My dictionary tells me hi-vis is short for high-visibility, and means ‘easy to see in all conditions because of being a very bright colour’. There is something telling in that definition – simply brightness, not reflectiveness. We probably say hi-vis when we mean reflective clothing. For ease, I’ll say hi-vis.
Hi-vis is encouraged for a cyclist’s safety, to help them be seen by other road users. Rule 59 of the Highway Code says one should wear it. However, this is not a legal requirement, it is just guidance. Hi-vis is mandatory under a lot of health and safety rules in places where large machinery is on the move, for workers on the railway etc, all to make people more visible. The logic seems to work – be visible, you won’t get hit. I have often been ‘complimented’ on being ‘kitted out right’(1) if I happened to have hi-vis on during the day(2). Indeed, it does seem that many believe the simple act of wearing hi-vis will prevent you from being hit by a motor vehicle.
I only intentionally wear hi-vis at night. Driver’s headlights will reflect off your clothing and help you be visible. In daytime, there’s no headlights to reflect off your hi-vis and so it really just becomes no different to bright clothing. However, at night, I also make use of nice bright lights, both static and flashing, which should be enough to be make me visible. To draw a parallel, most cars don’t have hi-vis elements on them, just lights, but we don’t seem to have a worry about how visible cars are.
So, in some ways I am conflicted about hi-vis. And, when I get conflicted I go to Twitter for help.
I ran a poll. It was probably the most viral of Tweets I had ever done. I should note that most followers of my Twitter account ride bicycles. I don’t consider this a bias or skewed sample since I wanted to know what people who cycle felt. The result in the end was 45% of voters never wore hi-vis; 12% at night; 26% at night and during the day only if gloomy; and 17% always. I must admit at first I was surprised, but I read through all the replies to get a feel as to why almost 1 in 2 voters didn’t wear hi-vis.
Of those that said they always wore hi-vis there was a common thread: it wasn’t so much as wanting to be seen but as a defence against ‘sorry, mate, I didn’t see you’. Many replied along the lines that it made no difference – they’ve been knocked off their bike in head to toe hi-vis and still the driver claimed they didn’t see them – or they’ve had CLOSER passes when wearing hi-vis. A lot of people only wear it unintentionally, ie it’s a good rain coat, it just happens to be hi-vis and many commented that good bright lights will make you just as visible as other road users.
The thing that was clear from all this though was that you can be lit up like a Christmas tree and still not been seen. Why could that be? If you’re visible, surely you’d be seen? Well, to be seen one must be looking for you. And this is the crux. If drivers are not paying proper attention to the road they won’t see you. I have been in near misses, and one actual crash, in my car when other drivers have pulled out in front of me – ‘sorry, mate, I didn’t see you’ was the reply. I have been in near misses when walking because the driver ‘didn’t see the red light’. How often do we hear about motor vehicles hitting low bridges? There’s a theme, isn’t there?
And it’s not just something I’m saying, there’s research.
Ultimately, in terms of being seen, it matters not what you’re wearing if other road users are not paying attention(3). To my mind, that means hi-vis is a personal choice: if you feel more comfortable (for whatever reason) wearing it and more likely to cycle if wearing it, then do so. If you’re happy to cycle without it, then do so. Anyone campaigning for mandatory hi-vis probably doesn’t understand the problem and is, perhaps, just trying to tick a box of ‘encouraging cycling’ or at worst, making people more afraid to cycle! And, indeed, if there was proper cycling infrastructure, the hi-vis argument would disappear.
(1) indeed, once having stopped and watched me struggle to get my 8yo son across a road whilst on our bikes, a driver wound down his window to ‘thank me’ for wearing hi-vis, it meant he saw me. I actually found this annoying since a) I got ready to have a telling off for something, b) he was blocking the road c) it was patronising and d) during this feedback session, a person cycled through between us without hi-vis, but still highly visible, yet the driver claimed he didn’t see him. I had, but then I was paying attention to the road…
(2) a rare occasion, it was simply because my rain coat is hi-vis. It wasn’t a conscious decision to wear hi-vis. The only other reason I wear hi-vis in the day is if I know it’ll get dark whilst I am cycling.
(3) note how little I have used ‘seen’. Why? The use of ‘seen’ suggests someone is looking. The use of ‘visible’ does not.