Be safe! Be seen!

Well I would be safer if you fucking looked

Every autumn, every time the clocks change, someone witters on about the importance of wearing hi viz for vulnerable road users. Sometimes it’s even a road safety “professional” and having recently got into a bit of a discussion with one of them on Twitter I decided this topic really warrants more than 140 characters.

First, I’ll declare my hand. When I cycle I generally wear something like this Endura jacket because it’s pretty bright without making me look like a luminous canary. I have a bright rear light, bright front light and I wear fluorescent silver snap bands on my ankles because I have to keep my trousers away from the chain and I might as well use something bright to do so. I know my get up is eye catching because drivers sometimes claim that my lights are too bright and they’re dazzled (no, I’m not polite to them). When I ride my horse I vary what I wear but I will generally go for something that can be seen at some distance over a hedge. It’s not that I’m anti being seen but I am against unexamined “common sense” arguments because I’m aware that these won’t necessarily keep me or anyone else safe. And if I can’t be bothered to look after myself, I certainly don’t want to put my horse at risk because I didn’t do my research.

There are two problems here – first, does hi viz protect the individual and second, does it make the roads safer for everyone? On the first, the evidence is actually fairly mixed. This study of conspicuity aids for motorcyclists found that what works varies according to environment. And this Nottingham PdD thesis found that actually, there’s a slightly raised risk of crashes amongst cyclists using conspicuity aids (yes, the author did adjust for other factors). So whilst being more visible by using hi viz might seem like an obvious choice, A. it won’t in some environments make me more visible and B. if it does, it might increase my risk of crashing (if for example I assume that someone must have seen my eye-searing outfit when actually the cockwombles are on their phone and haven’t looked).

Which brings me to my next point. I can’t make someone look. It doesn’t matter what I wear, if they are not concentrating or think they don’t need to or are adjusting their CD player or using a mobile or speeding or whatever else it is drivers do, no amount of retroreflectives, Christmas tree lights or disco balls will make them see me in time to do something about it. For every “be safe be seen” campaign there need to be at least three “keep other people safe, watch what you’re doing” campaigns. The problem with putting the emphasis on the vulnerable road user to be lit up is that it takes the emphasis away from the person operating the dangerous machinery to be responsible for looking. That in the end could make us all less safe. Drivers crash into houses, emergency service vehicles, trees, street furniture (including traffic islands, which are pretty hi viz), and bridges. So whatever is causing crashes, it isn’t only lack of visibility on the part of the thing, or living being, crashed into.

The answer I got back to this point about things drivers crash into was along the lines of “but those things didn’t step into the car’s path” which is interesting for various reasons. Reporting of collisions on the road consistently gives cars agency when actually it should, one would hope, be the driver in charge. If anything it’s the driver’s path, not the car’s. But is it? Philosophically, is a pedestrian (or other road user) moving into the driver’s path? If I am walking from A to B across a town my path will intersect with those of other road users. Am I stepping into their path or are they in mine?

De jure the answer is complex. There is no jay walking offence in the UK. Some people are aware that pedestrians have right of way at junctions if they are crossing as a car approaches. Whilst one would not want to test out the theory, there’s no particular reason to assume that the road is any more a driver’s than it is mine as a pedestrian. As this article on jay walking in the US makes clear, there is something in the evolution of transport that has placed the motor vehicle above pedestrians. At some point, the path became the car drivers’, not the vulnerable road users’ and even though in the UK this has not been enshrined in law, in practice I’m not going to argue with a lorry. Or a Ford Fiesta for that matter. De facto the path has become the drivers’ but not, in the UK, for any particular legal reason, more because might has become right and this has been designed into road layout. To get across a busy road, I as a pedestrian must press a button or request that traffic stop as a favour. Drivers do not assume that actually the vulnerable road user is just as important as they are and that therefore, it might be the car crossing the pedestrian’s path and not vice versa.

So practically, what do I do to try to ensure that I’m safe and seen? Well in my experience, I am at greatest risk riding or cycling when someone in a motor vehicle is overtaking. It isn’t that they don’t see me – it’s that they see me and decide it’s OK to risk my life in an effort to get where they want to more quickly. On a bike my key strategy is road positioning and a hypersensitivity to what is around me. On my horse, again it’s road positioning and hypersensitivity, but without transferring that sensitivity to him.

I bought my horse, Charlie, for about 20% of what you would expect to pay for a horse of his age, type and experience because he had had an accident on the road and had lost confidence. I spent months convincing him that it was OK, that I would look after him, that I knew where the tractors, the buses, the rattling trailers were and I would keep him safe and away from them. Did I achieve this by wearing luminous yellow? No. That might be common sense but it makes no horse sense. I did it by being aware, planning ahead, moving him to a place that was safe when I thought something he couldn’t cope with was approaching. I keep him safe by looking and planning ahead, and by assuming that no-one else on the road is doing the same. It works a whole lot better than just shoving fluorescent on and hoping some dimwit notices me.