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

- George Washington

Saturday, 8 October 2011

On Reflection

I've never been a big fan of high-visibility clothing on motorcycles. There are two reasons for this, quite apart from a reluctance to look like a neon banana.

One is that I am far from convinced of its effectiveness. The only study I have seen which shows a difference in accident rates between wearers and non-wearers is the 1981 Hurt Report, an American study into the causes of motorcycle accidents. I will look into the reasoning of Hurt in a moment, and why I think that it is not as definitive as it appears.

The second is a philosophical objection. Most accidents to motorcycles where another vehicle is involved, almost every bit of reseach has shown consistently, are the fault of the other road user. The figure varies between two-thirds and three-quarters, depending on who you talk to. The high-viz argument says that if other motorists can see you, they won't hit you. That is a contentious case anyway, but it puts the onus for avoiding accidents on the victim, which to me is the wrong way round. In this we make common cause with our cycling friends, all of whom in my experience feel the same way. Listen, car, van and lorry drivers: I am six foot, sixteen stone and I ride a big red motorbike. I'm not invisible, and if you look for me, you will see me. Under the Highway Code, it is up to you to look for other road users, not for them to dress like Christmas trees so they catch your eye better.

The conclusion from the Hurt Report which is relevant to this discussion is this:
14. Conspicuity of the motorcycle is a critical factor in the multiple vehicle accidents, and accident involvement is significantly reduced by the use of motorcycle headlamps-on in daylight and the wearing of high visibility yellow, orange or bright red jackets.
I detect a bit of false reasoning here. Hurt notes a correspondence between the wearing of high-viz clothing and a lower number of accidents, and argues that one is the reason for the other. But correlation is not causation. It may be true that wearers of high-viz are involved in fewer accidents, but there may be other reasons for that. The most obvious is that high-viz is most likely to be worn by the careful and cautious riders, the 'slow brigade', and that in itself is sufficient explanation of the lower accident rate. You could argue that riders with beards were under-represented in accident statistics (insert joke about BMWs here) and that therefore beards offered a level of protection from harm, and you would be wrong. Correlation is not causation, as demonstrated beautifully and ironically by Bobby Henderson in his letter to the Kansas School Board, arguing that
global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of Pirates since the 1800s
with a graph to prove it.

And of course there is the 'slippery slope' argument, treated with such derision by the Left when they want to ridicule people who prefer the freedom to make their own decisions. If we accept that high-viz is a necessary part of riding a bike in modern traffic, the next thing will be to blame the rider in an accident, even if entirely innocent, because he 'failed to take appropriate conspicuity measures'. And after that they will be asking why he was on a bike in the first place instead of in a nice safe car. And then we have lost.

So, philosophically I am against it on principle, and practically I can see no proven benefit; so I won't be togging up like Bananaman any time soon.

But I have made certain subtle changes, and that will be the subject of another post.

Not like this, though:


  1. I wear hi-viz neon banana gear and still get the occasional 'I'm sorry, didn't see you' remark, when cut off in traffic. You are right, why are we riding bikes anyway... it's all our own fault.

  2. Some drivers will never see you, because they aren't looking. And no amount of high-viz will help you then. I don't criticise anyone for wearing it if that is their choice, but here in the UK there are moves to make it compulsory, and I object to that.

    If everyone has to wear it, and the accident rate fails to go down, what then?

  3. "The high-viz argument says that if other motorists can see you, they won't hit you. "

    Well, the Afro-Caribbean pedal cyclist with no lights, no reflectors and totally black head-to-foot clothing that shot out of an unlit side-turning and was nearly collected by the car in front of me tested that theory.

    I saw him (more as a result of the forward car's defensive swerve than anything else) and I wanted to hit him! ;)

  4. Seems like the guy had a death-wish. Lights are a compulsory requirement on a bicycle, and visible clothing is a good idea, if only because speed differentials are greater, and defensive options are fewer if you only have quarter of a horsepower. But his mistake was pulling out of a turning in front of someone. The lo-viz approach just compounds the stupidity.

  5. The second picture might actually be a good idea. I certainly spotted that rider quickly... and I paid prolonged attention :-)

    I foresee some practical difficulties, though.

  6. Rider? Fnarrr.

    Yes, the vest might come off at speed, but the air bags should stay in place.

  7. I caught the BMW beards quip - it's all true!

  8. Heh, thought you might pick that up.

    It is!


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