If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 1 November 2010

Kit Report - ex-Police Hi-Viz Jacket

I bought this two winters ago. I ought to say at the outset that I am not a big fan of high-visibility clothing for motorcyclists. I'm not against it, but I do feel that a lot of people put far too much importance on it. Politicians, regulators and researchers are all in favour, and I think their approval is the result of some misguided thinking: if so many motorcycle accidents are caused by the other driver not seeing the biker, then making bikers more visible will cure the problem. Of course, it's a lot more complicated than that. Some bikers follow the bad logic - if accidents are caused by motorcyclists not being seen, then if I wear hi-viz I will be free of risk (or, goes the corollary, if there is an accident, it won't be my fault). This is, of course, bollocks. I have talked about this a lot elsewhere, so I won't repeat myself, but in essence the way to be safe on a bike is to ride as if no-one can see you. Proper defensive riding is far more use than looking like a Christmas tree. However, the statistics show that riders who wear conspicuous clothing are proportionately represented slightly less in the accident figures (although this may be a sampling bias - the riders who wear the gear tend to be the safer riders anyway), so there are circumstances where I will wear the yellow. But I do it according to conditions and circumstances, not as a cast-iron rule, and I never believe that the gear I am in will prevent an accident, although it may reduce the likelihood of one.

I made the decision to get this jacket after an incident (well, a potential incident) two winters ago. I was leaving work at about 5.30 pm one January evening. It was dark, and the rain was heavy. It was one of those nights that just seemed blacker than normal, if you know what I mean. I was on the XT600. I packed my work gear into the top box and fired it up, and then set off up the site road heading for home. I had gone about 100m when the bike suddenly stopped dead - the engine cut out and the lights failed in an instant. I pushed it to some shelter and had a quick grope around in the dark, found the main fuse had blown, and replaced it. The bike started as normal, but as soon as I switched on the lights it died again. OK, a short somewhere, but it needed daylight and some more tools to investigate, so I parked the bike somewhere safe, and got a lift home. (It turned out to be a short in the headlamp cowl, but it took a bit of finding.) But it made me think. About half a mile down the road on my way home was a stretch of A-road which was very busy at that time of night. It's unlit, it passes through some woodland, it's downhill and twisty, and there are high banks on either side. And cars (and bikes too, oops) tear down there at high speeds. If the bike had cut out there, I would have been toast. No power and, crucially, no lights. They would be wiping me off the windscreen before they had seen me. Clearly, something that would show up well in headlights - unlike the almost-matte black suit I wear in bad weather - might make a difference.

So that night I had a look on eBay and found someone selling an ex-Police motorcycle jacket: yellow hi-viz, with retro-reflective bands, chequer-pattern stripes and proper bloke sizes. (The seller was nick120_4, although I haven't seen anything similar from him since.) The only thing that distinguished it from a proper Police jacket was that the word 'Police' had been removed from the blue panels - apparently to comply with the law. It was 100% waterproof and lined with Gore-Tex, and that sold it to me. I think it was £50.

With a flash on the camera, it looks pretty conspicuous in headlights:

It was exactly what I was looking for, and I was very pleased I had got it. I didn't wear it every day, but if I was riding after dark and it was raining, I brought it with me and I was glad of it. It's big enough to fit over my usual leather jacket, and has the added advantage of keeping the leathers dry and cutting the wind to slow down heat loss.

The disadvantage is that you look a bit (OK, a lot) like a copper. On the ratty old XT, most people weren't fooled, although I did notice car drivers sometimes behaving in an oddly polite manner. But on the Pan (also ex-Police), the effect was startling. It would take a very cool driver to see me coming up in his mirrors, see the word Police had been erased from the jacket, note the lack of aerials on the bike, and know he could continue at 90 mph as he pleased. People would move over to let me through, let me out at junctions, and generally behave in a cringingly subservient manner. I found this amusing. The disadvantage was on roads where overtaking was difficult. You would come up behind someone doing a perfectly reasonable and safe 70 mph, and they would suddenly drop to 56 mph and stay there. The Pan had a calibrated speedo, so I could tell they thought they were doing exactly 60 on their over-reading speedometers. Amusing for a while. On the M6 last week, cruising at a steady 70-75 on an obviously non-Police Bonnie, I lost count of the number of cars that roared past in lane 3 and then pulled meekly in front and slowed to the limit when they saw me.

