The curious, and dangerous, British obsession with high-vis

Ian Walker high-viz

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.

high-viz and the RAC

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.

RAC and high-vis

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.

high-vis

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.

Ian Walker high-viz

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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Comments

  1. Bob

    Reply

    Load of rubbish – high vis often gets you noticed when you wouldn’t otherwise have been.

    • The ETA

      Reply

      Did we read the same article?

      • Paul Myszor

        Reply

        I think you’ve lost the plot with this article.

        • The ETA

          Reply

          We are horrified that a judge told a teenage girl left brain damaged by a speeding car as she walked on a grass verge that she somehow contributed to the crash and her injuries. We can only assume the reason for his view was down to an institutionalised blind faith in the benefits of high-vis – benefits that research has questioned. We are not certain that constitutes losing the plot.

    • Clive Matthews

      Reply

      And yet the one time I get ‘accidentally’ hit by a car, I am in HiVis! Fact is, drivers fail to look, makes no difference what any of us wear.

    • will

      Reply

      Are you some sort of eedjit!? a published study shows how ineffective hi-viz is and yet you on your own have decided to ignore that study….

  2. John Holiday

    Reply

    Have just returned from a cycling trips in Poland,where the only people wearing helmets & hiviz were British or German visitors.
    Ride in Netherlands and Denmark & everyone rides in ordinary clothing.
    The difference – they have Presumed Liability & see cycling as an everyday activitie.

    • The ETA

      Reply

      Yes, unfortunately we are one of the few countries in Europe without presumed liability. We’ve heard it said that the Dutch consider bicycles in the same way we see washing machines; jolly useful machines to be used every day – certainly not something that needs safety equipment to operate.

  3. Alan

    Reply

    Reminds of the Hatton Garden Heist – the gang’s disguise was hi-viz jackets – no one took any notice of them!

    • The ETA

      Reply

      Quite. Invisibility cloaks.

  4. Ian

    Reply

    All the same, I have taken to wearing a high viz cover on my backpack and during that time I’ve had a much better experience with motorists. I feel naked without it now and wouldn’t feel comfortable riding.

    Part of that is when I was driving my car in unlit areas, coming across high viz people (walking or on bikes) really made an impact. Very effective on me as a driver, so I’ve adopted it.

    I wouldn’t want to do the whole high viz/lycra/paraphernalia thing, but given the daily horror of seeing other peeps on bikes without lights wearing dark clothes and going through red lights, I dont want to be associated with that.

    • Paul Gannon

      Reply

      Hi Ian,
      I followed your reasoning (even if I disagreed with it) up to the point where you started on about other cyclists on “bikes without lights [,] wearing dark clothes & going through red lights”, none of which has anything to do with hi-vis. This undermines your argument as most cyclists, even if they don’t don hi-vis, don’t ride without lights at night and don’t (except where it makes them safer) jump red lights. Your feelings towards those who do cycle without lights &/or jump red lights, are irrelevant & tend to suggest you have deeper anti-cyclist sentiments which have surfaced with these comments.

    • Seamus

      Reply

      You state that “when I was driving my car in unlit areas, coming across high viz people (walking or on bikes) really made an impact. Very effective on me as a driver, so I’ve adopted it.”

      Hi-viz does not work at night and is in fact designed to work with natural daylight. It was not hi-vis but reflectives that made an impact – reflectives bounce light back towards the direction it comes from and are effective if you are looking from the area from which you are also shining a light (such as when driving a car with headlights on).

      It would make a better argument if you got your facts straight before wading in.

      The evidence shows that hi-viz is not significantly effective in daylight, evidence also shows that reflectives are effective in the dark.

      Evidence also shows that a majority (yes that is more than half) of motorists actually admit to breaking traffic rules when driving (red lights, speeding, using mobile phones etc. all of which are much more dangerous than anything a cyclist does) so please don’t try to strengthen your argument by a biased rant about some cyclists breaking some rules.

