High-vis can’t solve drivers’ inattentional blindness and its promotion has failed

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.

...I'm sorry to disrupt you while you're reading this article, but without messages like this, IrishCycle.com's reader-funded journalism won't survive. With 676k views so-far this year, it's not just "avid cyclists" that this website reaches. But the number of subscribers is around 0.6% of readers. This large gap between readers/subscribers is standard for non-paywall reader-supported journalism, but IrishCycle's journalism needs more support. Don't delay, support monthly or yearly today. Now, back to the article...

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).

The Dutch went with infrastructure changes rather personal protective gear; more recently Sweden has success with the same.

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. [Note: this is an archive article and the RSA’s stance on 30km/h has since changed, however, the pedestrian gates remain locked at the HQ in Ballina]

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.


  1. Well done Cian!

    The mindset within the RSA, DoTTAS and Garda that thinks the solution is hi-vis (or lit up like a Christmas tree) has to be challenged.

    We have to have a paradigm-shift in how we manage traffic if we are to de-carbonise the Irish economy and more pressingly get children back to cycling to school. [Hint- we have an overweight/obesity time-bomb in the health service!]

  2. As a driver I believe I have a better chance of not hitting a cyclist if I can see them.
    As a cyclist I believe that wearing bright and/or reflective clothes makes me more visible to other road users in certain conditions.
    As both I often wonder how many people have been put off cycling by seeing others were high-viz clothing.
    In my experience, when I show up for a meeting and hang up my high-viz jacket and helmet, the more likely comments are “what’s it like on the bike today?” or “how long did it take you to get here?” If I have walked or taken the bus, the issue of transport rarely comes up.

  3. Excellent article, Cian & hard to argue with such evidence. Cycling, I wear hi-vis myself, even in streetlit areas. I have had recent correspondence with the RSA, which I have suggested be followed-up by Cyclist.ie, on foot of their ‘Be Safe Be Seen’ press release for winter solstice. I put it to Moyagh Murdock that more emphasis should be placed on driver behaviour. She replied that the RSA already campaign strongly on speed and driver attention. RSA are firmly stuck behind a windscreen when it comes to road safety. Are you making RSA aware of this article?

  4. Research into cycle crash rates from August 2014 concluding,
    ‘Conspicuity aids may not be effective in preventing bicycle–motor vehicle crashes in New Zealand, particularly in Auckland, where attention conspicuity is low.’

    Research into cycle crashes from 2014 concluding inter alia,
    ‘The proportion of drivers not noticing a cyclist was statistically NO DIFFERENT whether they were wearing hi-vis clothing or not’-

  5. t does not matter what you wear or if you are running lights if the driver does not look. I had by chance an Adidas hi-viz shirt on and was running my 80 lumen light as per normal but it didn’t help here [Video].

    That said in early December I did a six day tour which involved riding on a highway at times with a lot of truck traffic, we are talking three trailer road trains here (Australia). Wearing that Adidas shirt helped I feel in allowing the truckies to see me earlier than maybe they otherwise they would and hence allowed for better planning for safe passing. I only coped one or two truckies being prats on some days. The rest and we are talking 20 to 30 trucks passed safely. All up it just added to making to it a workable situation with all concerned.

    I don’t believe that there is a blanket it works/does not work position, rather it should be considered given the riding circumstances. I don’t as a rule bother wearing it on my commutes, but I do wear it on night Audax rides (required) and I will wear it on sections of my tours where I am highways or high traffic routes.

  6. Well, even Safety in Numbers is not so certain. Even Jacobsen himself in his seminal paper had to “interpret” UK’s data that did not fit his model to defend his theory. Even very recently, with much more cyclists in London and yet many parts without anything but paint on the road to make it a “cycling superhighway”, it was shown that there was no separation, the crashes increased with the number of cyclists, there was no Safety in Numbers for these parts. Also, in several towns, bike-sharing increased suddenly a lot the number of cyclists, and yet no Safety in Numbers was observed either.

    So :
    “better infrastructure” > “more cyclists” > “and a lower crash ratio”, seems definitely proven.
    but “more cyclists without better infrastructure” > “lower crash ratio”, seems not proven at all, and with bike-sharing a good way to test it, it even seems disproved.

    • @NotSoSure safer in numbers is an effect, it’s not a measure (as some claim or think it is). The measures which bring about safety in numbers includes segregated routes. And even with the safety in numbers effect present, you can still safe lives by tackling junctions with proper segregation.

  7. I don’t understand the opposition to wearing High Viz. While cycling infastructures do need to be improved and driver behaviour is sometimes ridiculous. Wearing something that makes you more visible is clearly the easiest way to take some personal responsibility for your own safety. I was a long time cyclist before I got lazy and upgraded to a motorbike. On the motorbike I wear a white helmet because it stands out against the black road surface I also wear high viz. I would have definitely seen the bear if it was wearing hi viz.

    • @Brendan: Have you actually read the full article? If high-vis is the solution, why are cyclists with it continuously getting hit, along with truck drivers continuously hitting bridges etc with high-visibility strips and markings?

  8. @Brenden the problem is inattentional blindness or perceptual blindness, visibility is an excuse.

    “Sorry I didn’t see you” or “they came out of nowhere” is said when they should be saying “I was not expecting or looking for a cyclist / motorcyclist”.

  9. Danish research with 6.800 cyclist found, that cyclist wearing a high-vis jacket har 48 % fewer accidents. Here is the abstract for “The safety impact of a yellow bicycle jacket” (forthcoming in Safety Science):

    The hypothesis of this project is that the safety of cyclists can be improved by increasing their visibility in traffic. This is explored by testing whether or not a high-visibility bicycle jacket (colour and reflectors) will increase the safety of cyclists. The project has been carried out as a randomized controlled trial with 6,800 volunteer cyclists. After random selection, half of the group – the test group – got the bicycle jacket at once and promised to wear it each time they biked during a year. The other half of the group composed a control group that got the bicycle jacket after the closing of the project, i.e. after a year. The safety effect of the bicycle jacket was analysed by comparing the number of self-reported accident for the test and control group. The self-reported accidents showed that the test group had 38 % fewer personal injury accidents with other road users – so-called multi-party accidents – than the group who did not wear the bicycle jack-et. If one only looks at accidents between participants and vehicles, the difference is 48 %. The differences are statistically significant at 5 % level. In the test group, 37 % of the involved parties in an accident report-ed that they were not wearing the bicycle jacket or any other bright-coloured garment when the accident occurred. http://vbn.aau.dk/da/publications/the-safety-impact-of-a-yellow-bicycle-jacket(6ef90648-d4b4-4ad0-940e-360ce1436721).html

    The Danish report can be found here: http://www.e-pages.dk/trygfonden/239/


Leave a Reply

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