Anyway, a long way of getting round to the choice of garment for the trip. I knew I might be meeting some bad weather, and I knew I would be riding after dark, and I knew I would be possibly doing either or both on busy motorways, so I chose to wear the jacket from the start. This had the added advantage of reassuring Anna, who was a little nervous about me making the trip on the bike anyway. And when I was on the M6 going over Shap Fell in driving rain and spray, I was very glad that I was a little more visible (and dry) than I might have been otherwise.

As a shell, the jacket was brilliant. Over the textile suit, it was a little tighter than over the leathers, but it kept the water at bay superbly: the suit jacket was almost dry at the end of the two days. It is meant to be an outside layer, as there is no lining, just a Gore-Tex membrane bonded to a nylon outer, but that meant that it dried out in no time too.

There are two further advantages to wearing it, which are not obvious.

One is that it may give the impression to other motorists that you are a sensible and serious rider - after all, hooligans don't wear hi-viz, do they? When I am wearing it, I seem to feel that car drivers are a little less aggressive, and a little more co-operative. Perhaps I am putting my own interpretation on this - when I am out on the road, riders in hi-viz (on big bikes, at least) make me think 'serious rider, possibly a bit boring, but unlikely to do anything silly'. Simpson helmets, camo trousers and Billy Mitchell helmet-ears tend to have the reverse effect.

The other is that people are nice to you. I am pretty sure this is another aspect to the 'looks like a copper' thing. I passed through Aberystwyth on the way North, and a pretty student on the pavement gave me a huge smile. It cheered me up all the way to Chester. I thought nothing of it (other than 'should I do a U-turn right now?'), but then when I was waiting in a queue for food at a service area there was the same thing. Men stood to one side and called me 'mate', women smiled and got their children to behave. It was quite uncanny. There's a PhD for someone in all this - how the British, despite their chippiness and independence, go all gooey and subservient in the presence of someone who they think is in authority. Especially if they are a teensy bit over the speed limit.

All in all - a lot of money for what is essentially a second-hand jacket, but fulfils its function brilliantly well, and recommended for journeys where hi-viz is likely to be of benefit. Over winter, it will stay in the left-hand pannier in case of really bad visibility, or when I misjudge the weather and go out under-dressed.

One thought - how do the Police feel about someone riding around in one of 'their' jackets? Well, I was followed from Aberaeron down the coast road on Saturday night by a Volvo I could not shake off. He must have followed me for 5 miles before he swept past, and then I realised it was a Police car. He must have clocked the jacket, but he didn't seem to mind that - or the fairly 'spirited' riding style I was innocently displaying.


  1. The only danger of wearing a 'too policey' jacket is that someone might lob 1/2 a brick your way in certain less-salubrious areas of Metro-City.

  2. Nah, faster than a speeding bullet, me.

    Take your point, though.

  3. Long ago and far away I owned a red XR3i (I know, I know) with a sunroof. I had to stay a night in Chester. As I was parking the car on the steet the police pulled up and asked me to put the car in the hotel's (tiny) car park. Apparently the XR3i with sunroof was favoured by scallies from Liverpool; on party nights they stole suitable carriages, filled them up with bricks, opened up the sunroof and then one citizen drove while the other stood on the passenger seat and lobbed bricks at police men, women, cars, vans, bikes etc.

    And I thought I knew how to have fun!


  4. They do the same round here, but with sheepshit and a JCB Fastrac. Cardigan on a saturday night is awesome.


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