Nowt so blind

Last night as it was getting dark I went out for a walk. All was fine to start with but on the high street I almost walked straight into someone else. As I said, it was getting dark, and this person was wearing dark clothes. I managed to avoid him but it was close. Unfortunately a few metres further on I walked straight into a small child and sent them flying across the pavement. I really do think that when children are out at this time, and it will happen more now it’s autumn, that they should wear bright clothes, or I just can’t see them.

I have the same problem out cycling. This morning I cycled into the back of a horse. In my opinion riders should take responsibility – be safe, be seen, after all. We should share the roads and to do that horse riders need to make sure their horses are more visible. There is plenty of hi vis gear out there which helps. After all it really isn’t easy to see a horse without the aid of fluorescent material — they are so well camouflaged and not remotely fucking huge.

I would imagine that by now you think I’ve lost the plot somewhat or that I’m sociopathic and that, even if I am visually impaired, there’s no excuse for this behaviour. Either that or you’ve worked out that I’m trying to make a point about our behaviour on the roads. If I walk into a child and hurt them, who will you blame? If I cycle into a child and hurt them, who will you blame? If I drive into a child and hurt them, who will you blame? Why is it only in the last case that you blame the child?

This post from a fire station is doing the rounds again. There are so many similar things that appear at this time of year, and indeed at all times of year. ‘Be safe, be seen’. But how do you make someone see you?

The text reads ‘The same child is in both photos. The only difference is how they’re dressed. As we approach shorter daylight hours, whether you walk, cycle, use public transport or drive, make sure you can be seen.’

Now I have a number of problems with these kind of photos, of which more later. For now, let’s think about what is going on with this text and what the aim of this is. Although the statement says pedestrians, cyclists and drivers should make themselves seen, it’s not clear who is trying to do the seeing. But ask yourself this, if you were walking would you expect to see a child? Or at least, see the child in time to avoid walking into them? I’m going to take a risk and go with ‘yes’ on this one. When we are walking we do generally expect to see other people in time to avoid walking into them. If we do walk into them and as a consequence cause them significant harm, we don’t then blame them for not being visible enough. When you’re walking the onus is generally on you to ‘look where you’re going’ so you, the moving person, avoid other people.

Yet when we drive, we expect people to make themselves seen. What changes? The first, is the speed you move at when you drive. When someone says they can’t see someone, what they mean is that at the speed they were travelling at they didn’t see them in time to take adequate safety measures. At that stage you can either opt for the admission that you’re driving too fast, or you can blame the person on the road. Since going faster (however illusory that is) is one of our prime reasons for driving, we tend to opt for the latter.

Connected with the speed of travel is the amount we have to process whilst driving. Not just the child who might run out, but the other vehicles around us, the cyclist in front of us, whether we have enough room to manoeuvre our huge metal box around, where we are going next, what the road signs say, what lane we need to select. So in our hurry to process this, rather than admit that driving might be problematic, we’d rather that other road users flag themselves up.

There are various ways to fix the problem of not being able to see a child in time. You can light the child up. But will this always work? The answer is broadly, no. Read this report on a man hit and killed whilst cycling. Both the driver who knocked him from his bike and the driver behind who killed him say they could not see him because of the glare of the sun. Paul James was wearing a hi vis jacket but according to the driver of the first car to hit him ‘The lighting coming through the trees and foliage on the side had created a flickering effect and I believe the high visibility jacket blended in with that.’ And this is the issue both with ‘hi vis’ clothing and with the expectation that you will make yourself seen. Bright yellow is only highly visible in certain light conditions, not all of them. Unless you expect humans to evolve into a form of reverse-chameleon, and to keep up an ever-changing coat colour that contrasts with its background, at some point they might blend in with their background, if you don’t look hard enough.

Which brings me back to those photos. Look again. There are a myriad of problems with comparing a few pixels on a screen (are you looking at this on a mobile phone? How does that compare with the big wide world?) with what you actually see when driving. The images are a very carefully chosen moment in time. The campaigners have made use of the fact that the small screen narrows what you can see. It doesn’t compare with the real world, but they claim it does to make a point. Out in the real world, everything is bigger. It’s also continually moving and changing. Shift the child from the dark of the tree to the glare of the road and what happens?

So the next way to fix this is for drivers to slow down. I can see rabbits running across a road when I’m driving so I’m sure the average driver should be able to see a person, even a small one. If you cannot, then I would seriously consider how good your eyesight is. The other thing that would actually make a difference is to design streets so that we reduce risk to vulnerable road users and ensure that mistakes made by drivers do not impact on those outside of vehicles.

Consider again that slogan ‘be safe, be seen’. The sentence ‘I saw the child’, makes ‘I’ the subject of the verb and the child the object. ‘I’ am doing the seeing. But the sentence ‘the child was seen’ is in the passive voice. Passive voice is often used as a sneaky way to avoid responsibility for what is happening. Don’t want to admit to who did something? Use passive voice. But when we are driving, we do need to step up and take responsibility. As drivers, we should be the subject of the verb. We are in the driving seat, literally.

These pictures are a rhetorical device, a way of evading responsibility. They encourage a lack of vision. They put responsibility on people to be seen – but you cannot make someone see you. And if you expect people to burn themselves onto your retina in the latest high visibility gear, you’ll stop looking in all situations, including the ones in which it obviously doesn’t help anyway. If you are blinded by sunlight, you need to stop or slow down. If you are travelling around a steep bend (it isn’t blind if you slow down enough) then you will not see someone in whatever they are wearing, until you are very close to them. It really is very simple, make sure you can stop in the distance you can see. No-one can make you see – you must observe.

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