Analysis: we subconsciously consider cycling more dangerous when we see a cyclist decked out in safety gear

"Arrange the cards in order from the least safe to the most safe," I instructed my respondent. He considered the five cards, each depicting the same person taking different forms of transport. She was shown in the driving seat of a car, the back seat of a taxi, in a bus, walking, and riding a bicycle.

Like most of the people in my study, he first placed the cards he considered most and least safe, then the rest. As the data trickled in and the number of responses grew, two important things happened. Like an image gradually becoming clear as film develops, remarkable patterns emerged in people's responses.

I used two card sets. Half of the respondents taking part in my study used a set of cards showing the cyclist in ordinary, everyday clothes. The other half used a set showing the cyclist in high visibility jacket, helmet, and clothes suitable for sport. This is how the Road Safety Authority now depicts cyclists in all TV safety messages, pamphlets and electronic media.

Spot the difference

So what did the data show? Generally, we think cycling is very unsafe, with 74% of respondents placing the cyclist card at the "least safe" end of the spectrum. Separating responses by what card set they used, a fascinating result emerges: 78% of those who saw the person in RSA style safety clothing rated cycling least safe, while only 70% of those who saw the person in everyday clothes did so.

Split the results by gender and an even more intriguing picture develops. Only 3% more women rated cycling least safe when they saw her in safety gear: 74%, as opposed to 71% who had seen her in everyday clothes. The difference is much bigger among male respondents: if the cyclist was in safety clothes, 82% put the card in the least safe slot, while 70% of those seeing her in everyday clothes thought cycling the least safe mode of transport. When we see a cyclist in safety gear, we subconsciously consider cycling more dangerous.

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From RTÉ Archives, Joe O'Brien reports for RTÉ News on the opening of two new cycle lanes in Dublin by Lord Mayor Bertie Ahern in 1986.

But surely this doesn’t matter? Who cares if people think cycling is more dangerous if you wear a helmet and hi-vis, as wearing these clothes makes you safer? The answer is not that straightforward. Imagine I live beside a river. On my side of the river, there’s a fast food restaurant selling tasty but greasy, unhealthy food. On the other side of the river is a shop selling healthy, fresh food. The only way to get across the river is a rickety bridge. It can be scary to cross, and people have been known to fall off into the river. It takes me much more effort to go buy healthy food, and there’s a real risk when crossing that bridge. Yet I’m more likely to die or get really sick from eating nothing but fast food than I am to die from falling off the bridge.

When we campaign for cyclists to wear hi-vis and helmets, it can be compared to campaigning for shoppers to wear a life vest and wet suit everytime they cross the bridge. Of course, it makes you safer, but imagine lugging that with you everytime you go shopping. We are only human, and the obvious and visible threat of the dangerous bridge simply registers more clearly, loudly, and immediately than the threat of living on fast food. It is also not a flaw in our character to want to look presentable. Others judge us by our appearance, a judgement that can have very real effects on important life outcomes.

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From RTÉ News, report on the new plan for bus and cycle corridors in Dublin city

Would it not make much more sense to forget the fight over life vests and wet suits and instead turn our attention to lobbying for a safe bridge to cross? This would not only make it safe for those who want to go shop for fresh produce, but also reduce the length of queues at the fast food restaurant. To take this metaphor further, it would also make the fast food healthier as the cooks here, too, will be able to easily go buy fresh ingredients.

The predictable arguments about the merits of cycling safety gear is a red herring. If we are provided with decent, safe cycling infrastructure, it will make cycling safer for those who already cycle, enable more people to cycle for shorter journeys and reduce traffic for those who can’t cycle. Less driving means less air pollution, and this benefits us all, regardless how we get around.

Let's forget the hi-vis and helmet argument. A much greater safety benefit is given when we lobby for good cycling infrastructure. Support local efforts to build more of this. You’ll reap the benefits even if you never touch a bicycle yourself,

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