Where is the evidence for the safety benefits of high visibility clothing? 21


Recently a local council in Australia suggested that bicycle riders should be required to wear high visibility jackets.  Bicycle Victoria was not impressed:

Bicycle Victoria spokesman Garry Brennan slammed the idea.

“Unfortunately there is no evidence that so-called ‘high-visibility clothing’ is of any benefit to bike riders,” Mr Brennan said. “Whether the rider is dressed in bright fluoro or black, or is stark naked, matters little when drivers are not paying attention.  The good news is that as more bikes crowd the roads, most drivers are paying more attention.”

In another article Brennan said

“It’s redundant and potentially misleading,” Mr Brennan … said.  He said high-visibility clothing would give cyclists a false sense of security.  “All it does is make you feel more visible,” he said.”

High visibility clothing is an established element of personal protective clothing on construction sites and in the transport industry.  It was introduced as a way of increasing the visibility of workers where traffic on- and off-site interacts with pedestrians.  A UK article by BrightKidz summarises the logic on high visibility clothing but is there any evidence that bright clothing reduces serious contact between pedestrians and traffic?

In response to the question “Why do I need High-Visibility Safety Apparel?” the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) said:

“High-visibility safety apparel (HVSA) is needed if you work when there is low light and poor visibility, especially if you are working around moving vehicles (cars, trucks or other machinery traveling under their own power – e.g. forklifts, backhoes, etc).  High-visibility items allow you to be seen by the drivers of those vehicles sooner and more readily.  This fact increases your safety at work.  The human eye responds best to large, contrasting, bright or moving objects.  Worker visibility is enhanced by high colour contrast between clothing and the work environment against which it is seen.”

Some of this response could equally relate to bicycle riding.

Brennan’s comments in the media reflect (no pun intended) that there may be an over-reliance on personal protective equipment (PPE) instead of looking at higher order control mechanisms.  OHS regulators state that the most effective method of reducing contact between forklifts and pedestrians is to separate the two with barriers or safe design.  This control measure would also reduce the need for high visibility clothing.

Any discussion of PPE and HVSA must also include the application of the hierarchy of controls in order to remind us that they may be another way to ensure the safety of workers (or pedestrians or bike riders).

Brennan’s objections to HVSA are likely to be more about the fact that a council is considering making the wearing of the clothing mandatory.  A look at an annual report for Bicycle Victoria indicates that many of its members are already wearing bright clothing.

The wearing of high visibility clothing in an area where traffic is present and where there is a low-level of lighting is a sensible safety measure but is this “common sense” backed up by evidence?  Brennan’s reaction to what seems to be a sensible measure seems odd but it does raise the need to question assumptions about high visibility clothing.  If there is evidence somewhere then this should be revisited and explained to the new generation, or in the new context, so that the “sense” becomes even more “common”.

Kevin Jones

21 comments

  1. I tried wearing a high viz jacket when riding my motorbike – Made no difference at all. First I thought they were giving me a wider berth but it was just me subcosciously doing it because it was on my mind. Agree that if people arent looking they just wont see you regardless. I’ve had so many cars that just cross straight into me with even a sideways glance – They are usually on the phone or eating a cheese burger. You learn to do whatever you have to do the keep the air around you clean and ride defensively.

    I would rather they actually police the wearing of helmets for cyclists first, especially kids, before introducing a new law. I think some cyclists need to realise that they don’t own the road either.

  2. Dave, I too have ridden motorbikes and sympathise. If the vest made no difference on a motorcycle in traffic, do similar vests on construction sites also make no difference?

  3. Instead of developing safe work practices are we supposed to instead presume that if we wear yellow we’ll live through the week on the shop floor regardless of anything else? The politics of bike safety cannot be reduced to wearing either a helmet or a showy vest. Kevin Jones’ long bow misses the point of the exchange entirely. The whole question of seeing bikes or motorcycles cannot be reduced to vests, tail lights, headlights on during the day time when the drivers are not looking out for two wheelers at all. The worst mistake a cyclist can make is to assume they have been seen. The problem with vesting up is that it feeds that impression. “I’m safe. I wear a vest.” Who’s to know after the fact of the collision? I may choose to wear vests in heavy traffic but let’s not think it’s little more than bandaiding a chromic problem.Maybe we should insist that cars follow fire engine and police car regulations and be painted so they can be seen too?

    Ban black cars for instance?

    Vest wearing regulation is just another cynical manoevre by Australian regulators to reduce their approach to cycling to the inconvenience of cyclists our road network.In no other country on the planet does this seem to happen where cycling t is presented as a high risk activity warranting the forcing of cyclists to dress up in regulation gear.

  4. I think when they were first introduced they may have been very effective but now not so sure given how prolific they are and how familiar we are with them – they just seem to blend in with the rest of construction environment now? Just like reversing alarms, I was struck by a slow reversing cherry picker the other day which had a reversing alarm but there were 5 other pieces of mobile plant around me all with alarms blazing – this one came from behind (oh – and I was on the phone!), operator wasn’t looking, spotter was checking out some girl on the street – probably thinking anyone hearing them would move? I wonder if hi viz makes us take greater risks because we think we are more easily seen, Ive heard hi viz vests called bullet proof vests for that very reason?