  5. Paul Adams

    Reply

    We have gone hivis crazy. I work in the emergency services and people still try to run me over! The best thing are reflectors and good lights – you see cats eyes (and foxes to an extent!) wear a helmet to help prevent head injuries, believe in a higher power and keep your fingers crossed.

  6. Dom

    Reply

    re: the findings that only clothing signalling “Police” had any effect on motorist behaviour.

    I used to ride a white BMW motorcycle in London, and found the Sam Browne belt seemed to cause motorists to sit up straight, drive nicely – and indicators on their cars that hadn’t been used for years creaked back into life.

    Bizarrely – pedestrians walked out in front of it – I guess the white BMW looked nice and soft.
    When replaced with a black BMW bike, the pedestrians seemed to take more notice and the drivers less notice.

    Specifically for cyclists though, anything that flags the human shape and human movement does seem to alert us at a deeper level – pedal reflectors and lights worn on the person rather than the bike.
    Although my one serious collision in Cambridge – I had the lot, new bicycle, reflectors, decent lights and a reflective rucksack – and the a driver suddenly pulled out of a side street and hit me broadside.
    We can only play a statistical game and try to best weight the odds in our favour.

  7. Richard Renshaw

    Reply

    ETA, you are naughty!
    The research that you quote (Walker, Garrard, Jowitt 2014 – go google) looked solely at how closely cars passed to cyclists who were/weren’t wearing hi-viz. This is just one aspect of road safety. Try another study which looked at actual accident rates for cyclists with/without hi-viz:
    http://www.roadsafetygb.org.uk/news/5982.html
    My commute takes me on unlit country roads and I’d feel very unsafe in the dark without mine.

  8. Nick

    Reply

    This is utter cobblers.

    Not sure what that study is supposed to prove, the aim of high viz isn’t to make motorists drive wider, it’s to help them see you. If in the study they could do that anyway then of course high viz will make no difference.

    The logic here seems to be that you shouldn’t try to reduce the chance of accidents that wouldn’t be your fault. If you are hit walking on a zebra crossing the motorist would be at fault. It still seems reasonable to look both ways before crossing, rather than to step out and then start ranting about “victim blaming” from your hospital bed.

    I was knocked off my bike in broad daylight when a driver didn’t see me, had I been wearing something brighter he might have done. Not for one minute did anyone blame me, but it doesn’t change the fact that with different clothing I might not have fractured my elbow.

    Utter, utter cobblers.

  9. Nigel Dunn

    Reply

    Did Dr Walker carry out any of his research in dark conditions with people dressed in outfits of a single dark colour? Under those conditions pedestrians and cyclists are almost impossible to see until they are very close.

  10. antvren

    Reply

    There’s nothing like a black-clad cyclist with no lights for invisibility. Just as well some of them have low-cut jeans and white underwear! I appreciate the reflective bands of hi-vis for reflecting headlights, and the yellow for standing out in country lanes in dim light. They’re an inexpensive back-up when your lights’ batteries fade. In my semi-rural area, visibility matters; it’s not a question of what drivers’ attitudes are.
    I agree with others we need more cycling – it should be the default, rather than cars.
    Maybe hi-vis gets overused – I’ve been on jobs where we’re issued with hi-vis just so we look official.

  11. Art Posey

    Reply

    This is a gray, rainy country with short daylight in three seasons of the year. You have to see a cyclist to allow them room on the road. Hi-viz helps.

  12. Paul Myszor

    Reply

    The evidence you quote is really inconclusive. I always wear hi-viz on shared spaces: if we had 100% car free cycle lanes I wouldn’t. As a car driver as well as a cyclist I notice cyclists with hi-viz when I’m driving, so from my own experience it is effective. To make a comparison with sexual violence against women and clothing is a very offensive comparison; you should think more carefully before writing this. As for helments – a no-brainer. I was pulled off my bike by a wind blown motorbike cover that had come loose – my helmet was smashed which could have been my skull.
    As a cyclist I use hand signals, look behind me when changing lane, assume that motorists will do stupid things. There is still a need to educate some cyclists into skilful road awareness – I come across examples of unskilful and careless cycling everyday.

