daytime really do help those drivers who are actually paying attention to see cyclists sooner.

    Although this offers no guarantee of protection from drivers who are not looking at all, who are going too fast or who simply don’t understand or care about cyclists’ safety, wearing reflectives / hi viz improves the odds on an individual level. It especially makes sense, on fast or unlit roads and where the safety of your child is at stake.

    Personally (selfishly?), I use reflective clothes at night and hi viz on fast roads, but overall this is not the solution. Firstly, the more effort it takes to ‘tog up’, the less popular and viable cycling will be as a mode of transport. Secondly, the more visible I am, the more likely it is that drivers will assume it is safe to drive faster and look less carefully and will hit someone or something else which is less visible. Better to develop safer road conditions: separate infrastructure, slower speeds, higher driving standards and better enforcement.

    • “There is no doubt that highly reflective clothes at night and bright fluorescent colours for fast roads in the daytime really do help those drivers who are actually paying attention to see cyclists sooner.”

      I feel like I see people wearing high vis sooner than I see people without. But I see both within the distance I can safely stop, so no difference in outcome.

      • I’m glad you’re not going to hit me; I also try to drive so that I don’t hit other people! But there are plenty of people/cases where a bit more visibility means a bit more time to react -so, on an individual level, there *is* a difference in outcome.

        • Except, as the article points out, we cannot reliably see this statistically. It could be that the effect is small, and you might take the position that you’d rather place bets on it offering a small benefit, but this is an article of faith.

          Intuitively it feels like if you can see something sooner it must be improving safety. I suspect most advocates are working on this intuition rather than evidence. But if it does have en effect it is dwarfed by the not looking / speeding / sun in eyes / saw but didn’t react collision causes.

          We don’t need protection from the drivers who are paying attention.

          • Of course I don’t have stats for this (I’m not al all convinced that there are reliable stats on any of this), but when some cyclists are very easy to spot, I suspect that drivers are less likely to look hard enough for the others -who are then at greater risk.

            • MJ Ray says:

              Alternatively, it could be that if they see you sooner, they’ve sort-of forgotten about you by the time they hit you – you’re an obstacle that they’ve seen, processed and “dealt with” long ago. This would be more consistent with a finding that conspicuity aids don’t make you less likely to be involved in collisions… so you’re not even helping yourself and only being anti social by contributing to the “cyclists should wear hi vis” myth.

    • pm says:

      “Secondly, the more visible I am, the more likely it is that drivers will assume it is safe to drive faster and look less carefully and will hit someone or something else which is less visible. ”

      I would say that was the key point. It may well be one of those things where its rational for the individual to behave in a certain way, but that at the collective level it doesn’t have any effect on overall outcomes, and it won’t help if everyone does it.

      Which would tend to imply, most of all, that there is no point in any kind of third-party advocating or pushing the stuff (LBC and Brake I’m looking at both of you).

    • ABinB says:

      The trouble here as well as a complete misunderstanding on the driver’s part (referring to the romanian cyclist video). I’m sure you heard her say: You should have looked better. She is blaming the cyclist!!!! And I’ve heard that happen before: however, the cyclist is on his ‘own’ lane and she is crossing it: I’ve noticed it a lot. Driver will overtake you and turn left as if you have gone up in smoke. You don’t overtake a lorry and halfway overtaking you turn left do you? However, when it’s a cyclist it’s totally acceptable. Even journalists are guilty of that: about a year ago I read a headline: cyclist killed through dangerous cycling. Reading on, you will find that the car was turning left. Now, who is being dangerous. However, it is certain mentality amongst many drivers (not all I know), and it will be very difficult to change.

  2. Paul Luton says:

    The obvious answer to animals being killed by vehicles speeding across a common is more speed cameras. Why are politicians so timid about effective technology ?

    • Spoquey says:

      Not only that, but for around eight years we have had the ability to install intelligent speed adaptors in all vehicles. They work with the GPS/road speed mapping systems that have already been mapped out, free of charge, by a certain well-known transport authority.