  5. Dave, I think your opening question is an excellent one and should be asked to the OHS regulators and to those clients who require PPE but do not, necessarily, require contractors to look beyond the PPE option.

  6. David, the perceived protection of the hi-viz vest in cycling has been expanded upon in a comment above but I wonder, if this perception translates to workplace, whether the attitude is emphasising the perspective that safety is a personal obligation rather than a corporate one? Are we cutting across the obligation of providing a “safe system of work” by emphasising the personal?

  7. This seems to be another case of tackling the Hierarchy of controls from the bottom first. It seems that it is always the case of ‘throw PPE at it and the problem will be fixed’. How about a brain storming session to find solutions that don’t include PPE?
    I believe there is a need for PPE and it is a genuine solution in a few cases. I live in a street that has paddocks on all 4 sides and we do get several cyclists riding in the dark, particularly early morning going to work. The high-vis vests are a good idea in this case (as are lights, which is another issue for another time).
    I came across a ‘solution’ recently that required extra PPE (a harness) and it actually made the job more hazardous. (I won’t go into details to avoid identifying the workers involved) There was no investigation, consultation or even follow-up to see if it worked. Two workers got together and came up with an engineering solution that was cheaper than the PPE, eliminated the need to climb 98% of the time and reduced the job from around 2 hours to about 15 minutes.
    PPE has a place but it should be a last resort as I believe it is a minimalist approach to compliance and safety altogether. It as also one of those things that pushes my buttons!

  8. I think there are two clarifying questions here:
    1: Even if Hi Vis for bike riders was required by law, as safety helmets, and lights after dark, are required by law, – who would ‘police’ it any more than safety helmets, or lights at night, are (not) policed?
    2: Do the accident statistics show any difference between number of bike riders wearing bright clothing vs those who don’t?

    The truth is there is no way to measure whether hi-vis has ever contributed to preventing an incident, any more that we can demonstrate any preventive action ever actually prevented an incident. Those that didn’t happen may not have happened anyway! Just as there are many bike riders who do not use safety cloting or equipment who have never had an incident.

  9. If the accepted theory is correct and the human brain recognises bright contrasting colours first, wouldn’t it just be a wise thing to do? To implement any strategy by whatever means possible in the hope that it ‘could’ help save lives? That to me seems quite logical.

    If someone is not looking at all, then it won’t make any difference at all. However, there are also drivers that may just have shifted focus or maybe even a little daydreaming. At the last minute, that reflective strip /fluro orange could just be enough to draw the eye and that *could* be the difference between life and death. Isn’t that possible? Doesn’t that make it something worth thinking about?

    I think there is plenty of logic here.

    1. The human eye and brain processes bright contrasting colours first
    2. Hi-viz clothing is cheap
    3. Hi-viz clothing is easy to implement
    4. Children make up a resonably high percentage of bike riders

    I’ll stick my neck out here and suggest that too much of what we do today is overdependant on studies, numbers and check boxes. When did we stop listening to logic?

  10. Saying “we don’t need airbags because everyone should just drive more safely and that is a better control” is not a good argument. Likewise saying “we don’t need hi vis on bikes because motorists should look for us” is a poor argument. The hi vis is supposed to help reduce the likelihood of an accident, not eliminate it.

    Stupid drivers are stupid drivers. I had a lady try to merge into me two nights ago after she had over taken me in the right lane, so she had to know I was there, and I was in a car with head lights on. My first car was big and bright yellow and still people tried to run me off the road. But make no mistake, on a dark grey day, the big yellow car is noticed before the silver or gun metal grey one.

    Anyway, Cyclists need more areas to ride that are not on the road, they are a hazard to everyone including themselves. In order to fund this they need to pay registration, and then finally they need to start obeying the road rules if they wish for motorists to respect them. I’ve never seen a cyclist stop at a red light. Even in Sydney City where there are cyclists lanes, with traffic lights specifically for the cyclists, they still run the red and one almost caused a three car accident a month back doing this.

    Everyone needs to use their brains and their eyes more, the problem is everyones.

  11. Some of the ‘logic’ expressed here concerns me. Of course high visibility clothing is no substitute for higher order controls, or course there are cyclists/workers who display high risk behaviours. But likewise, clearly, high visibility clothing is an effective risk reducing lower order control as the fundamental mechanism for injury here involves the failure to see the worker/pedestrian/cyclist before it is too late. The fact that it is not a complete solution and doesn’t eliminate the risk or improve the likelihood of a driver ‘looking’ in no way diminishes the fact that the likelihood of being seen before it it too late is improved.

    I wouldn’t support a requirement for cyclists to wear high visibility clothing either, but that’s a personal perspective. To suggest that there is no benefit however, is flawed.

