Want to cycle safely? Stop focusing on high vis!

Boris bike accident

You want to wear high visibility clothing? That’s fine, by all means, it’s a good idea and I hope you continue doing so. My argument here isn’t against high vis clothing. My argument is: Don’t just rely on high vis clothing.

There is something that far surpasses the power of high vis. Road positioning.

At around 8.40am, a lady in her 30’s was on a cycle hire bike cycling near a lorry. Suddenly, according an eyewitness report, she found herself sandwiched between two wheels as high as her head. Fortunately she managed to make a break for it by jumping over the handlebars.

The incident occurred during daylight hours when the rider should have been visible. However, as the below TfL video demonstrates, there is an enormous area where bikes are completely invisible to lorry drivers.

No manner of high visibility clothing makes a difference in the above scenario. However, taking your time and positioning yourself behind the Heavy Goods Vehicle would be a much safer place to be avoiding all sorts of nasty head injuries and even worse.

Sending out the right message

It’s not just around Heavy Goods Vehicles where road position can have a far bigger impact on safety than high visibility clothing. Take for example a ride I took a couple of days ago to Camden on a Cycle Hire bike.

Along the route I maintained a position away from the kerb. This signalled a number of crucial things to drivers.

The first is the distance that I feel comfortable with someone overtaking me. By giving myself extra space on the left I indicate that they should give me a similar amount of space on the right.

The second is that they shouldn’t overtake me when there isn’t enough room to do so. Along the route there are a number of pedestrian crossings with a small section of pavement in the middle of the road. If a car overtakes me here then they’ll have to sandwich me on the left or worse. However, by maintaining a good road position I indicate that it isn’t safe to overtake me.

The third is that a driver is naturally acquainted with spotting large vehicles in front of them. If I cycle too far to the left I am in the corner of their field of vision rather than closer to the centre.

When I came to a halt at the traffic lights I took a position in the middle of the lane to indicate that a driver will have to wait for me to move, before they can continue forward.

I strongly believe these actions contribute far more to my safety than wearing high visibility clothing.

It is a little too easy as a cyclist to get a false sense of safety by riding next to the kerb. I often find myself doing it but try to remember that this isn’t what cycle safety trainers recommend.

Image of Boris Bike via @biggsy321

Join 9,241 fellow cyclists who are subscribed to the London Cyclist newsletter

Sign up for our free newsletter to get...

  • Advice on the best cycling gear
  • A Friday roundup of all the latest London cycling news
  • Exclusive content not available on the blog

Subscribe today, and get exclusive access forever! (It's free)

*No spam, ever!

As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

134 Responses to Want to cycle safely? Stop focusing on high vis!

  1. James Rock 22/02/2012 at 9:26 am #

    If I stayed as far away from the car door as that YouTube video suggests I would be cycling in the opposite lane! I work on the assumption that every car door is about to swing open and make sure I can stop or know I have some swerve room.

    Where in London can you go on a cycling course like this. I’m always happy to learn more even if I am fortunate to be an experienced driver for whom lane positioning is second nature.

  2. James Rock 22/02/2012 at 9:29 am #

    Incidentally I watched that YouTube video featuring Henry Warwick (the courier and vey experienced cyclist sadly killed a couple of weeks ago) and I no longer feel so bad about cycling in a perpetual state of heightened fear – I think that’s probably the way to stay safe!

  3. Stephen Lock 24/02/2012 at 8:40 am #

    I have a real dislike of hi-visibility clothing. I’ve tried to explain why in my blog: http://www.project4cycling.com/2012/02/dont-try-this-away-from-home.html

    Thing is though. I feel guilty for not wearing it. Almost like I’m asking for trouble. But honestly, the moment I put it on it frightens me.

    Does anyone else feel like this? Or is this the fault of some underlying psychological problem which is probably the fault of my parents?

    • David Cohen 24/02/2012 at 9:04 am #

      Very interesting blog post. Have to admit, as I think I said in a previous comment on this post, that I think hi-viz is overated, and as you allude to, it brings out and focuses on this word ‘safe’ or ‘safe cycling’ which I think does more damage and puts more people offcycling than many other things.

    • James Rock 24/02/2012 at 3:58 pm #

      Hi

      I am the opposite. I think it is because I drive a lot and I can spot a high viz a long way off and start to brake in time. Lights are good but at a distance to can be hard to tell what they or where they are. I know that as a driver I make life easier for a cyclist because I have seen him in plenty of time. So I wear high viz to give other drivers the same chance.

      In summer it would be a chore which is why I love the Hump covers for backpacks.

      One thing I hate as a driver and as a cyclist and as a pedestrian is bike lights that flash. The law should never have been changed. I always fail to judge the distance of a bike when the lights flash and it is a distraction. Distractions are bad.