      You drive along, and when your vehicle realises you are about to go over the speed limit for that particular road, your engine slows you back down to the legal limit. Phew! Effortless!

      Wow, all the moaning minnies who think that speed cameras are a cash cow etc., wouldn’t have to worry. Their vehicles and the GPS/RSM systems would make them safe from such horrific “taxes on the motorist”.

      But guess what? There is opposition to this, because some people think it would take away their freedom… to erm speed?

      Speeding is not the only reason drivers are so crap at keeping other road users safe, but having this tech answer to preventing it would be a big improvement.

      • cyclestrian says:

        It doesn’t even need to be installed to a vehicle. An app on your phone could warn you if you breach the limit. Why aren’t these popular? If you believe the popular press, they could be saving their users millions.

  3. Notak says:

    See also illuminated road signs, etc. You know those black and white chevrons marking a sharp bend in the road? In some countries those have LED arrows that flash. And here in the UK, we’re apparently to adopt LED “cats eyes” as a step up from the traditional reflective markers.

  4. Notak says:

    By the way, reflective collars for cows on Minch common were tried as long ago as the eighties.

  5. Pedestrians and cyclists are not invisible. This hi-vis fetish is all about making it easier for drivers to go fast(er). They can see you without it. There are two problems: those who don’t look properly and therefore fail to notice, and those who notice but fail to react appropriately.

  6. SteveP says:

    It’s one thing to be cynical, but there is ample evidence to prove that fluorescent colours in the daytime and reflective elements at night (plus lighting) can make objects (whether they be cyclists or ponies) more visible *to an attentive observer*. That’s why vehicles have reflectors by law.

    However, it’s not a magic potion. YouTube is full of videos of drivers piling into cars stopped on the highway behind police cars with flashing lights (and as we know, enough reflective tape to cover Cumbria). There’s no accounting for drunken texting idiocy.

    While it is nice to think that all drivers attempt to follow the rules, it only takes one to injure or kill you. So I say, anything you can do to increase your safety is worth giving a try. Then I again, I think back to the woman cyclist I saw wobbling up the middle of Marylebone Road in London late one night – no lights (her own bike) dark clothing and one hand holding her phone while she chatted… you pays yer money and you takes yer chances.

    • Simon Still says:

      “there is ample evidence to prove that fluorescent colours in the daytime and reflective elements at night (plus lighting) can make objects (whether they be cyclists or ponies) more visible *to an attentive observer*. That’s why vehicles have reflectors by law.”

      Is there really or is it just more anecdote and intuition? Do motorists then just overcompensate and increase the risks they take? It may well be that a lab test shows a subject will pick out something yellow more often but does that actually translate to real world and not have any other adverse effects.

      The problem seems to be that more and more drivers are either inattentive or over estimate their own or their vehicles abilities. It may have started with reflectors on vehicles but we’re now adding daylight running lights. We’re adding Armco barriers to the bends on country lanes. More and more stationary objects are getting covered in high vis because motorists keep driving into them. None of it is dealing with the fundamental problem – it’s all trying to address the symptoms. The old big spike in the centre of the steering wheel might do.

    • D. says:

      “…more visible *to an attentive observer*” – and that, right there, is the problem. Far too many road users are _not_ attentive observers. If someone is drifting into the cycle lane, you can lay money that they’ve got a phone on their lap or they’re fiddling with some tech on their dashboard. And this is something encouraged by the car manufacturers – I still don’t understand the need for FB access in my car…

      (OT, I know, but related: the BBC has an article about how 3G and 4G coverage on too many roads is too poor and lives will be lost when people break down and there’s no 3G and 4G coverage – er, why? surely in an accident *any* signal will allow you to make what we used to call “a telephone call”?)

