As a cycling campaigner, I am always happy to remind any cyclists who need reminding that working lights at night are both a good idea and a mandatory requirement. However, I think it’s fair to say that the evidence for any sort of lights arms race, together with the evidence for wearing high visibility clothing is, at best, a lot more mixed. The debate about lights and high visibility will rage on and on, and I have a much longer post on this subject which will follow sometime next week.
In the meantime, I want to give a particular example of where lights and high visibility just made no difference, and to put this in a blog post, because I refer to it often enough on Twitter.
A few weeks ago, I was cycling home from a relatively short trip, but essentially a trip that was short enough that I could wear my high visibility work jacket without having to worry too much about becoming too sweaty inside, something that is inevitable after about 20 minutes of continuous cycling. So as I return home, cycling past a row of cars and therefore leaving plenty of space to avoid being doored, I see that a driver is trying to inch out, and that he is also talking on his phone. I’m already slowing down anyway as I approach home. He pulls out, without indicating, and I wave my arms to show annoyance and pull in, as I’m now home. He sees that I’m not happy, and this time decides that he’ll end his phone call and, well, have a quick word. Clearly the other word he was having wasn’t THAT important anyway!
I explain that he pulled out without looking, which he denies, saying that he didn’t move at all. If he hadn’t moved, I’d have no reason to remonstrate – if a driver is parked and using his mobile phone, that’s no concern of mine. To which I get an all time great volley of anti-cyclist myths which went as follows:
- Pay road tax.
- Get insurance.
- Get more lights (yes, more lights).
Never mind that I’d actually been told to pay road tax by a real-life motorist for the first time ever (it’s usually just a talking point)– that’s immaterial, and never mind that I already have three insurance policies which include me for cycling liability, the the precise reason that they know that a liability claim against a driver like him is far more likely!
Now let’s look at the third and most ridiculous suggestion – that I should somehow get more lights. I already had three small lights on the front the bike – they aren’t high beam, but they are perfectly visible in an urban environment, and I had the high visibility work jacket on top. How much more visible was I supposed to be? Should I really be expected to turn a bicycle into some sort of mobile lighthouse? Frankly, no!
In this particular case, I think the driver was so confusedby the fact that I was glad he told me to pay road tax that he just went off anyway, and to be honest, I really don’t want to be in an argument with someone right outside my house.
However, similar such stories are repeated throughout the UK every single day, and sadly it is often a great deal more serious. The particular tragic ones are where and HGV turns left across the path of a cyclist, as this is usually fatal. We’ve all heard the phrase “sorry mate I didn’t see you” – and I got that from a taxi driver recently who reversed into my front wheel. This happened to have been in broad daylight, but I was also wearing a high visibility cycling jacket at the time. The simple fact is that the driver started to reverse without looking, and he admitted that. Fortunately, on that occasion, since she knew I had his taxi number, he agreed to pay up for the wheel truing, rather than deal with a more serious complaint through the taxi licencing board. Although, of course, that was technically still a road traffic accident, so it was just another statistic that didn’t get reported, on a street which has had cycling money used to “improve” it (but that’s another story). The taxi driver too was utterly convinced that I didn’t have insurance, until I said that if he wanted to drive away, I would simply have to decide which of the three policies to start a claim against him on.
Of course, these are just too brief personal examples of minor incident where I was wearing high visibility and where no injury occurred. I don’t think that it is fair to say that high visibility is completely useless, because I’m sure there are plenty of other cases where high visibility clothing does indeed help the cyclist to stand out. However, this always has to be balanced against the fact that so many other drivers simply don’t respond to it, or end up passing closer instead, because they perceive the cyclist to be a confident one. Moreover, calls for more hiviz are always putting the responsibility in the hands of the cyclist, when it is the driver that always has the greatest ability to avoid the accident.
I would happily back any safety measure which I knew would bring clear benefits, but high visibility jackets and superbright rigs of lights do not come into this category. No amount of high visibility can protect you against a driver who has other things on his mind or against a vehicle which simply isn’t designed to see you at all, regardless of what you are wearing.