Comment & Analysis: All the available evidence does not support the fixation our authorities, including the Gardaí and the Road Safety Authority, have on high-vis, but what if it was a key solution? Let’s think about what we’d actually be doing if high-vis was the wonder solution it’s made out to be.
First, one of the latest examples of the fixations on high-vis was on RTE’s and the Gardaí’s Crime Call programme which aired this week on the State’s national broadcaster — besides two seconds mentioning motorists, this focus on the actions of pedestrians when their deaths are at a 15-year high is hard to watch:
I cannot sum up my reaction to the clip better than Kevin Hargaden, a theologist, who said: “Watching this, you’d think the pedestrians had killed 39 drivers. An absolutely rage-inducing blackhole of immorality from the police and state broadcaster.”
I’m aware — while IrishCycle’s stance on this is shared by the majority of international road safety experts, cycling experts and advocates — that some readers are at least uneasy with it. I want to say I get irritated by pedestrians on unlit roads with no lights and cyclists in the dark on any road with no lights. It’s really foolish behaviour and should be tackled. The problem is the undue and ineffective attention on it.
Lights — not high-vis — are mainly the solution, especially for bicycles. These are already mandatory and Gardai have strong enforcement powers including the ability to take a bicycle from anybody they suspect of not providing their real name and address.
As an aside: I use lights which are far brighter than the ones in the video and I’d highly recommend others do the same. The RSA lights are the poorer of the free lights handed out the NTA ones seem to be notably better. Both in most cases should be only backup lights and it should be said that they dim a lot ahead of the batteries failing.
The problem with high-vis generally is that it’s a distraction to what’s happening on our roads — the vast majority of pedestrians and cyclists killed on our roads in good visibility conditions and a good chunk of those killed in dark or poorer visibility conditions had lights or high-vis.
There’s also a web of complex problems around high-vis, including as I wrote in 2015 that high-vis can’t solve drivers’ inattentional blindness and its promotion has failed.
But let’s say high-vis is the answer, what would we be doing differently if that was true and why aren’t we doing it? It’s worth pointing out also at this point that high-vis is short-hand for material with a high-visibility colour and a reflective strip.
The last Road Safety Authority CEO, Moyagh Murdock, was at one point forced to tell politicians looking for mandatory high-vis that “This is not a police state”.
There is, however, a lot that could be done without getting into the territory of being a police state, but it would require a commitment to high-vis as something everyone should wear and use not just “cyclists” and “pedestrians”.
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I mean if it’s such a wonderful idea, shouldn’t everyone be wearing it? We’re not as bad as the US where a very high percentage of drivers go straight from their car to an indoor car park or fully off-street space. Drivers here regularly have to cross a road on foot and become a pedestrian to access where they are going to be that to their home, a workplace, or a shop etc. Or when their car breaks down.
So, everyone should wear high-vis all the time when they leave their house.
That might sound like an extreme thing to say. The fact is the road safety advice in Ireland is often that people walking and cycling should wear high-vis. Not just in higher-risk situations and not just in the dark or poor conditions. An unreasonable expectation has been built up over time that people outside of cars should be dressed as if they are working on a building site when they are mostly just going from A to B.
The high-vis vests and add-on bands handed out by the RSA are a really ineffective way of getting to our bright high-vis future — to allow for all seasons, jackets, jumpers and even t-shirts/shirts/etc should have some element of high-vis.
The Gardaí and RSA should recommend that people only buy and wear bright clothes with high-vis elements. Dark clothing should be socially shunned, but so too should dark cars.
The point about dark-coloured cars is hard for some people to get their heads around. But the evidence around darker cars being in more collisions is far stronger than the little evidence there is to support high-vis wearing making roads safer.
As a society, we’re really poor at judging risk and we get fixated on the risks we think about — this effect goes far beyond road safety. The reality is that the vulnerability of motorists and their passengers when a truck is involved at anything but a slow speed is similar to that of the risk between a car and someone walking or cycling.
Given the similar risk, we should even be thinking about mandating bright cars and a requirement to have a reflective strip around them so that truck drivers can see the cars. This would be an extra on top of lights – cars with full daylight running lights are still involved in collisions.
You could go to the extreme here and say all cars should be the brightness of those puke-inducing ultra-bright pinks, yellows and oranges you see on the odd car. But let’s be reasonable, we should just ban darker colours.
But much like why we won’t see councillors, TDs, senators, the judiciary or off-duty Gardaí leading the way by wearing high-vis all the time by having it built into their clothes, the colour of cars is seen as too much of a personal choice and freedom to buy or wear what you want (just as long as you’re inside a car most of the time).
High-vis is seen to be for the little people outside of cars. In other words, it’s mainly for other people.
Like the politicians who drive too fast around narrow country roads and then call for high-vis to be made mandatory, the main effect is to shift the focus of blame to vulnerable road users and away from motorists. But also away from the lack of enforcement, and the lack of official and political will (varying by area) to act quickly and decisively on the design of our roads and laws that would make them safer for all road users.