Be Safe Be Seen: The sop to road safety

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It’s that time of year again when so-called road safety organisations start trotting out their “Be Safe Be Seen” and similar campaigns, telling everyone outside of motor vehicles that they must dress up especially to help drivers see them – a common road safety sop that avoids addressing the source of danger, removes drivers from the equation, and offers minimal benefits.

Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership (WRSP) has shown some particularly poor examples of this in the last couple of days, including sharing advice that is legally incorrect, suggesting that cyclists can choose either lights or high-visibility clothing when riding after dark. In fact, cyclists must use lights after dark; clothing is irrelevant. This risks pushing cyclists into breaking the law around riding at night.

(Update 13:15 – that legally dubious post has since been deleted on both X/Twitter and Facebook. That’s good, and it does suggest that WRSP might be reading the feedback).

Social media post from Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership: "Vunerable[sp] road users are the hardest to see... And it just got harder. Be visible. Be vigilant. co-pilot the Vision Zero toolbox" (31 October 2023, 07:46AM)
Slide from a video post on X/Twitter sent by Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership.
Social media post from Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership: "Cycling is still a great way to travel actively in the winter months. Allow cyclists extra room in wet weather as surfaces will be wet and slippery. If you are travelling in the dark or in the winter months make sure you are visible to all road users by using lights or clothing." (31 October 2023, 10:41AM)
Legally dubious advice from WRSP posted to X/Twitter (since deleted)
Social media post from Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership: "Even though we have just turned the clocks back, the morning can still be dark. If you are out walking, cycling or scooting make sure you can be seen. #RoadSafety #DarkNights" (01 November 2023, 08:42AM)
Post on X/Twitter from Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership

Of course, the WRSP is not the only organisation to put out similar messages. County councils, police forces, fire services, and road safety bodies around the country put out similar communications telling people who are travelling by walking, wheeling, or cycling after dark or in low light, that to be safe they need to wear high-visibility or reflective clothing. Doing this, they say, will mean drivers can see you, with the inference being that without such clothing then people become difficult to see.

There are many problems with this approach:

  • Telling people to dress up in special clothing puts a barrier in place for walking, wheeling, and cycling. That barrier might be enough to make it easier to travel by car. This then increases road danger and all the other detrimental impacts of excessive motor vehicle use, while building in lifestyle inactivity with the harmful effects that has on the individual.
  • The messaging tells people that it is dangerous to walk, wheel, or cycle, conflicting with the need to reduce dependency on the car.
  • Pedestrians usually (though granted not always) have pavements which should (note the emphasis on “should”) afford them safety through separation from traffic. The danger to pedestrians here isn’t from the clothing choice, but by cars being driven on pavements, parking on pavements blocking the way and forcing people into the road, thoughtless parking choices limiting visibility at junctions or crossings, and dangerous driving resulting in a loss of control.
  • People are not invisible even in dark clothing, especially in lit urban areas. Motor vehicles have lights to illuminate the road ahead for a fair distance. Drivers should only travel at a speed where they can stop in the distance absolutely known to be clear. Yes, that might mean slowing down.
  • Roads can contain other hazards which are never going to be lit or marked in high-visibility/reflective materials – animals, obstructions and debris, road defects. Drivers must still look out for these.
  • There will never be total compliance with an instruction to wear high-visibility/reflective clothing when walking, wheeling, or cycling. Drivers are still responsibile for looking out for and avoiding people in dark clothing without judgement on those people.
  • It doesn’t matter how dressed up someone is if a driver is careless, dangerous, inattentive, distracted, or impaired in the first place. No clothing is going to save someone from a driver who is speeding, racing, otherwise driving recklessly, distracted by their phone, impaired by drink or drugs etc.
  • How much difference would actually be made to the annual KSI statistics with hypothetical full compliance with wearing high-visibility/reflective clothing when walking, wheeling, or cycling?

The last question has been put to the Warwickshire Road Safety Partnership in response to one of their social media posts on X/Twitter and Facebook. A reply has not been received at the time of writing and is perhaps unlikely. A similar question was put to Kent Road Safety in October to which they did not respond.

These “be safe be seen” and similar campaigns tell drivers that this is how pedestrians and cyclists should be dressed. It tells drivers that this is what they should look out for. The danger then is that this messaging actually leads to more danger on the roads. It could lead to a mental blind spot where a driver might look out for people dressed brightly, but then completely fail to look out for the person that isn’t, or any other hazard that’s not illuminated in some fashion. We know these blind spots exist – we hear about drivers pulling out from junctions into the path of motorcycles, for example. The driver may have stopped and looked, but they didn’t see because the biker is not a car-shaped or larger object. This is why we have the “Think Bike” messaging.

Some would probably argue that this is exactly the reason why people should be wearing high-vis clothing – but again, there will never be anywhere near 100% compliance with such a call, and it is excessive and restrictive to suggest that this is what people should do every time they need to leave the house. If someone wants to pop to the local shop ten minutes down the road, why should they be expected to don special clothing for that short, maybe impulsive journey? If they were told they must do that, wouldn’t that friction mean they might just grab the car keys and drive instead?

Our streets do not exist for drivers; they are for people. Drivers use the roads only by licence, yet the world is tailored and designed around the “rights” of motorists, placating them to the detriment of everyone else. Yet, if motor traffic were magically removed, our roads would become safe spaces.

Road safety campaigns need to move away from this futile focus of putting the onus on people outside of cars to keep safe against a risk they ultimately cannot control. The source of danger is people moving multi-tonne machines in public space, too often with a blasé attitude, without a second thought to the very real risks they present to wider society. Road safety advocate Tom Flood has put it quite succinctly:

“We ask everyone outside of the car to be safe, so that drivers can be dangerous.”

Tom Flood, Rovélo Creative

There are far more effective measures that can and should be taken that will have an actual meaningful impact. Measures that require behaviour and attitude change from drivers, and infrastructure change from highways authorities. Of course, these measures require actual commitment to change and the resources to follow it through. It’s not easy, like these social media posts. But if road safety organisations are serious about their objectives, this is what needs to happen.

The easy option does not cut it.

Cover image by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious – Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED).

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