People who feel like using high-vis should feel free to do so. But the official promotion of high-vis over everything, including lights, is for many reasons — from inconvenience to dangerisation — the opposite of cycling promotion. Thus it is likely to stand in the way of one of the most proven safety effects: safety in numbers.
Watch the above video before reading on and count the number of passes the white team makes. How many passes does the team in white make? Did you see the Moonwalking bear the first time?
High-vis as a solution to poor or inattentive driving does not take psychological and social behaviors into account. The inattentional blindness or perceptual blindness shown in the video above is a psychological lack of attention and is not associated with any vision defects or deficits.
You can read and watch more at the Invisible Gorilla website. On there the authors of the original research, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, show that when you get people to watch out for the Gorilla, they’ll miss a whole lot more. That’s just looking for trouble — unless somebody has come up with a way of making everybody who walks and cycles wear high-vis.
Inattentional blindness could partly explain what leaves UK users of bicycles and motorbikes with the saying “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you”, known as SMIDSY. As one YouTuber explains in the description in a video (verbal reaction not safe for work) where two drivers fail to yield to him when he is already on a roundabout: “…Clearly indicating, hi vis clothing, flashing bright lights – apparently it’s not enough.” There’s also Irish examples of this in both dark and light conditions.
This is mirrored by stories from people, on the Irish discussion website Boards.ie and elsewhere, who say they were “dressed like Christmas trees” — ie wearing high-vis and using bright lights — but still were in collisions or regullary have close calls with motorists overtaking or pulling out in front of them. Motorists — as shown in some YouTube videos — will also often contend that the cyclist were in the wrong or “came out of nowhere”.
UK research Transport Research Laboratory and University of Strathclyde found that drivers are inclined to “criticise cyclists for relatively minor matters” but to “overlook or excuse driver transgressions”. This isn’t about blaming anybody or saying one of ok because the other does it, it’s about understanding mindsets.
The research added: “The tendency for drivers to overly criticise people cycling and to exonerate errors made by drivers can be explained by reference to Social Identity Theory, which predicts a tendency of in-groups (here, drivers) to negatively perceive the behaviour of out-groups (cyclists and to view their behaviour as intrinsic (dispositional) rather than responsive (situational).”
Seeing people on bicycles as members of out-groups could be linked back to why inattentional blindness occurs even when the person cycling as has high-vis on and lights on their bicycle. In plain English: It’s a case of “them and us”. So, “them” are cyclists (the out-group) and “us” are motorists (the in-group).
Dr Ian Walker of the University of Bath expands on this when he was interviewed by The Psychologist in 2012, he said: “…there has to be more to it than just this. For a long time I wondered if the outgroup status of cyclists was compounded by two other known social psychological factors: norms and majority vs. minority groups. Not only are cyclists an outgroup, they’re also a minority outgroup. Moreover, they are engaging in an activity that is deemed slightly inappropriate in a culture that views driving as normative and desirable and, arguably, views cycling as anticonventional and possibly even infantile.”
Walker is best known for his research on helmets and high-vis. When his high-vis and passing distance reseacrh was released he told IrishCycle.com that: “I’d note that there is a surprisingly substantial body of research which suggests there’s no real benefit to wearing [high-vis]. For example, a recent case-control study found no difference in accident likelihood between users and non-users. So it doesn’t seem to reduce accidents, and [his own research shows] it doesn’t seem to stop drivers getting close.”
Asked in The Psychologist if white van drivers were worse, Walker said: “I did do an analysis on a subset of the data which showed white vans tended to be amongst the worst culprits for getting close when passing. Interestingly, red vans were much better behaved.”
And that bit about red vans seems a bit silly or just daft for us to repeat here, until Walker explains: “I take my hat off to the audience member who, at a public talk, put two and two together here and suggested an excellent explanation: most of the red vans were Post Office vans, and postal delivery people have often cycled as part of their work and so understand cyclists. This would totally fit the picture I’m developing here of how a key problem is the majority of road users not understanding the needs and behaviours of a minority with whom they have to share resources; as soon as you take a group of drivers who do know what it is to be in that minority, behaviour improves.”
And if you still think that improving the behaviour of people who cycle is some kind of key to this, the Transport Research Laboratory research states that drivers tend to dislike people on bicycles when they hold them up regardless of the bicycle user’s behavior: “When drivers encounter cyclists in circumstances that cause them to slow or deviate, in the case of this research a central refuge, their estimation of the cyclist’s discourtesy increases, regardless of the cyclist’s actual behaviour.”