  13. Gareth Greenslade

    Reply

    Reflective material certainly stands out when I am driving a car on unlit country roads. Hi-Viz may have a role in reducing the risk of not being seen by vehicle drivers who are emerging from side roads perhaps? I think that is different from Hi-Viz’s lack of effect on passing distances for drivers who are overtaking cyclists.

    I am astonished by the spread of Hi-Viz for kids walking (yes walking!) to school. A German friend who saw that when visiting here almost choked on his sandwich.

  14. Tony Williams

    Reply

    I’m puzzled by this report. Was the unfortunate Bethany Probert walking in the dark? It appears that Dr. Ian Walker’s recent research was carried out in daylight. It seems unlikely that drivers would have been able to distinguish between the words “Polite ” and “Police” in the dark, and thus allow more space for the latter than for the former. And the “disruptive pattern clothing” would presumably not stand out at all in darkness, whereas in daylight valid comparisons could be made between drivers’ responses to that sort of clothing and to “hi vis” equipment.

    In any case, I’m not sure what is proved by the research quoted here. The purpose of hi vis clothing, it seems to me, is to make the wearer more easily seen. Its primary function is not to cause motorists to leave more space as they pass a cyclist than they would otherwise, but to make sure that they see the cyclist in time not to hit him or her. If I were a cyclist, or walking along an unlit road without a pavement, I’d be a lot happier wearing something that would give drivers a better chance of seeing that I was there – as some others have said here already.

    As I’m not a cyclist I wasn’t aware that there might be a “collective preoccupation with high-vis”, pernicious or otherwise. or that anybody thinks it’s a “panacea”. It just seems to me sensible to take precautions that are easily available.

    I think the RAC over-reacted in blocking the ETA – but in writing this report, has the ETA over-reacted in turn?

    • dr2chase

      Reply

      In the dark, mere hi-vis is near useless because it is not emitting its own light (like a head or tail light) or retro-reflecting light back into the eyes of a driver or cyclist.

      I also don’t know UK law about when drivers are supposed to turn on headlights, but here in Massachusetts (this sort of law is state-by-state in the US) headlights are only required from 30 minutes AFTER sunset to 30 minutes BEFORE sunrise. Retroreflectors are useless if they’re not painted with a light, and many drivers (the ones without DRLs) have their lights off when I can already see my comparatively wimpy bicycle lights (also DRLs) painting road signs.

      My practice is daytime running lights, and both my bicycle and my helmet are liberally decorated with reflective tape to attract the attention of drivers at night, and for clothing I mostly/often just “round up” towards more visible colors. The research I’ve seen on bicycle daytime running lights suggests that they cut your daytime “bad” crash risk roughly in half — this is better than the mitigation you get from a helmet, better than any reports I know of for hi-vis (I do look for these things, that’s how I found about about DRL effectiveness), and also puts your per-trip cycling risk (in the US) at the same level as your driving risk. Bizarrely, nobody asks me about my lack of helmet when I drive, even though the risks are roughly equal given bicycle DRLs (note that most of my driving is also high-speed and long trips, otherwise I would take my bike, so if I crash in a car, a high-energy crash is a plausible risk).

    • The ETA

      Reply

      Thanks for sharing, Robin – that’s an extremely interesting article

  15. Bob

    Reply

    HiVis is good for pedestrians at night because they don’t have lights, cylists should be visible by their lights and these days with modern batteries & Led lights you can carry a small cheap spare, so never be without a light in the dark. There may be more benefit for cyclists on country roads

  16. Pete

    Reply

    The pressure to use hi-viz is nothing but a permission for institutionalised victim-blame. We have it in Australia with our crackpot mandatory helmet law! Do not accept this outlook.

