To Be Seen or Not To Be Seen – That is the great High Visibility Question!

Over the last few years there has been increasing belief that the wearing of High Visibility Clothing will provide a safer environment, be that at work, or at social gatherings or on the road, indeed almost everywhere you go you could find someone wearing High Visibility or Reflective Clothing either it being enforced upon them to wear it or there is actually a belief that it does actually provide an extra layer or safety.

In many ways; High Vis’ has become so commonplace in everyday life, certainly in the western world, that it is often worn without any regard of whether there is any benefit or not, in fact, it has become part of a uniform in many cases which has been embodied within a safety culture.

To assess whether there is any benefit, firstly, we should address a few questions.

Question 1. What is the purpose of High Visibility/Reflective Clothing?

Answer 1. To provide a visual contrast between the wearer and the background in order that the 

wearer stands out to the viewer, thus enabling the viewer to note and/or avoid the wearer.

Question 2. Does High Visibility Always provide optimum contrast to enable the viewer to note

or avoid the wearer?

Answer 2. No. The contrast is only at its best when there is a darker background. In the case

of a light background or a background of multiple bright colours, the contrast is

dramatically reduced.

Question 3. Is there ever a case for too much high visibility in a crowd of multiple wearers?

Answer 3. The purpose of High Vis’ is to provide a contrast. If there are many persons wearing 

high vis’ then the ‘crowd’ become the contrast and not the individual wearer, therefore

it becomes a case of not seeing the wood for the trees.

Question 4. Does the wearing of High Vis’ always assist a viewer to distinguish a wearer from the    background?

Answer 4. Undoubtedly, the wearing of High Vis’/Reflective does provide a contrast in certain   

circumstances, especially at night, however as high vis’ has become so commonplace, there is a certain ‘blindness’ to it and also it relies on the viewer actually taking note of the contrast.

In many cases, people do not acknowledge or distinguish between wearers and non wearers because they are either not aware of their surroundings or are suffering from this ‘High Visibility Blindness’.

To combat this, the High Visibility Industry has begun to use different colours and types of reflective materials to regain the contrast quality.

Over a number of years there has been growing calls for motorcyclists to wear high visibility clothing and to ride with lights on in day as well as night in order for enable drivers to see them more clearly, whether the rider is ahead or oncoming, approaching from the rear or the side. Indeed many riders voluntarily started to wear high visibility vests some years ago and the motorcycle clothing industry then started to produce motorcycle clothing that has specific high visibility or reflective material already incorporated within it.

Today there is a whole assortment of clothing and accessories that a rider has access to that enables the rider to be seen more clearly…but does it really work and does it stop accidents from occurring?

Over some years there have been various motorcycle accident studies performed in many countries that have not only tried to investigate why and where accidents occurs, but how might they have been avoided.

In virtually every report or study it has been claimed that most accidents involving motorcycles occur at junctions and intersections and the wearing of high visibility clothing is recommended as a good way of avoiding accidents.

There is a lot of truth to the findings of these reports, which are available to view on the HELI BIKES website: http://www.helibikes.co.uk, and the general advice to wear bright coloured clothing is quite sound, however, the way in which reports have been interpreted and the way in which high visibility practices have been adopted does leave the rider quite vulnerable.

High Visibility Clothing or Riding with Lights On only has a real benefit when it is incorporated within safety practices and as part of a safety culture, and this has to be adopted by all road users. Accidents on the road, not involving motorcycles, still occur in very high numbers and they are largely caused by excessive speed for the conditions and for the drivers skill limitations and lack of attention and/or an intentional or unintentional disregard for the rules of the road.

Interestingly, accidents involving motorcycles occur for the same reasons. Many accidents involving motorcycles are single vehicle accidents, i.e. no other vehicles are involved. The rider has made an error in judgement and had an accident and the wearing or not wearing of high visibility was not a causation factor. In many other accidents involving other vehicles, the rider was partly culpable in the cause of the accident and in most cases the wearing or not wearing of high visibility was either not a causation factor or it could not be determined.

