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Gear Prudence: Hardly a bike ride goes by when I don’t see someone wearing fluorescent clothes. It’s either a neon yellow jacket on a roadie or one of those construction worker vests on a bike commuter, but there’s definitely a cadre of people committed to ‘hi-vis’ attire. But is it actually effective? I think it looks super dorky, but if it really makes me a lot safer, should I get over how silly it looks and give it a try? — Necessary Equipment Or Not?
Dear NEON: Before we get into assessing the effectiveness of fluorescent clothing, let’s first review GP’s philosophy on cycling and matters sartorial: You can and should ride your bike in whatever clothes you want. No outfit, be it a fluorescent vest, team kit, or a ratty pair of jeans and cardigan, is more or less appropriate than any other. No law compels you to sport Lycra on your road bike nor does any custom mandate you rock skinny jeans when pedaling a fixie. You wear what you want when you want and how you want, and if circumstances should turn negative in a major way, it’s not the fault of your getup. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The argument for high visibility clothes—the fluorescent greens, yellows, and oranges—is exactly what you think it is: It will render you more visible. This is especially true in foggier conditions when there’s less light overall and when your hi-vis clothes also have retroreflective elements, as is frequently the case with the “construction worker” vests. Fluorescent clothing is unnatural, which is to say that it stands out (unless you are riding through a highlighter factory, which is admittedly a pretty rare circumstance). Accordingly, it renders it more likely that your presence will register with others on the road.
Of course, this assumes drivers are paying attention to their surroundings and not staring down at their phones, so it’s hardly a guarantee of complete and total safety. Hi-vis is really only effective in the daytime. At night, you’ll want/need lights. Fluorescent clothing, per science, converts UV sunlight into visible light. Because night is known for its considerable lack of sunlight, reflective strips and/or actual bike lighting are going to serve you far better than even the most garish bright yellow jacket.
It’s hard to say how much safer hi-vis clothes will make you. At the margins, it will increase visibility during the day. But given the multitude of factors that contribute to overall safety—bike infrastructure, your riding style, the speed limits of the roads you’re riding on—it’s hard to say that it’s a must. Ride smart, wear the clothes you want, and always uses lights at night. —GP