  17. Sarah Butler

    Reply

    I cycle and drive on rural roads and always wear hi-vis when cycling. It’s nothing to do with drivers’ attitudes – it’s quite simply that if drivers don’t see you, they’ll hit you, and hi-vis makes all the difference.

    Against a backdrop of hedges or trees a cyclist isn’t easy to spot if they’re wearing everyday clothes: a cyclist is relatively small and there are lots of distractions (bends, ditches, narrow stretches, junctions, oncoming cars, low light beneath trees, etc.) that drivers have to pay attention to. A cyclist is always competing for drivers’ attention and that’s why even in daytime hi-vis is vital for visibility.

    So please don’t quote research that appears to relate to urban cycling and apply it to us all. Maybe you could sponsor some research into safety in rural cycling?

    • The ETA

      Reply

      Hello Sarah – the main point of this article is to highlight the dangers to us all of institutionalised blind faith in high-vis. And that’s a life and death issue that affects all vulnerable road users irrespective of their location. Bethany Probert was walking on the grass verge of a rural road when a speeding driver lost control, left the road and struck Bethany leaving her with permanent brain damage. The judge in the court case said she shared some responsibility for her injuries because she was not wearing high-vis. This irrational victim blaming puts all vulnerable road users at risk. On the separate issue of efficacy of high-vis for cyclists, it matters not whether the surroundings are rural or urban – the key factor is contrast. In the case of a low sun, for example, a yellow day-glow top can act like camouflage.

      • Sarah Butler

        Reply

        Hi ETA – I completely back you in saying that the driver was fully responsible for the accident – there’s no way someone who’s not even on the road should wear hi-vis and Bethany’s case is appalling.

        I’m not saying it should be compulsory to wear hi-vis, just that we shouldn’t dismiss it as a safety measure.

        I have two sets of hi-vis: yellow for when the leaves are brown or off the trees, and pink for when the leaves are yellow or green. And both have retro-reflective for when it’s dark. I also have flashing lights. Neither will stop a careless or aggressive driver hitting me, but both alert all the other drivers that I’m there, and the majority do give me space on the road.

        We do need to campaign about the rights of all road (and pavement, and verge) users. Too many drivers believe cars should never have to wait for other road users, simply because cars are bigger and faster.

        At the same time we need to work for better provision of cycle paths – here on the Kent-Sussex border most roads are busy, even the most minor, and it’s pretty much impossible to avoid major roads entirely.

        In this area we have almost no cycle paths linking major towns, let alone villages. The paths we have rarely take cyclists into the centre of town, so we have to cycle in amongst the traffic once there. The nominal cycle path from Tunbridge Wells to Tonbridge reveals how little cyclists are valued: it runs along the edge of an extremely busy main road, cars may park on it, buses stop on it, there are missing sections, and there are junctions along its entire length where cars pull out across cyclists. It’s hideously dangerous and unpleasant and is effectively a dodgem ride for cyclists. If I have to ride it, I’m always going to make sure I’m as visually unmissable as possible. When we have a real cycle path I’ll strip off my hi-vis and reflective gear very happily.

  18. Adrian Wicks

    Reply

    It is invidious to imply that cyclists, or pedestrians for that matter, should wear hi-vis. But to a motorist at times a cyclist in hi-vis makes themself visible sooner, at other times green/yellow can blend with certain vegetation. No matter what the report says I will still wear retro-reflective in the dark.

