The Image that Tarnished a Reputation

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Over the last couple of days, tweets from @Trafficwmp – the account for the traffic unit of West Midlands Police – have caused quite a stir amongst cyclists, active travel proponents and road safety campaigners. The source tweet and image suggests the benefits of wearing high visibility clothing during the darker months for improved road safety. So, what’s wrong with that?

The original tweet was actually redistributing an older message on Facebook, originally sent by Buckingham Fire Station back in October 2019, so it’s not a new thing – I remember the exact same message blowing up on Twitter last year, and it may go back further than that.

In the image we can see a comparison – the same scene, but in one the child is wearing high visibility clothing; in the other, the child appears to be wearing dark clothes. The message is clear – by wearing bright, highly contrasting clothing, drivers are more likely to see you and therefore you’re safer on the road. It sounds reasonable on the surface, so why has this caused such a storm?

The problems here are on two fronts – firstly, the message about high visibility clothing helps to shift responsibility for road safety away from drivers and over to other, more vulnerable road users. Secondly, it’s the use of this particular image. Let’s look at that bit first.

The problem with the image

The Controversial Image from the #BeSafeBeSeen Campaign

The first major problem here is that this is a still image. There is no movement, and the human eye is very good at catching movements. Unless the child is standing statue still, any movements will help to identify that there is something there – maybe not enough to identify what, but at least to draw the attention.

Secondly – and this is a really big one – certain choices have been made with the editing. The image looks like it has a blue filter applied, reducing colour. Contrast levels are high with blacks being crushed to remove detail (look at the foliage above the wall on the left where there is nearly no detail). This isn’t night-time; the other vehicles do not have lights on and the sky is evidently bright. The glare on the road looks excessively bright so that it washes out the crossing. This is not a realistic view; not what the eye would see in the real world.

Thirdly, in the lower picture, the child appears to be looking away from the camera, hood up. This obscures their face – but again, a person looking to cross the road would be checking traffic in both directions and at least occasionally looking towards the oncoming vehicle. The brain is very good at identifying facial features, and again, head movements would help draw the driver’s attention who should be fully aware that there is a crossing here (it’s clearly signed, even if the poor image processing washes out the crossing itself somewhat.

Another choice that has been made is to change the child’s leg and footwear, despite the apparent bad weather. In the upper image, the child seems to be wearing a bright anorak and hat, yet uncovered ankles and perhaps ordinary shoes. In the second image, taken on the same day, the child is completely covered in all-black clothing, head to toe. The same comparison could have been made with the addition of the high visibility jacket, leaving all other aspects alone – yet the creator of the above image has gone out of their way to change even the foot and leg wear, to make an exaggerated point.

Finally, the image is low resolution. The copy I’ve used in this article is the best I could find, yet compression artifacts are clearly present. The lack of quality here may or may not be intentional depending on how old the image is and how many times it’s been uploaded, shared, downloaded, re-uploaded with any number of re-compression stages involved, but at this point it helps with the narrative, obscuring details that would help a viewer pick out the child in dark clothing. Again, in real life, the eye would pick out much more information in this scene.

So, the image is flawed in a number of respects, but there’s a broader problem with the messaging.

Victim Blaming

The idea that vulnerable road users should wear high visibility or high contrasting clothing is a common one, and to a point it does make sense. For example, there’s nothing inherently wrong with shoes and coats etc. having high reflectivity patches on them where movement plus reflectivity can help catch someone’s attention. The important thing here, of course, is that this is embedded into everyday clothing anyway and it’s not something extra to think about. Specific high visibility clothing is less desirable because it’s an extra thing to think about. If you’re popping to the shops on a gloomy autumn day, having to make additional considerations over what to wear versus just throwing on a coat may just be the extra hurdle that causes an adult to drive instead of walk or cycle (or perhaps to not go out at all) – active travel should never be a hassle if people are to switch away from driving.

The big issue with such messages being sent out from police forces and the like is that it shifts the responsibility for road safety away from drivers of what is heavy machinery over to pedestrians, cyclists etc. In the event of a collision where the vulnerable road user may have done nothing wrong, the question then gets asked, “were they wearing high vis?” as if this absolves the driver in some way. It’s the same thing with helmets, even if wearing a helmet would have made no difference to the outcome of a collision.

It also suggests that by wearing high visibility or high reflectivity clothing, this will somehow make the wearer safe on the road – yet it is easy to find numerous examples of incidents on the road where high visibility elements were present yet the incident happened anyway. A driver is not going to see a person if they’re not properly looking, even if that person is wearing bright clothing.

With this picture, there is a child at the side of the road waiting at a crossing. Regardless of their clothing, they are doing nothing wrong here. The driver should be fully aware that there is a crossing and be scanning the area to determine whether a pedestrian is waiting to cross whilst being prepared to slow down and stop. A competent driver would notice a pedestrian dressed in dark clothes thanks to the movements of that pedestrian and, if necessary, the headlights of the car.

Final thoughts

It’s disappointing to say the least that the West Midlands Police Traffic Unit have decided to tweet this message and have stood by their decision by digging their heels in where they’ve been rightly called out for it. Road safety is a much broader issue than what people wear when walking or cycling. Drivers are the most serious cause of injuries and deaths on the roads and driving standards do not match up to their responsibilities. Distracted driving, jumping red lights and amber gambling, speeding, drink driving – these all cause real, lasting significant harm every day. The idea that a vulnerable road user wearing brighter clothing makes them inherently safer is a fallacy and one that I would expect the police to understand.

Hierarchy of Controls
Hierarchy of Controls (https://twitter.com/QAGreenways/status/1120530962629234689)

Clothing, which would be classed as personal protective equipment (PPE), is the last element of effectiveness in road safety – i.e., it is not very effective. Safety is achieved through fewer vehicles, more active travel, well-designed streets that keep different modes of transport (foot, cycle, motor vehicle) separate as far as possible, and then with very high driving standards; motorists taking the responsibility for operating their vehicles seriously with significant legal consequences when they fall short.

In the UK there seems to be an emphasis on the least effective means for improving road safety whilst the most effective means are shunned. To really make a difference, this needs to change and police support is vital to making that change happen.

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