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High-visibility clothing won’t get you more space on the road, study

Photo: Dr. Ian Walker / http://www.bath.ac.uk/
Photo: Dr. Ian Walker / http://www.bath.ac.uk/

Wearing high-visibility clothing isn’t going to save you from close-passing cars on your morning commute.

New research done at the University of Bath has determined that a cyclist’s outfit has very little effect on how close a motor vehicle will pass.

Dr. Ian Garrard, a researcher from Brunel University who helped on the study, wore an ultrasonic distance sensor on his commutes. He also varying his outfits, each suggesting a different level of proficiency on a bike. The outfits ranged from Lycra racing gear to a bright vest that indicated the rider was a novice and asked drivers to pass slowly.

There was almost no difference in the average space vehicles allowed when passing cyclists of different outfits. Only 1 to 2 per cent of motorists left less that 50 cm of space, a dangerously little number.

There was only one outfit that seemed to have an effect on the mean distance left for cyclists: a mock police uniform. There were seven different outfits used in the study. All but the police uniform averaged an overtaking distance of between 114 and 118.5 cm. The police uniform averaged 122.1 cm.

There were still 1 to 2 per cent of drivers who passed within 50 cm of the police uniform.

“We can’t make cycling safer by telling cyclists what they should wear,” said Dr. Ian Ward, who headed the study. “Rather, we should be creating safer spaces for cycling – perhaps by building high-quality separate cycle paths, by encouraging gentler roads with less stop-start traffic or by making drivers more aware of how it feels to cycle on our roads and the consequences of impatient overtaking.”

A similar study was done in 1979 that found overtaking distances then to be 179 cm. The average for this study was 118 cm, dragged up slightly by the police numbers. Motorists today pass much closer than they did 30 years ago.