      • London2wheeler 24/02/2012 at 7:46 pm #

        Flashing lights is what differentiates a bicycle light to a motorcycle light. A motorbike light when its far (lets say 300 yards) from you has a similar size and appearance to a bicycle light that is about 100-50 yards away. on situations where visibility is poor, foggy or raining I would have thought that steady bicycle lights is a motorbike that is far away. so by the time that you realized that it is a bicycle it might be too late to give the cyclist space. where as if it was a flashing light, I know straight away that it is a bicycle.

        I dont find them distracting but rather annoying especially but only if its its too bright. there are bicycle lights now that blinks like a camera flash which is IMO is dangerous to other road users as it could momentarily blind you. and same goes to very bright non flashing lights.

        • David 24/02/2012 at 8:51 pm #

          I agree that it’s harder to judge the distance of a flashing light. There are some pretty bright bike lights about, but with London mostly being covered by street lamps it’s not really necessary to have them so bright tyat they blind on comers. I have an Exposure that I use out of town, and their mantra of “I own the night” is true – it’s awesome.

  4. James Rock 24/02/2012 at 4:00 pm #

    A car driver is much more likely to see the mass of high viz than the torch light of a bike which often blurs into lights reflected on the windscreen.

    As a driver and from a truck driving friend I would not dismiss high vis but combine it with the lane holding advice I have read here. Even though I sort of knew it, having read this I have applied it much more.

    • David 24/02/2012 at 8:47 pm #

      I’ve heard that HGV / lorry drivers that work mostly around building sites are much more use to spotting people wearing… hi-viz! No surprise, as everyone on-site will be wearing orange or yellow, so they expect it and therfore are use to watching out for it.

  5. DG 24/02/2012 at 4:35 pm #

    “and we don’t hear of any buses trashing cyclists by turning left across them.”

    @ Phil. – I know this isn’t what you mean as I know this isn’t accidental.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9087346/Bus-driver-deliberately-swerves-to-mow-down-cyclist.html

    • Phil Russell 02/03/2012 at 2:34 pm #

      [[[[[[[[[ D.G.—-thanks, yes I have seen this. Horrific! He’s not a bus driver—-he’s a very naughty boy, and it’s good he got caught.
      P.R.

  6. Nick 01/03/2012 at 8:09 pm #

    I’m a class 1 hgv driver, and I’m also a cyclist. And I would never EVER cycle in London without a hi vis, and I want to tell you why. I would love to seat a cyclist in the driver’s seat of my truck, at a busy junction in the rush hour in London, and ask him how many cyclists with hi vis clothing he saw, and then how many cyclists without hi vis clothing he saw. Then I’d like him to do that, taking 0.25 seconds to scan the view in three different windows, and six different mirrors, and then continually repeat the process as all the motorists, cyclists and pedestrians vie continually with each other in that insance battle to gain competitive advantage on the road. Then I’d like them to do it at night, possibly in the rain, with maybe a broken mirror or two thrown in for good measure, because the transport firm doesn’t give a monkeys about regular maintenance. Then I’d like them to do it near the end of a 15 hour shift (incredibly, that’s how long a driver is allowed to be on duty), with the boss ringing on the cab phone, using streets that are unfamiliar, and with the wrong delivery address. And to top it off, I’d like the cyclist to do all this with just 9 hours between finishing the last 15 hour shift and starting this one (effectively 30 hours duty over the previous 39 hours). And I haven’t even mentioned the HID headlight wars which make cyclists virtually invisible at night if one of these more expensive cars is driving behind you. What I am trying to show is that sometimes, under that pressure, not even the most experienced hgv driver could track every single moving target in every mirror and window. Whether cyclists like them or not, and I appreciate they’re not very fashionable, it is SO important to get the message across about the DRAMATIC difference that wearing a hi vis can make to visibilty, and I’ve never seen a video on youtube or even photos that show what a staggering difference a hi vis makes. Let cyclists see the difference and then decide for themselves whether they want to continue cycling wearing dark clothing.

    • London2wheeler 01/03/2012 at 8:57 pm #

      I totally agree with you Nick. as I have mentioned on previous comment titled “HAS ANYONE IN THIS LONG THREAD EVER DRIVEN A LORRY BEFORE?????

      It is not easy to drive a lorry as most cyclist think. the problem with most of the people who commented on this blog is that “they have not got a bloody clue how hard it is to drive a lorry”. they are only looking at the cyclist point of view. and im quite sure half of them dont even drive a car.

      but my opinion in hi viz clothing is opposite. for me its not necessary to wear one. proper bike lights is still the best way to be seen on the road night and day. I dont own a hi viz gear and i never fancy buying one simply because they look silly and some are expensive. however on my bike i have 2 front lights and 2 rear lights plus i have lights on my helmet as well. so im blinking like a Christmas tree on the road.

      but like i always say to cyclist riding defensively and sensibly with keep you safe no matter how busy the road is.

