This was the week we were blocked on Twitter by The RAC. The motoring organisation had been posed the following question by one of their followers.
The advice given by The RAC to cyclists is to always wear high-vis clothing and wear a helmet. We joined the conversation to point out that research on the efficacy of high-vis is far from conclusive and that its promotion can contribute towards a culture of victim blaming. After all, The RAC would not, one assumes, advise women to avoid wearing short skirts and cover up to stay safe when out at night. The response to our tweet was swift. They blocked us.
If you thought that the now-widespread view of high-visibility clothing as a panacea is a problem only for cyclists, think again. You may remember us covering the tragic case of Bethany Probert, a child who was walking along a grass verge when she was hit by a speeding driver and left permanently brain damaged. A judge awarded £5m for her long-term care, but Churchill Insurance argued that she contributed to the event by failing to wear high-vis. Bethany’s family were left with little choice but to accept a lower settlement. The squalid behaviour of the motor insurer to one side, the outcome of the case is now being used for promotional purposes to sell high-vis clothing.
Our collective preoccupation with high-vis is pernicious and has lead to an institutionalised sense that vulnerable road users without it are to blame should they be killed or maimed by a motorised vehicle. This is, of course, nonsense. Cyclists who want to stand out on the roads should ensure their road skills are up to scratch and ride assertively.
As far as clothing is concerned, take note of the findings of Dr Ian Walker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Bath University – his research focuses particularly on the safety of vulnerable road users and their interactions with motorists, considering such issues as road user attitudes and stereotypes, and the roles of urban design and policy in affecting vulnerable road users’ safety. Dr Walker researched some years ago the effect of cycle helmet wearing on the behaviour of cyclists. He discovered that drivers leave less space when overtaking cyclists wearing helmets. The reason for this behaviour may also explain the results of a more recent experiment. Dr Walker monitored cars when they overtook cyclists wearing a variety of high-visibility and disruptive pattern clothing.
Dr Walker found that outfits in the study (except the one with the word ‘police’) were treated exactly the same, almost to the centimetre. The vest marked ‘polite’ was found to have no effect at all. And that’s why organisations like the RAC, and even the government’s THINK! campaign, upon which the motoring organisation has based its advice to cyclists, need to think more carefully before evangelising about the assumed merits of high-visibility clothing.
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