  19. Lee Dorney

    Reply

    Im 45 – ive rode since a kid..rode 1000’s of mls. The critical points are, knowing when a drivers gonna look, expect the worst, and act accordingly. I personally wear a helmet – I’ve been saved by them. I was on a fast moving group ride and traversing a 4 lane bridge, i was just a 3rd up the group, a car towing a trailer, brushed past us : why – cause he didn’t want to stop and we where in his lane. Ive had many course calls, i even ride a light in the day now; went do i have to ? I have a 3000watt light on night rides on the brightest setting ! which is blinding. On Majorca, its the Brits who cant drive. The euro’s can. What is it about this country ?? CyclingMaven (YT) pointed out recent that countries in Euro and Austrialia/America are getting worse. Whats the issue, is it the Net. I wonder 🤔

  20. Simon Tatler

    Reply

    isn.t it against the terms and conditions of twitter for a public organisation to block you ?

  21. PB

    Reply

    Your point mirrors rather closely that made by the BikeSnobNYC blooger in this recent column: https://medium.com/reclaim-magazine/our-kids-deserve-better-propaganda-854c5ab7874e

    Namely that the issue isn’t that these things might help make one a bit safer, but rather that making them the primary focus of safety (high vis, helmets) just further entrenches roads as places for cars, not people. Of course it’s sensible to do everything you can to protect yourself, but making that protection the focus over prevention is silly when we build roads and give way to cars over alternative forms of transportation. Cars aren’t wild animals or bad weather, they’re tools people use to go about on infrastructure people build with rules and norms people establish.

    The liability involved with high vis is a problem more than ‘be as bright as you can’. Because why not try everything to be seen? I light myself and my bike up like a Christmas tree and always strap on a helmet (it’s been shown that running daytime running lights on bicycles significantly reduces even daytime collision rates, so if anything it’s lights and not high vis that should be the focus). But when these protections creep into a legislated obligations (liability in accidents re high vis or laws re helmets) then there’s something skewed about priorities.

  22. The ETA

    Reply

    There is no rational alternative to the systematic approach to road danger reduction seen in the Netherlands and Sweden. It’s a policy that seeks to eliminate completely deaths on the road, which is why it is sometimes referred to as Vision Zero. There is no need for Dutch cyclists to wear high-vis and helmets and only a tiny proportion do. Of course, while we refuse to implement the same policy we will remain decades behind them and thousands of us will continue to be killed and maimed.

    • Nick

      Reply

      More cyclist are killed in the Netherlands each year than in the UK.

      In the UK it’s about 100 a year, source: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/ras30-reported-casualties-in-road-accidents

      In the Netherlands around 180, source: https://www.swov.nl/feiten-cijfers/factsheet/verkeersdoden-nederland

      Given their relative populations that means there are more the 6 times as many cycling fatalities per head in the Netherlands than the UK.

      Of course, they cycle more miles per head too, so I’m not claiming the Netherlands is more dangerous. But the idea that because the Dutch don’t wear hi vis and helmets so neither should we in the UK is as weak as your other arguments.

      • The ETA

        Reply

        Nick, you are correct that the absolute figures have little meaning in the context of this discussion. We fear you may have misinterpreted our comment – the Dutch have no need to rely on helmets and high-vis because they have put into place a systematic approach to road danger reduction as well as other measures such as automatic liability.

        • Nick

          Reply

          “Dutch have no need to rely on helmets and high-vis because they have put into place a systematic approach to road danger reduction as well as other measures such as automatic liability.”

          So I take it that you are confident that none of the 180 Dutch fatalities a year could have been prevented by wearing a helmet or high vis? Really?

          Your interpretation of data is extraordinarily selective. You dismiss a 6-fold higher death rate per head as having “little meaning”, and interpret a study on passing distances (in broad daylight?) to show that high vis has no benefit when it shows nothing of the sort. You’ve made up your mind that high vis isn’t useful and simply ignoring anything that challenges that.

          • Nick

            To expand on this, your seem to be basing you’re entire argument on high vis on this study on passing distances.

            If, as a driver, I need to pass a couple of kids pulling wheelies on their BMX with no lights and dark clothing at night, I’m going to give them plenty of room as a go by as I don’t know what they are going to do.