  12. What a different mind set some of us have. If you cannot be seen then how do you expect the driver to see you. When I ride my bicylce I risk assess the situation. Some roads I will not ride upon as it is either too busy and or too narrow. We can blame the drivers all we want. Unfortunately this may have to be up to friends and family as the outcome is not good if hit by a vehicle.
    Drivers have congratulated me for wearing high visibility as it is easier to see me. We must remember a couple of things: 1. high visibility cloth relies on UV so can only be effective in the daylight hours. Relective high vis relies on artificial light. 2. Most drivers wear sunglasses all year round, this provides a layer of dullness which is what is required to reduce glare. The optimum control is for designated pathways separated from traffic. Could not agree more, but in the short term lets be seen.

  13. I always wear my orange “forklift proof protection vest” when I go in the warehouse. It stops the boss from reprimanding me. And it seems from how others react, this PPE will, like magic armor, actully fend off all injuries that fork-lifts could inflict.

    Seems high viz clothing has acheived that “politically correct” – jump on the band-wagon, status. Yes: Where is the evidence. Where is the analysis. Where is the RIS?

    One bad consequence of PPE is that it can unfairly off-load (externalise) safety responsibility from the asset owners, who really should instead improve the asset. It can off-load responsibility onto the people that work around the asset who often have little or no control over its state of safety.

    PPE and lack of its use enables quick and popular “conclusions” about fault. The un-informed crowd (most of us) can easily accept that blame belongs with those “silly people” that failed to use their PPE. Meanwhile, concluding that an asset was instead lacking is impossible to judge by the bulk of the audience, as well as being slow and boring.

  14. Dave, I think your comment about applying the Hierarchy of Controls from bottom up is one that I agree with. Too frequently risk assessors jump to PPE instead of following the hierarchy’s assessment process. I would suggest that new Australian OHS laws will encourage this.

  15. Les, take the questions out of the bicycle context and see whether there is evidence in a work environment for incident reduction or avoidance due to hi-viz vests.

  16. PPE should always been seen as an additional control. It should never be used as a final solution purely because it relies on so many other issues to keep it current and usable. Such as cleanlieness, time of day, complacency issues and fit for purpose. It should complement new and emerging solutions.

  17. Brett, many roads are being redesigned for bicycles and this is a great positive. However any redesign, and I am thinking of workplace safe design principles here, needs to include a re-education of the facility’s users and neighbours. I am an advocate of workplace redesign in many instances but if handled poorly a redesign can increase risk of injury.

  18. How can we argue for the merit of layers of risk controls and denounce PPE as bad? I’ve never “got” this condemnation of PPE. Would we consider telling a firey that the multiple PPE they use is bad?

    Anyone who genuinely believes that a high vis vest is all that’s needed to deal with the pedestrian/mobile plant mix is borderline remedial.

    I don’t think there is such a thing as being too visible in a high risk situation (unless ya were a sniper!).

    Yes, a sea of high vis vests do exactly the same as a miasma of audible warning signs, merging into a sensory porridge. In fact, crane drivers have made the point that someone on site with a blue shirt can stick out more than .all the other high vised workers. That hardly undermines the benefits of high vis or audible warning.

    All it does is confirm that flooding a worksite with all the same style of high vis is a bit nutty, and proves a lack of reflection on the issues (pun intended). Mix up the high vis or the tones or type of audible warnings. Get creative, handout outrageously coloured skivvies or long sleeved t-shirt things to wear under the high vis vests.

    I’m a fan of orange shirts and purple long sleeved t-shirt things, a mate labelled it the “parrot look”. It don’t turn me into Superman, but it sure isn’t easy to miss.

  19. From a scientific viewpoint, it has been well shown that a key factor in minimising unexpected events is contrast.

    In road safety for example it has been shown that the yellow arc lamps are a safety problem because the ability of the human eye to diferential objects from each other and the background is low with yellow lighting regardless of the illimination level (measured in lumens).

    And in the slips, trips and falls area it has been shown that contrast in relation to the edge of steps/ changes in height of adjacent areas is the critical factor.

    Hence it is a no brainer that increasing the contrast of any item – bicycle rider, construction worker, other worker, hazard et cetera – will increase the chance of a human being/ another human being noticing that item.

    Hence to use the bicycle example, an individual bicycle with lights on at night will be much more visible than one without lights. However a bicycle in traffic at night with lights that are much less bright than the lights of all the vehicles around them will not stand out at all.

    Nor will one worker in a crowrd of workers all wearing high visibility vests.

    VicRoads carried out a project looking at high visibility vests for their road workers and ended up with a vest that combined flourescent red an yellow colour and retyroreflective strips – that was in an effort to ensure high contract in any situation.

    In summary high visibility vests that are of a colour that contrasts with the backgound (flourescent yellow vests in a plant where all the machinery is painted yellow will not provide contrast) will increase the likelihood a person will be “seen” -= whether they are “seen in time” is another matter. If someone assumes the vest will protect them and pushes the safety boundaries the outcome may not be positive.”

  20. I can see Hi vis become a mandatory require and part of every day life. From my opinion I cant see why not and it would not bother me if I did have to wear it when cycling. If Hi vis clothing means less accidents then why not.

  21. Thanks for sharing this post. I totally agree with Brandon’s view. If hi vis workwear means less accidents then why not. These vests are like safety boundaries for us.

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