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Does High-Visibility Clothing Protect Cyclists or Increase Risk?


If you regularly ride your bike to work, you may have invested in high-visibility gear to reduce your risk of a bicycle accident with a vehicle. Recent research, however, suggests that may have been a mistake.

We know that helmets are critical to safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported in December 2017 that in the majority of bicyclist deaths, the most serious injuries are to the head. Helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of head injury by 50 percent, and the odds of head, face, and neck injuries by 33 percent.

But studies are finding the opposite with high-visibility clothing—it may actually increase the risk of a crash.

Studies Show that High-Visibility Gear Is Not Always Helpful

In November 2017, The Telegraph reported that in a study of 76 accidents, researchers found no evidence cyclists wearing reflective clothing were at any less risk than those not wearing high-visibility clothing. Research from the Nottingham University also found an actual increased risk of a collision crash in cyclists wearing reflective clothing.

These were fairly small studies, however, and other studies have shown different results. A Denmark study of about 7,000 cyclists, for example, reported that wearing high-visibility clothing reduced accidents by 47 percent.

Yet in another 2017 study, researchers found something entirely different—cyclists wearing a fluorescent yellow jersey were no safer than those wearing a black one. Those wearing a fluorescent jersey with fluorescent yellow leggings, though, were much more visible to motorists. Drivers responded to the cyclists from a distance 3.3 times farther than they had to those wearing black leggings. Researchers believed the leggings were more effective since they highlighted the pedaling motion, enhancing visibility.

An earlier 2013 study from the University of Bath and Brunel University, however, found the opposite—that no matter what bikers wore, they were still at a high risk of collision with certain motorists. About one to two percent of drivers passed dangerously close when overtaking the cyclists, regardless of what the cyclists were wearing.

“Many people have theories to say that cyclists can make themselves safer if they wear this or that,” said lead study author Dr. Ian Walker. “Our study suggests that, no matter what you wear, it will do nothing to prevent a small minority of people from getting dangerously close when they overtake you.” He suggested the solution lies in creating safer spaces for cycling—separate bike paths, for example.

Cyclists Should Change Outfits Depending on the Environment

Other research has found that the color of a cyclist’s clothing may or may not help depending on the lighting conditions and the local environment, questioning the idea of a one-size-fits-all solution. The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) suggested that both cyclists and motorcyclists should take these factors into account when riding.

In a 2012 study, researchers expanded on this idea. They found that on urban roads, where the background was more complex and multi-colored, reflective and white outfits did increase visibility and attention from motorists. On roads where the background was mostly sky, on the other hand, a black outfit was more visible.

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