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Research from Australia backs up earlier findings - but does it give SMIDSY drivers an excuse?

A researcher at an Australian university says that cyclists could be exposing themselves to greater danger of being struck by a car due to the driver’s inability to see them, particularly when the light is poor, and says reflective, not high-visibility, clothing is the answer to being seen in the hours of darkness.

Philippe Lacherez, who is a post-doctoral fellow at the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) conducted his research among 184 cyclists – most of them Australian – who had been involved in a collision with a car.

Their responses highlighted that in a lot of instances the driver “looked, but didn't see” the rider in sufficient time to avoid hitting them.

"We asked the cyclist about the time of day, the weather and general visibility at the time of the collision as well as what they were wearing and the lights on their bikes," commented Dr Lacherez.

"We found that crashes disproportionately occurred during low-light conditions such as at dawn, dusk or at night. Only 34 per cent of cyclists in these low-light crashes were wearing reflective clothing and 19 per cent of them said they weren't using bicycle lights at the time of the crash.

"We're concerned that this means cyclists are making themselves more vulnerable by not being adequately visible to an oncoming driver.”

Some might see that finding as giving an excuse to so-called ‘SMIDSY’ – standing for “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you” – drivers, with the claimed inability to see a cyclist because they were dressed in dark clothing, or the sun was shining in the motorist’s eyes, at times employed as a defence in court.

Dr Lacherez went on: “What is surprising is that 61 per cent of cyclists attributed the crash to driver inattention,” he added. “Only two of the 184 directly attributed the crash to their own visibility."

He said cyclists could make themselves more visible through using reflective clothing but cautioned that high-visibility clothing by itself was ineffective at night.

"Fluorescent clothing needs UV rays to be reflective and so don't work at night," he said.

"Cyclists should add reflective strips to their knees and ankles because the pedalling movement makes light from the headlights bounce back to the driver making it easier to register they are there.

"Cyclists also need to wear a reflective vest and, of course, have lights on their bike to increase their chances of being seen in low-light as well as at night.

"Our previous research has clearly demonstrated that when cyclists add these strategic reflective markings it leads to a large increase in visibility, which in turn leads to motorists recognising a cyclist on the road much earlier. This simple step could make cycling in low-light much safer," he added.

Some of those findings – such as dawn and dusk being particularly dangerous times for cyclists – have been widely reported before, and doubts have also been raised previously about the effectiveness of fluorescent clothing whether during the daytime or at night.

Earlier this year, the Guardian Bike Blog highlighted a report form the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) – with the caveat that it was based on research of motorcyclists, not cyclists – which analysed a dozen studies, some of which had suggested that high visibility clothing could improve rider safety.

However, the TRL said that in many cases, that was based on the hi-viz clad rider being placed against a uniform background, rather than a changing one, as would happen in motion.

Two more recent reports cited by the TRL suggested that what was important was not the use of high-visibility clothing in itself, but rather the contrast against the background, with white or even black clothing found to perform that function.

The TRL said: “The results are interesting in that they show the previously held assertion that a bright reflective jacket will improve rider conspicuity may not always be true ...

“[T]he message seems to be that the most conspicuous outfit will be dictated by the lighting conditions and local environment at the time, which may be extremely variable within the confines of even a fairly short ride.”

It added: “Given that environments may differ over even fairly small changes in time or location, there is not likely to be a one-size-fits-all solution, meaning that motorcyclists need to be aware of the limitations of whichever interventions they use.”

In the United Kingdom, Rule 59 of the Highway Code says, among other things, that cyclists

… should wear…

• light-coloured or fluorescent clothing which helps other road users to see you in daylight and poor light

• reflective clothing and/or accessories (belt, arm or ankle bands) in the dark.

Some police forces have at times sought to distribute high-visibility vests to cyclists, with Hampshire Constabulary having undertaken a campaign in which it also targeted people riding bikes without lights in November 2009.

Earlier this year, in separate inquiries in New Zealand involving the death of cyclists, two coroners said that bike riders should be required to wear high-visibility clothing.

Following publication of the verdict in one of those cases, a spokesman the country’s Ministry of Transportation said it was giving serious consideration to the coroner’s remarks.

DfT figures released last week reveal that in Great Britain in 2012, some 2,091 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in incidents that happened from Monday-Thursday.

The most dangerous times of day were between 7am and 9am, and from 3pm to 8pm, when each hour saw serious casualties reach three figures in aggregate across the year.

That’s partly explained by the fact that those hours coincide with the morning and evening commuting peaks, as well as rush hour.

Lighting conditions do vary across the year – in Manchester in midsummer, for instance the sun rises at around 4.4am and sets at approximately 9.4pm, while in midwinter, sunrise and sunset times are roughly 8.25am and 3.50pm.

While many cyclist casualties, even at peak times, will happen in hours of daylight – the summer months tend to see a higher number than winter ones, for example – changing light conditions at dawn and dusk are believed to be a factor as road users’ eyes adjust.

In 2009, the TRL published a study into cyclist casualties based in part on STATS19 forms completed by police after a road traffic incident, which are also used to compile DfT road casualty statistics.

It found that cyclists wearing dark clothing, or riding at night without lights were considered by police to be a factor in just 2.5 per cent and 2 per cent, respectively, of incidents in which the rider suffered serious injury.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.