Walker says there’s a lack of research around collisions at junctions where cars hit people on bicycles or motorbikes even — inattentional blindness — but there’s indications that motorists watch out for people on bicycles more in Cambridge or York where there’s more people cycling.
This safety in numbers type of effect could explain why Dublin City has by far the largest concentration of people cycling in the country but the lowest death rate (hovering between 0-1 in the last five years). Unlike high-vis — which is at best on shaky ground — the safety in numbers effect has been found in research again and again.
One of the most quoted bits of research is from public health consultant Peter Jacobsen, studied data from Europe and North America. Jacobsen established that: “A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.”
He says this result is “unexpected” as it is “unlikely that the people walking and bicycling become more cautious if their numbers are larger, it indicates that the behaviour of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling. It appears that motorists adjust their behaviour in the presence of people walking and bicycling.”
The very close to home and practical example of this is DublinBikes — there is a large-scale level of complaints that many of the users of the system are some of the most unpredictable and poorly behaved. Yet, the death rate in the Dublin City has fallen since the scheme was introduced.
Clearly visibly is important. The law already requires bicycles to have reflectors and makes it mandatory to have a front and a rear light after dark. The promotional and enforcement approaches should cover cycling and use of lights, but it should mainly be aimed at the largest problem in terms of harm caused — poor driver behaviour.
Above all, the design of our roads and streets need to change for long-term sustainable safety — following countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden. In an article recently on why Sweden has the world’s safest roads, Matts-Åke Belin, a government traffic safety strategist, is quoted as saying: “We are going much more for engineering than enforcement.”
The current and massive Irish focus on high-vis for walking and cycling is highly unrealistic and so broken that it’s becoming a rather sick victim-blaming joke. Even if high-vis was a key to safety, it’s promotion has failed and it’s ultimately impractical for most people most of the time.
Mayo County Council’s safety officer, Noel Gibbons — previously known for such effective measures such as getting the local priest to bless the roads — is clearly annoyed that how much the high-vis pushing has failed.
In the latest high-vis promotional push in the last few days, “Most houses usually have two or three jackets now, so we’re just asking people to make use of them now rather than just have them lying in the house, just bring them with them in the car. Also if they have a spare one and they do meet a pedestrian that doesn’t have one, to do a good deed and give them a hi-vis jacket.”
Gibbons would be better served looking at his employer’s poor record — such as: building boom-time housing estates outside town boundaries and still to this day having no footpaths and cycle paths to the development; or having no footpath or safe crossing points between a child care unit and a housing area which it serves, leaving children and their parents exposed on a inner–relief road route.
The Road Safety Authority (RSA) should also be familiar with a lack of a footpath — their HQ in Ballina is in a business park where one pedestrian gates is locked every time we’ve passed by and the other is welded shut. There’s also a missing section of footpath between the RSA’s business park and the town centre. In and around the town, footpaths and cycle lanes are narrow beside busy roads; the cycle lane network has large gaps in it; a one-way system of streets is hostile to cycling and walking; there’s a lack of pedestrian crossings at many locations; and speeds are high on urban road as is made cristal clear by electronic speed signs; and cycling. These things are mirrored across most of the country — and there’s no desire to fix them anytime soon.
Strangely the RSA don’t see this, all they see is the dark country roads around the town. It’s staff also apparently miss the town’s electronic speed limit signs which show how wide-spread speeding is within the 50km/h zone.
Lower speeds limits of 30km/h or lower in urban areas are also a proven safety effect which the RSA has little to no interest in promoting — this measure is widespread and growing across Europe, but Ireland has little more than a few kms of such limits. Instead, the RSA has been a party to the farcical speed limit review which was heavily influenced by Irish motoring group the AA.
That review suggests that narrow country roads — the type where where you have to stop when you meet oncoming traffic — with 80km/h speed limit sign on them should be replaced with another sign which would not change the limit or add any extra obligation to drive safely. Sub 50km/h limits are mentioned as if they were experimental limits not already used in Ireland or across the world.
All of the above shows that not only is high-vis not proven and impractical as a population-level solution, it’s a distraction from real solutions. Why are the RSA so afraid of lower speed limits? They are stuck in a world and mindset where there’s no need for safer streets and roads for walking and cycling. Where high-vis is not just a stop-gap measure, but a solution.
Pedants please note: High-vis in this article should generally been seen as a reference to the most common high-vis vests which have reflective strips, which are handed out by the RSA etc.