  7. AD says:

    I was hit and seriously injured (in daylight) having done everything I could to be seen — bright coat, bright front flashing light, being in the right place. The other driver just “hadn’t seen me”. A lot of the reason that I wear a helmet / bright clothing etc is just so no one can use the excuse that I was hard to see; I don’t expect to be able to rely on it.

    • D. says:

      “A lot of the reason that I wear a helmet / bright clothing etc is just so no one can use the excuse that I was hard to see; I don’t expect to be able to rely on it.” – that’s what I tell people, too. When I get hit by someone’s car, I want them to look so stupid when they say they didn’t see me that the CPS has no option but to prosecute 😉

      • MJ Ray says:

        It doesn’t matter. They’ll say you blended into a yellow (or whatever) background and the motorists at the CPS will decide that the motorist magistrates or motorist jury members are unlikely to convict.

  8. ORiordan says:

    I’m resurrecting an article from a few years ago that has some interesting points on why drivers “look but don’t see”. It isn’t just drivers not looking, it is drivers being ineffective *how* they are looking.

  9. AndyR says:

    A good discussion of hi-vis and its pluses and minuses when used in different circumstances, here;

  10. rdrf says:

    Excuse me for referring to some of the posts I have written on this subject: and and and

    Basically, I would echo those who point out the lack of statistical actual evidence for benefits, as opposed to the “you know it makes sense” mob.

    Saying you wear hi-viz etc. so that “the motorist doesn’t have an excuse” falls into the trap set by “raod safeyy” ideology – if they’re doing something wrong, they don’t have an “excuse” anyway. All that happens is that the hi-viz bandwagon – for pedestrains, animals etc. etc. rolls on and on.

    The problem we are up against is that hi-viz advocacy slots into the long sight line, cat’s eyes etc. in accommodating/colluding with/conniving with less careful and faster driving: ultimately we all lose out from it. It beefs up the chances of motorists saying SMIDSY. You can say “Oh yes we need cycle tracks” but whatever you think, pushing hi-viz will make life more hazardous for pedestrians and cyclists

    Now, I must admit that some of my clothing when cycling is a bit loud – but at least I have a bit of guilt about it.

    • meltdblog says:

      You can see some numbers which are quite different to yours from here:

      Click to access c38338.pdf

      Notably that night time events have higher risks, and they could be mitigated (in the absence of bicycle lights) with reflective attire.

      The proliferation of high-vis is becoming diluting its self with for instance numerous commuters wearing their hi vis aboard public transit, or (quite likely the same people) wearing it full time at work in all areas to avoid changing in/out of it as the areas dictate. It may be time to switch to dazzle patterns:

      • SteveP says:

        Excellent study – and pointing out again how simple pedal reflectors are one of the most important safety elements. Required by law in the UK, they are often not present on bicycles, especially if clipless pedals are installed, and yet almost all vrsions have refelctors available (so I fit them).

        There is some misunderstanding of how “fluorescent” colours are perceived and how “high viz” works. Fluorescent colours have fluorescers added to their pigments. These absorb light energy in near-UV wavelengths and re-emit it in visible wavelengths. As such, they appear “unnaturally” bright and this gives them their (possible, perceived) “higher-visibility”. This is especially effective at dawn and dusk.

        For the most part, automotive headlamps are still tungsten halogen incandescent bulbs. This type of illumination produces essentially no ultraviolet, so fluorescent colours are no more than another red/green/yellow/pink – no UV = no fluorescence. Similarly, many street lamps are still sodium vapour and lack any UV component.

        However, retroreflective clothing is very effective under all types of direction lighting – hence the usual pairing of both fluorescent colours and retro reflective elements in industrial “high visibility” clothing. Obviously, moving elements attract more attention than static – so spoke and pedal reflectors and reflective ankle strips are more likely to be noticed *by an attentive driver*.