            If a then come across a commuter with lights and in a helmet and high vis I probably will pass closer to them because they are unlikely to do anything stupid. According to your interpretation this makes high vis unsafe. I believe you are wrong.

          • The ETA

            Again, you have misinterpreted the gist of the article. Our main thrust is that faith in high-vis gear,which in itself is questioned by science, has lead to an institutionalised sense that those vulnerable users injured or killed on the roads when not wearing it are somehow authors of their own demise. We used the case of the child pedestrian run over and left brain damaged for life by a speeding driver travelling so fast he left the road and struck the victim as she walked on the grass verge as a case in point. According to the judge, the teenage girl should have known to wear a high-vis vest. This spurious view lead directly to the squalid actions of the motor insurer and cost the child’s parents £500,000 towards her life-long care – it’s a decisive view used increasingly against cyclists.

  23. Luigi

    Reply

    I thought British only wore tweed.

  24. Russell

    Reply

    Hi Vis will ensure you are visible, it doesn’t always get you noticed. The difference is whether the the observer consciously takes notice of your presence. If you are in conditions where you might otherwise not be seen, then Hi-Vis is useful. If for example you are cycling in fog or on unlit country lanes at night, then Hi-Vis is useful as there might be issues being seen. If you are cycling during the day on a busy road, Hi-vis has no benefit, what you need is to ensure that having been seen, drivers actually take notice of your presence. Hi-vis fails on the getting noticed front due to the number of people wearing it. You do not stand out when wearing Hi-vis.

  25. James Fox

    Reply

    Hi-vis or not, even with my lights flashing like Blackpool illuminations i get the odd scare from people getting too close or pulling out of side roads, maybe we should look at how we teach drivers to drive when learning, maybe that and not reading, texting or taking a call on their mobiles would help rather then blame it on people for not wearing hi-vis?

  26. Nick

    Reply

    Although this is quite an old article, I have had a read through it and I can only comment from experience; I cycle to work every day along main roads, I have actually been hit off twice, probably over the last 10 years. I always wear Hi-Viz jackets and have nice bright lights. About 2 years ago I bought a ‘Polite’ rucksack cover and all I can say from experience it has 99% kept cars away from me; you will always get the odd idiot in a car and also get the odd idiot on a bike (I never understand why cyclists think they can ride through red lights??). So in my experience the ‘Polite’ rucksack cover has been very successful. Personally I think one of the main problems is that they do not teach drivers how to react and drive around cyclists, this should be compulsory, I have often come across drivers who just do not know how to react when approaching cyclist or cyclist approaching them.

  27. Danny

    Reply

    Anyone who says hi viz does not work at increasing visibility is a fool.I’m not interested with the slimy tactics of a insurance company trying to wriggle out of paying,or studies done by some smart arseis on a few people who don’t represent the hole riding community. I shouldent really react to this troll bait but ime sick of this hole hi viz does not work rubbish on the fact it could put someone off using a hi viz piece of equipment that could save their life by preventing the worst happening. The simple fact of the matter is this,if you ride like your invincible and assume everyone is looking at you at all times you are going to hit trouble no matter what you wear, overconfident riding will get you killed just as riding full of fear and inexperience will. If you ride safely and competenty you do everything in your power to reduce the risk to your self and one simple way to do this is by using every tool at you’re disposal to your advantage, one tool being high viz complemented by Scotch light for night riding. A bad work man blames his tools and a out and and lunatic denies what works.

  28. Adrian Lister

    Reply

    Wow!!! ive never come across such stupid and senseless argument in my life. ETA grow up.

    hi-vis clearly works, and if i was RAC i would have blocked you as well, your acting like babies and whenever someone brings up a good balanced argument you tell them they’ve got the wrong end of the stick…………great.

    i know someone who will never use your service…..me!!!!

    • The ETA

      Reply

      If you have an interest in the subject, and an open mind, why not take the time to read the research on high-vis by Dr Ian Walker who is senior lecturer in psychology at Bath University?

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