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