        I find it somewhat bemusing that some think we, as a species, are evolving at such a pace as to be able to ignore these quite basic perceptions. Call me in a million years 🙂

        In the meantime, should I be lost floating on the sea, please let me be wearing high-viz – even if it’s only the type I use when I ride my bicycle.

        (It should also be noted that some retroreflctive elements have been shown to be ineffective when wet – the water messes up the effect. So it’s wise to check the kit actually works and not believe in any magical powers)

        • Notak says:

          Empiricially, I disagree on the effectiveness of pedal reflectors. I’ve never noticed them on other cyclists, either when I’ve been riding or driving, until after I’ve already seen the bike (or the rider).

          • Really!? I find they frequently stand out really well. I admit that mine don’t though -because they are obscured by my panniers.

            • Notak says:

              Really! Reflectives on legs and ankles certainly stand out well, so there might be two reasons why pedal reflectors don’t (IME): firstly, the sort of bikes that are most likely to be used on unlit roads in rural areas, where reflectors and reflectives are most noticeable, are less likely to have them (because they’ll probably have clipless pedals). So pedal reflectors are normally seen on bikes around town, where, thanks to street (and other) lighting, the first thing you see about a cyclist is their body. Secondly, due to their position they get covered in mud and other dirt, and again this is likely to happen to an (even) greater extent in rural areas.

              I’m not saying they don’t show up at all, just that other things – reflectors in other places, lights, even the rider’s back, which after all is by far the largest area – show up first.

        • pm says:

          Nothing you say (and nothing, in an admittedly high-speed reading, in the linked study), affects the basic issues of risk compensation and the moral issue of burden-of-responsibilty, surely?

          . Whether high-viz/reflective are more ‘visible’ in some way that can be measured by light-detectors (or in a highly controlled test with drivers not actually going anywhere they need to be and with nothing else to think about but bikes), has little to do with how drivers will actually behave – particularly when everyone and everything is clad in the stuff.

          (Incidentally, the study appears to involve bikes without lights, which is illegal anyway)

          • meltdblog says:

            I don’t think risk compensation (if it exists or not) is the basic issue, a driver cannot make a decision about their behaviour if they do not even see a cyclist. I’ve had had several serious incidents while on a bicycle where the other party despite uncompromised conditions (daytime, lack of distractions, clear sight lines, no glare/dazzle, etc etc) claimed to not have seen me.

            At night I use lights with the strobing patterns that break up movement and provide confusing visual cues to the observer, they attract attention through their disorienting appearance that is at odds with the other visual perception of the moving scene. Some people still don’t look before moving into traffic.

            • pm says:

              I disagree. Risk compensation is a huge issue.

              The more high-viz everything is (not just cyclists, everything and everybody seems to be clad in the stuff now), the less attention drivers will pay. They’ll take all the visibility aids, say ‘thanks very much’ and drive faster and multi-task more. It won’t make any difference in the end.

              Of course it may well make a difference to each individual cyclist or pedestrian, as by being high-viz they gain an edge on those who are not…but the sum total effect will bring us all back where we started.

              I accept this argument has its limits – you can argue how much attention its reasonable to expect a driver to pay and just how slow one can expect them to drive. Hence at night on unlit country roads, say, bike lights and a bit of reflective material may be reasonable. But during the day and on urban roads where they shouldn’t be driving fast anyway – drivers can see you except insofar as they choose not to look. If everyone uses more lights/day glo in all situations they’ll choose to look less.

              And I just don’t think that study was very scientific. The irony being it wasn’t ‘double blind’!

              Maybe they could have improved it by getting the drivers in on false pretences, and telling them it was a test of how fast they could get round the track with various types of tyre, or if they could spot the hidden speed-cameras and go as fast as possible without getting caught, and not mentioning anything about the bikes being there. So that they’d have been concentrating on getting round fast and not thinking about bikes at all.

              Which would have been slightly more realistic conditions.

      • pm says:

        ..Yes, having read that test report again, I’m not impressed.