    • John Rawlins 01/03/2012 at 9:07 pm #

      Thanks for that Nick. I’ll stick with the hi-viz.

    • James Rock 01/03/2012 at 9:30 pm #

      Nick,

      I love you. That is all.

      p.s. please could you comment on the “should cyclists be allowed to go through red lights” post so we could have some sanity there too?

      Thanks!

    • John 03/06/2013 at 10:59 pm #

      I usually only wear a hi-vis waistcoat when riding after dark, although on a long ride I’ll take one so if I end up in adverse conditions I can boost my visibility. I don’t normally wear them because they are just an extra layer that cause me to get too hot.

      When I’m approaching an HGV at a junction and the HGV is stationary I usually just stay behind it. If the gap beside it is long and the lights have only just turned red I may pass it, but only if I have a very high confidence that I can get past it and well in front of it before the lights turn green.

      I’ve never driven anything larger than a Transit van but know from a number of sources that the driver of an HGV has a lot less visibility from the cab than the driver of a regular car and that if the driver can’t see me then he doesn’t know I’m there, and if he doesn’t know I’m there he’s not going to do anything to avoid me.

  7. James Rock 01/03/2012 at 9:36 pm #

    In fairness though, the original point was that wearing high vis alone is not going to make you safe, good road position is just as important. I don’t expect a lorry driver to see me so I go out of my way to avoid him or make myself known to him. I never get bored of seeing the grateful appreciation (and surprise) of lorry drivers when you make their life easier.

    As a driver I know how much I value cyclists wearing high viz to make it easier for me to slow down and give them room so when I’m on two wheels (20-30 miles in and around London every day) I do drivers the same courtesy.

  8. Nick 01/03/2012 at 10:57 pm #

    My goodness! Some very good replies. This must be a well read blog indeed. I think I’ll subscribe to this one. Yes, I know the issue of hi vis clothing is a contentious one, but it’s all too easy to see hgv drivers as perfect, when in reality they’re under enormous pressure from the bosses to get more and more deliveries done. One thing that I would say is that many of my fellow lorry drivers appreciate that each cyclist on their bikes is one less car on the road in front of us, and of course we welcome the efforts made by responsible cyclists to show less experienced cyclists the danger of cycling up the inside between our lorries and the kerb. But the thing that always gets us is that it’s hard to judge the overtaking time required when faced with some of the more sporty cyclists, resulting in the cyclist still being unexpectedly level with the lorry when it cuts back in. Because this happens frequently, my suggestion is, even though it is ultimately the responsibility of the driver to pass safely, is for cyclists to recognise that there may be a conflict of interests and to just accept the requirement to scrub off a little speed in anticipation of the driver cutting in too early, a bit like we would do if we were in a car and something larger overtook us. I do sometimes think there is a tendancy for some cyclists to exercise their “rights” just to make a point, and if this is shown on Youtube then it can potentially damage our campaign for safer cycling. Anyway, I’ve had my say as a lorry driver, and appreciate not being harranged just because I am one. most of us are doing all we can to spread the word about looking out for cyclists on our busy streets. Good luck all of you with your campaigning and, for those of you still wearing dark clothing, I’ll do my best to keep those mirrors clean and my eyes peeled.

  9. Nick 02/03/2012 at 3:02 pm #

    I just thought of something else that you cyclists may not be aware of, but is (in my opinion) to the detriment of road safety. Perhaps you lot can digest this and use it to your advantage. Many transport firms run a bonus scheme where the bonus is dependant on your fuel saving. Now, the savvy lorry driver knows that getting 44 tonnes from 0 to 20 uses up a whole litre of fuel (that’s right – a whole litre). And he also knows that that same litre of fuel could move the same 44 tonnes about four miles at a steady 20mph. So, there is undue pressure (and it’s getting worse, as more and more transport firms are linking fuel economy with wages) for the driver to keep rolling at all costs. And it’s even worse for contractors, who are paid per mlie travelled and have to ensure that the fuel costs are low enough to be able to pay themselves something at the end of the week. I don’t agree with fuel economy bonuses, I think it can lead to a conflict of interests with regards to safety, so that is why I’m explaining this to you lot.

  10. Anna 02/03/2012 at 3:09 pm #

    aaargh UNSUBSCRIBE!

