I’ve mentioned before how much I love my yellow cycling jacket, but seasons change and eventually it becomes time to put away clothes better suited for the wet. The sun has started to show a more regular appearance, and I have a dowdier pacamac which I can stash in my panniers for the times when the rain catches me out. I still love my yellow jacket: don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I wear it and pretend I’m in the Tour de France. Sometimes I wear it in bed. I don’t really.
A friend who drove past me one morning advised me that I should consider putting my yellow jacket back on, more regularly than I’d imagined. After all, I was “quite difficult to see” in the clothes I was wearing that morning. I responded—rather quick off the mark, given I’d only just stopped cycling and was trembling faintly from low blood-sugar and adrenaline—that most cars I pass are no brighter-coloured than me, and that I had all the legally mandated reflectors on me and my bike—more than that, as I have a fluorescent right armband which also highlights my right-hand indicating—and it was up to car drivers to do the legally mandated looking. Still being polite, I specifically didn’t tell him not to drive so cocking close to me in future.
Bikes aren’t particularly difficult to see in broad daylight, if you’re looking for bikes, which is what you’re meant to do. Car drivers have a responsibility towards vulnerable road users: cyclists, horses, pedestrians. I don’t really care about this story of a bike who was doing this, or that story about a bike that was doing that. The responsibility is still there, and if I’m using the road in a safe, legal manner then you’d better be looking out for me and my bike. In a county full of horse-riders you’ve even less than no excuse to be going too fast to spot a cyclist.
Fluorescent jackets have a limited effect against a busy background, especially one with bright colours. There’s also evidence that, after the initial visual and cultural surprise, people have become inured to fluorescent jackets. They ignore people wearing them because they’re worn by (to them) inconsequential demographics: security guards, workmen, Witney traffic wardens. Also, a great deal of rapeseed is grown out here, and it’s a short step from saying “I didn’t see him because he was wearing a dark colour” to “I didn’t see him because although he was wearing a bright colour but there was a field of bright yellow flowers behind him.” No: you didn’t see him because you weren’t being observant enough; because you took that corner too fast and made it into a blind corner; because you were too close to one or other edge of the road; because you didn’t think bike.
To suggest that cyclists are somehow neglectful—if not legally negligent—when they wear certain clothes is a bit rich, given that the majority of drivers who pass me of a morning are legally negligent when they overtake, or rev, or threaten me with their horn, or fail to indicate. Cyclists don’t go out of their way to bounce their bodies off cars: they’re usually the victims in any given road accident, in both a medical and a legal sense. Is it really advisable to blame the victim of a violent crime; to decide that what they were wearing contributed to an incident that was entirely beyond their control, and resulted ultimately from a failure on the part of those with legal responsibilities?
What motivates such a decision? Is it merely that people want the return of sumptuary laws, where what you wear is required to reflect your social status? Or is it the same underlying principle that used to apportion blame to rape victims based on how short their skirts were: their clothes were unsuitable, so they must have been asking for it? This principle allows demographics in a position of physical power to deny the legal responsibilities they have, to turn them instead into privileges they occasionally deign to shower upon the deserving weak. It’s power consolidating power, through an undermining rhetoric that glosses over the fact and the law.
Until they start requiring cars to replace sections of the bodywork that car drivers are so precious about—almost they only reason they seem to ever avoid cyclists is the cost of panel-beating—with bright, clashing, wildly fluorescent panels, requiring car drivers to stop as and when certain atmospheric, climatic or seasonal conditions develop and put these measures in place, getting their spanners out and getting covered in oil by the roadside…. Until then, anyone who tries to guilt me into wearing more fluorescent stuff than I’m already doing, just because they’re not paying enough attention, who tries to turn a jacket that I quite like (in its place of course) into a uniform, to be worn even when I don’t want to…. Anyone who tries that will just get the full force of my stilted politeness and a stiff blogpost in retrospect.
Gosh. It’s like points on your licence, except this copy is occasionally so tedious that my punishment might actually have a preventative effect.