        They actually _asked_ the drivers to look out for bikes, the drivers knew that’s was the only reason why they were driving round the track at all. In what way is that a realistic test? Since when do drivers cruise around for the sole purpose of seeing cyclists?

        And I note that despite some cyclists lacking visability aids, none of them were actually run over and killed (unlike, for example, this poor guy, high-viz and lights and all

        Given the numerous other cases of cyclists with lights and high-viz and/or in broad daylight being hit by drivers who mysteriously failed to see them (my entirely subjective impression is that is the second-most common feature of cyclist deaths after the left-turning truck),contrasted with the unlit cyclists in the study _not_ being hit, the conclusion I would draw from that study is that visibility isn’t the issue at all – driver attitude is.

        Can’t say it surprises me that dubious study comes from Australia! It appears to be a country that is even more anti-cycling than the UK.

  11. rdrf says:

    I agree with pm’s last comment.

    meltdblog reports that “the other party, despite uncompromised conditions…claimed not to have seen me”. The point is therefore exactly NOT to feed into this SMIDSY mentality by pushing yet more hi-viz/lights.

    There will always be someone in these threads who talks about how they are entering the arms race – I this case it’s “lights with strobing patterns that break up movement” – with great detail about precise types of hi-viz/lights/whatever. We can’t win at that game IMO.

    What do you think Mark?

  12. Lots of good stuff here. I think I’ve got it now, the answer appears to be:
    Wear light clothes (except when black is better)
    Wear hi viz yellow (except where there is greenery or yellow street lighting when a different colour is better)
    Wear large areas of reflective clothing (but remember to wear it on your joints, because people don’t easily recognise a static ‘H’ pattern). Remember that it may not work properly in the rain.
    Make sure you have pedal reflectors front and rear but remember that drivers won’t notice them until after they have spotted you anyway
    Use bright lights and make sure you have at least one spare at both front and rear in case the high power starts to drain the battery (but make sure you do not have too many lights and that they are not too bright because they dazzle or confuse and, anyway, motorists hate seeing entitled cyclists who are lit up like a Christmas tree)
    Don’t use a steady light because they are hard to spot and the driver may confuse you for something else (a flashing light is better)
    Don’t use flashing lights because drivers can’t judge your distance and they are irritating and an epilepsy hazard. Slow flashes may mean that when a driver looks towards you, the light is off; fast flashes dazzle, irritate and confuse (a steady light is better)
    Check to make sure your lights are legally compliant (quite probably they aren’t) and are fixed in the correct positions (may be trickier than you thought) and don’t get covered by your dress or your coat or your luggage (why would you wear a coat or carry luggage?)
    Use front and rear reflectors (although they are apparently not very noticeable, especially if the driver approaches from an angle or forgot to switch on the headlights). Remember to attach reflectors to the front and rear of your clipless pedals)
    Use spoke reflectors (although, by the time the headlights reflect off them the driver is already going to hit you)
    Remember to use a standard red triangle if you are towing a trailer-bike (but it won’t be supplied with the bike and is too large to fit to a kiddy bike)
    Don’t be selfish and make yourself too visible (this will increase the risk to less well-lit cyclists, pedestrians and animals)

    I don’t suppose we could consider anything else like safer road design and enforcement of better driving?

  13. “…having more cycling experience did not reduce the risk of being involved in an accident.” A truly-astonishing assertion.

    • pm says:

      Surely its not an ‘assertion’ its a finding? It apparently has evidence backing it up, so its more than a mere ‘assertion’.

      Secondly its hardly ‘astonishing’, is it not what one would expect to find?

      Seems rather mundane to me – the accident is most likely to be caused by bad driving and bad road design, so no amount of cycling experience is going to help much. If someone drives into you from behind its going to hurt – experience isn’t armour!

  14. The most-effective remedy for all of these roadway problems is to increase the skill level of those using the roadways, but that is also the most difficult remedy to put into effect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.