  11. brenhell 15/04/2012 at 5:15 pm #

    Try NOT to pull out or stop in front of pedestrians too. So many ‘cyclists’, sorry, idiots with a bike, have absolutely no idea how to behave full stop. I’m always amazed that they survive the pratting about on the roads long enough to get anywhere near a lorry. Round here, they seem to be on pavements, crossings and junctions not paying any attention to people at all. They even take their bikes into corner shops. Priceless!

    • Nick 15/04/2012 at 5:55 pm #

      I actually don’t have a problem with bikes in shops. I take my bike into my local chip shop and the owner is happy to take my money. In fact, if I was a shop owner I’d not only let bikes in but I’d also offer free coffee for bikers too. If they’re not spending cash on petrol, they’ve probably got more cash to spend in my shop, so I’d look for ways to get them to spend cash in my shop, instead of my competitor down the road. However, those numpties who think it’s their god given right to ride as fast as possible, jumping lights, scaring pensioners, and inadvertently giving the rest of us cyclists a bad name through their utterly selfish behaviour on the road, would probably not get a free coffee in my shop.

    • 04smallmj 29/07/2012 at 3:13 pm #

      I’m not surprised that people cycle on the pavement, they don’t feel safe on roads and there’s no decent cycling infrastructure!

      • Phil Russell 30/07/2012 at 3:56 pm #

        [[[[[[[ “O4smallm”—–Your quite right….but here’s a tip: when you hear a vehicle coming up behind you, WOBBLE just a bit. 9 out of 10 drivers will give you more space. I’ve been doing it for years, and just the other day on TV, ex-world champ Graeme Obree suggested the same idea……
        P.R.

  12. Cautious 08/06/2012 at 10:05 am #

    This is the kind of advice I received on my cycling training plus more – not to ride close to the kerb. The truth is you do get a sense that this is safest place to be due to traffic because you are thinking to keep a space for cars or thinking where you can squeeze through, but after reading this further it definately makes sense to position yourself within moving traffic. Afterall you are also a motorist. I am a driver and very new to cycling and chose cycling training as I felt this was important. You cannot learn from other riders because some do not set a good example.
    One afternoon along Green Lanes (NthLond) there was built up traffic due to road closure. I was on the bus and saw two cyclists trying to squeeze, not ride, themselves between a half-turning bus and another bus on straight route. I thought what if the half-turning bus edged itself along with other motorists they would get caught inside. It was crazy. Another thing, I almost got hit by a cyclist whilst walking on pavement/pedestrian path – no indication from the cyclist that they were turning left – just a whoosh and then they almost went into another oncoming cyclist. Messy eh!

  13. alan 18/06/2012 at 4:23 am #

    An important but tangential point is that fluorescent clothing is of little benefit at night, when there is essentially no UV around to make it fluoresce (car and street lights emit almost nothing in this spectrum). Reflectors and lights are what make you more visible at night. Fluoro is great during the day, though.

  14. Daniel Groves 11/04/2013 at 11:21 am #

    This is pretty solid advice, and is essentially what I do. I’ve only been commuting via bike for about a week, but have experience from clocking up big miles riding on the weekend.

    My biggest issue is actually with other cyclists on the road. I find it frustrating that they seem to think that jumping red lights, going past the stop lines etc is safe and acceptable behaviour.

    Another issue I have on my commute is the road themselves. We have a lot of cycle lanes here, but they’re all full of crap, gravel and pot-holes. They’re not maintained and simply used as gutters. I don’t live in London, but in Plymouth instead. We have a lot of cyclists here so they would be worth maintaining but many aren’t actually usable putting cyclist back in the main traffic, rather than out of harms way as before.

    • Rob Elliott 16/04/2013 at 10:37 am #

      I’m a bit mixed, I use (daily) my hi-vis bag cover, and I wear hi-vis Altura gloves, the rest of my kit is mostly dark coloured, however, I also utilise two lights on the front, one steady and one blinking, and two rear, same again one blinking one steady, however, I also use a small light on my helmet which pulses, so a driver is able to see multiple lights, plus the hi-vis bag, which should accommodate calculating the distance, along with assisting with winter cycling with dark nights.

      The gloves were bought to give me the confidence of indicating, that drivers around, can see my intentions, whereas I didn’t feel my original black gloves did.

      I make sure my road positioning is adequate to the road and my eventual intentions, and position myself leaving enough time to perform what needs to be done.

      In reply to Daniel, make sure you join Plymouth Cycling Campaign on Facebook (if you’re not already on there), and maybe attend some meetings.
      As a cyclist in Plymouth, I regularly read the London Cyclist, road.cc, Croydon Cyclist, along with following a few Youtube channels.

      Stick to what you’re doing and you’ll be fine. See you on the roads sometime!

Leave a Reply