How to Stay Safe & Visible in UK Law
Safety benefits aside, there are compelling legal reasons for cyclists to wear high contrast clothing. So what does the law say about cyclists’ attire and how is UK law practically implemented?
UK Law & Cycling
Most road users learn about road safety law from the Highway Code, which is a set of rules, some of which are law and others that are included for guidance. Where the Code refers to a specific law, it will clearly state (in bold and caps) that cyclists MUST or MUST NOT adhere to the rule.
If the rule is offered for guidance and is not legally enforceable, language like “you should” is used instead.
In relation to cyclist visibility, Section 59 of the Highway Code is a guidance rule that addresses clothing. It states that cyclists:
“Should wear light-coloured or fluorescent clothing which helps other road users to see you in daylight and poor light [and] reflective clothing and/or accessories (belt, arm or ankle bands) in the dark.”
Highway Code Section 60 relates to cycling at night and refers to the Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989. These regulations are law and mandate the use of lights and reflectors when cycling at night.
High-vis detractors may be relieved to hear that they are not committing a criminal offence when cycling in dark clothes. In a civil court, however, cyclists wearing inconspicuous clothes might still be found liable or partly liable for an accident.
Section 38 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 states that:
“A failure on the part of a person to observe a provision of the Highway Code shall not of itself render that person liable to criminal proceedings of any kind but any such failure may be relied upon by any party to the proceedings as tending to establish or negative any liability which is in question in those proceedings.”
In other words, you could be found liable for an incident if you breach a rule of the Highway Code, even if the rule itself was not legally binding.
Cycling Law in Practice
So how does this affect cyclists practically?
If you were injured when knocked off your bike by a driver, you may decide to take legal action. However, the courts may be receptive to a defendant driver’s argument that you were hard to see if your clothing caused you to blend into the background.
The court could take the view that by not making best endeavours to comply with Rule 59 [Highway Code], you effectively contributed to your cycling injury and, consequently, the severity of your injuries. This defence, known as ‘contributory negligence’, would apportion blame between you and the driver. The amount of injury compensation you would otherwise have received is reduced accordingly.
If, for example, you injured a pedestrian who walked out in front of you, the pedestrian could argue that you were hard to see and therefore you were liable for the accident. If the pedestrian’s argument is accepted, you might have to pay compensation for their injuries.
Many home insurance policies include limited third party liability cover. This often extends to activities away from the home, including cycling. Third-party insurance would cover the cost of another party’s compensation and legal fees if you are found liable for an accident.
However, there is a very real possibility that if you aren’t covered you could be ordered to pay the compensation from your own pocket. Injury compensation awards can be tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Checking what level of cover you have, if any, would be a prudent step. If you aren’t covered, then consider taking out cycling insurance.
Should Cyclists Wear High-Vis Clothing?
Not necessarily. What matters, from a safety and legal point of view, is that you are easy to see. There are a number of ways to increase your visibility on the road that don’t necessitate a yellow fluorescent cycling vest.
What matters is the contrast you make with your background. If you are lucky enough to have a country lane commute through fields of rapeseed, high-vis yellow could actually camouflage you.
There are no control studies on which colour offers the best contrast for cyclists. Fluorescent orange and red are rarer in nature than yellow. Both of these colours are associated with road warnings and safety and should prompt an alert response in other road users.
One of the most effective ways to be seen in the day is by using bicycle lights. The latest generation of LED lights can be searingly bright, are visible over a wide field of view, and can flash to further enhance visibility. We did an in-depth look at cycling in poor light conditions within our Winter Cycling article.
Even if you are riding on a sunny day, you could still find yourself in a tunnel, or in heavy shade cast by trees or tall buildings. Bicycle lights would address the elevated risk in these situations. Increasingly, new cars include daytime running lights as standard, yet the uptake by cyclists of daytime lights is curiously slow.
Studies have also shown that humans are particularly attuned to recognise the movement of other humans. Cyclists can exploit this biomotion effect by wearing bright socks or shoes. The pedalling motion is particularly conspicuous.
At night, lights are a legal requirement, as are bike-mounted reflectors. Fluorescent material does not work at night, but reflective materials are highly effective and are a sensible additional precaution. Especially when you consider that you are four times more likely to be knocked off your bike at night.
The key point is to think about your route, time of day and weather conditions, and use what apparel or technology will make you the most visible.
Cyclist safety is currently in the spotlight as people take to two wheels in ever-increasing numbers. Many new cyclists will follow the letter of the Highway Code, but it is equally important to understand the reasoning behind the recommended safety measures.
Whatever their level of experience, cyclists should recognise when following the guidelines may actually put them at greater risk, and be willing to change their clothing, lights and protective gear depending on riding conditions.
This legal awareness article for cyclists was contributed by Chris Salmon, Director of Quittance Legal Services and a keen cyclist.