Investigation: should hi-vis be compulsory?

Originally Published: 29 Nov 2015

Motorcycle Journalist, Jim Lindsay, in the safety gear he used to wear (r) and what he now wears (l)

Being seen on a bike gets harder every year. Does Hi-Vis really help?

In the last twenty years, the number of vehicles on the road in the UK has grown by 46% from 25.6 million to 37.3 million. Every time we go out, we are surrounded by more four-wheeled tin than ever before, which makes us harder to spot.

Let’s look at driver behaviour at junctions. An A&E specialist told me that one of main reasons motorists fail to see bikes at junctions is because they do not turn their heads far enough. If all motorists looked through 90 degrees at junctions, that type of accident would be reduced.

How easily you are seen is governed by a number of elements, weather conditions, quantity of other vehicles in the same area as you, other distractions, like confusing arrays of road signs demanding the attention of other road users when they should be watching for you.

The most important two factors though are the contrast you make with your background and your speed.

Taking speed first, consider how the brain processes visual information. It takes 1/10th of a second for the brain to process images received by the eye. At 30 mph, you have travelled 4.4 feet before the brain even begins to deal with the fact that you are approaching. At 60mph, it’s 8.8 feet, at 70mph it’s 10.3 feet. At 100mph, it’s 14.6 feet – all in 1/10th of a second.

How clearly you stand out against your background is an even bigger factor. Most roads are a shade of black so, if you ride a black motorcycle, in black gear, wearing a black crash helmet with a dark visor visor, you are as badly off as you can be in terms of visibility. Make that a skinny cruiser or a narrow, sportsbike and it’s worse still. Think camouflage.

Chuck in a bit of deliberate contrast and things change dramatically. Orange if you must, but yellow is best. The more the better. Add a Hi Vis waistcoat and see how much more attention you get from other road users. Make it a full jacket, bright yellow sleeves and body and it shoots up higher. Why? Well there’s more of it, of course and while the effective contrast of Hi Vis on the torso can be reduced by a bright headlight, add it to limbs that stick out either side and you’re winning the battle to be seen.

Top it off with a bright yellow crash helmet and you’re doing the best you can, short of mounting blue flashing lights on your bike. Yellow hats are big winners in the visibility war.

Most training schools use hi-vis as standard

On a 1500 mile trip in Scotland a few weeks ago, on everything from motorways to single track roads with passing places, I conducted a mini survey. I counted 330 bikes in all. Of those, 84 had riders with hi vis of some kind – that’s 25%. The group of riders who needed it least – those on big tourers – wore it most while naked skinny cruisers and sportbike riders wore it least.

In Birmingham I met two bikers with opposing practices. Neil Lewin, who rides a a Rickman Kawasaki and doesn’t wear Hi Vis said, “It has not been a conscious decision. Wearing it has just never occurred to me.”

His colleague, Sara Booker (1976 Honda 400-4) does wear Hi Vis and said “It’s safety for me. Also, I’ve had my bike for 15 years. I don’t want some idiot to ruin all my hard work.”

Looking for more opinions, I went to one of our best local bike spots, The Iron Horse Ranch House. I found more tolerance than I expected but one rider said “If they made it compulsory, I’d do what I’ve done with everything else. I’d ignore it.” He didn’t want to give his name.

Martin Goldsmith (right) no longer wears hi-visMartin Goldsmith, a former bike instructor who rides a Hinckley Thruxton Bonnie and dresses mainly in black. “I used to wear Hi Vis all the time when I was instructing but it doesn’t fit with the bike I’m riding now.” He closed by telling me that he had been knocked off by a dumper truck a few years back and he was wearing Hi Vis at the time.

By contrast, Dave Jones, who rides a Honda CBR1000 turned up in a a vivid yellow jacket. “My mates take the mick but motorists can see me. I think they’ll make it compulsory in the end.”

Three black leather wearing guys, Steve, Barry and John said they thought headlights did a good enough job and that loud exhausts were a good aid to being noticed. They won’t be wearing the yellow any time soon.

Yet another rider offered the view that if everybody wore it, the effect of Hi Vis would be less. That was a surprisingly common argument, but it is not a good one. Ten, twenty, or even a hundred bikers in Hi Vis will always be easier to spot that the same number dressed in black. Look at group of riders, some wearing Hi Vis and some not. The ones without are barely visible against their brighter mates.

In France, from January 1 2016, it became compulsory for riders to carry a hi vis vest to wear in a roadside emergency. The fine is up to 134€. Thin end of a Euro wedge? Maybe.

Compulsion is the last thing we need in a country already overrun with stupid rules.

I choose to wear a Hi Vis waistcoat and I top it off with a yellow crash helmet. People see me better than they did before. It’s better than loud exhausts which do more to annoy and alarm people than warn them of your approach.

It’s my choice and it works. What do you think?