Accident numbers at junctions and intersections may benefit from the rider wearing high visibility clothing. In many cases a car will pull out from a junction into the path of a motorcycle and the common remark from the driver is “I didn’t see you” or “They were going so fast” etc. This we all recognise as the SMIDSY… “Sorry Mate! I Didn’t See You”

Unfortunately the success relies on two basic practices:

  1. The driver must take extra time to ‘LOOK OUT’ for motorcycles and give extra time to allow motorcycles to pass, if appropriate. The driver must consider motorcycles always and must take the time to assess the road traffic conditions and not emerge from a junction with just a quick glance or in some cases not even look properly.
  2. The rider must ride at an appropriate speed and at a correct position in the road to either stop before any hazard that develops or allow extra space and time to either stop or avoid the hazard or ride in a manner that gives the driver the best possible chance to ‘SEE’ the rider.

    This can be achieved by the rider riding with a slower appropriate speed, being prepared for  

    drivers to emerge in front of their path…so cover the brakes, and choosing a road position away

    from the junction, thus giving optimum spacing and the best view for the rider and driver   

    to see each other.

    If a rider is also able to change their position on the road, then they become a ‘moving object’  

    which is a lot easier to see than a ‘static object’ . Some practitioners even suggest the rider 

    perform a weaving riding motion when approaching a junction, however this must be considered 

    very carefully as it may destabilise the motorcycle and also give a misleading impression to 

    other road users.

If these two practices are routinely adopted then incorporating High Visibility will be marginally successful in providing an extra safety layer, however only in those conditions as described above.

One other key factor is the rider themselves. What effect does the wearing of High Vis’ have on the rider’s mentality and approach to riding?

This is a double edged sword!

The rider may routinely wear High Vis’ with the false opinion that it makes them safe whilst riding. If the rider ignores safer riding practices and is not actively looking for hazards then they are not engaging in a safety culture, thus the mere wearing of High Vis’ will have little or no effect.

The rider may routinely wear High Vis’ and this is a small part of a safety culture that the rider has adopted when riding. The major factor in accident avoidance is the safety culture and approach to riding, and not the mere wearing of bright yellow or orange etc.

In everyday motorcycle accidents that the emergency services deal with, it is highly improbable to definitively say that an accident was caused by the rider not wearing bright coloured or High Visibility clothing. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest this at all, however in certain circumstances a driver may say that they did not see or were not aware of the rider prior to the accident occurring. In these situations, it might be very easy to conclude that if the rider had been wearing High Vis then the driver would have seen them and the accident might have been avoided…but that is a big if!

There is also no evidence to suggest that accidents have been avoided because the rider has been wearing High Vis’. If no accident occurred, then there is nothing to report,, then there is no data to collect. However, it is a fact that the majority of motorcyclists that are involved in accidents have not worn High Vis’.

This may be due to three reasons. 

Firstly; the rider who wears High Vis’ Clothing is more likely to have adopted a safer riding practice, and hence is less likely to be involved in an accident.

Secondly; As more and more riders begin to wear high visibility/reflective clothing, the more motorcycle accidents will involve them. It is probably too early in the High Vis’ vs Accident timeline to see this variable.

Thirdly; Drivers do actually see riders more either because of the bright colours or because various safety campaigns actually are making drivers more aware of motorcyclists.

The great High Visibility debate will continue for some time yet, and whilst certain authorities and states may wish to make the wearing of it mandatory, this should be considered as a proven net benefit, prior to any implementation.

The reality is that High Visibility Clothing for motorcyclists may assist the driver to see a rider, but this is not always the case and there is no evidence that suggests accidents are avoided because of it.

Bright colours do not necessarily prevent accidents occurring, moreover it is a combination of safer driving and riding practices which will have the greatest affect.

Reflective colours do work well in the dark and low light conditions, as do riding with lights on in the same conditions or at night, but it should be incorporated in a safety culture.

There will be those that are very much in favour and those that are very much against the compulsory wearing of High Visibility/Reflective Clothing when riding a motorcycle and all have varying reasons for these beliefs. 

Whilst it may appear that High Vis’ will be safer for riders, there lacks evidence to categorically state that accidents will be reduced and overall safety will be increased by the wearing of it.

More emphasis should be placed on improved initial and recurrent training for drivers and riders on safer driving/riding practices.   

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