The benefits of being a colourful cyclist

The first racing bike I bought was jet black with white lettering.

It was a custom build by a Sydney manufacturer (due to my non-standard height), so I could choose any colour of the rainbow. I  figured black was the ultimate neutral colour, and would match anything.

Such as the logo-free white cycling shirt I was wearing a few months later when a car coming from the opposite direction cut in front of me at an intersection.

The first thing the driver said to me was, "I never saw you". This was somewhat cancelled out by her next sentence: "I thought you were going to stop." Especially as I had the green light in my favour.

Sure, the bike was black, but I was wearing a white shirt, and had a flashing white LED light on my handlebars, even though it was daytime. And we'd collided almost head-on, wheel to front bumper. How could she not have seen me?

Nevertheless, while I was waiting for her insurance to build my new bike, I pondered a new strategy. Hillbrick Racer Mk II was sprayed in Tour de France yellow, to the surprise of friends. "If I ever do a stage race, my shirt will match my bike after the first day," I told them. Indeed, I bought a yellow helmet and started collecting bright shirts.

Wearing vivid colours can be one of the fun things about cycling – a joyous release from the drab, conformist nature of much of men's fashion, especially business dress. But if you're moving among cars, you want to feel you're being seen.

The issue of cyclist visibility was in the news recently, with a startling recommendation in New Zealand that high-visibility clothing should be compulsory for cyclists.

Wellington coroner Ian Smith was investigating the death of Superintendent Steve Fitzgerald, 57, a former national road policing manager who was hit by a truck while cycle commuting in 2008. Among a series of recommendations, including making it law that cars should leave at least a metre of space when passing a cyclist, Smith said it was "a no-brainer" that hi-viz clothing should be made compulsory for cyclists.

My first thoughts when reading this were, gee, who would be a coroner? When you spend every day dealing with death, tragedy and loss, it must be tempting to make strong, well-meaning recommendations that are nevertheless impractical at best and highly illogical at worst.

Especially when you read that Fitzgerald, who was cycling at 5.20pm in the depths of a Wellington winter, had flashing lights on his bike and was wearing a jacket and backpack that had reflective strips on them. Clearly, being highly visible didn't save him.

But does hi-viz clothing save anyone? Certainly, reflective strips on clothing or bikes at night make you stand out in a car's headlights. Wearing head-to-toe fluorescent clobber during the day might not have the same effect, some related studies suggest - it can depend on the light conditions and colours around you.

Compulsory hi-viz jackets would doubtlessly have one big impact, however – and that would be to lower the number of cyclists on our roads. It'd be just another hot, uncomfortable thing to have to buy and remember to wear, while many would feel that dressing like a weirdo shouldn't be necessary to do something as natural as cycling.

After all, the only major impact of Australia's near-unique mandatory helmet laws was to reduce cycling participation – 20 years later, some scientists are adamant that the laws did not much good and a lot of bad. (Is Australia seen by the rest of the world as a haven of cycling safety? Hmm ...)

Happily, a New Zealand transport official was quick to dismiss the coroner's recommendation, saying better education of cyclists and motorists, not an arbitrary law, was the key.

Besides, if visibility is paramount, isn't it time black and other dark-tone cars were banned? Or at least made to have a mandatory 30-centimetre fluoro strip running round them? And what about hi-viz vests for pedestrians?

As someone who cycles at speed on busy roads, I still prefer bright colours, even though some people like to mock middle-aged blokes in gaudy gimp gear (haters gotta hate).

But we all know what really makes cycling safer. Increased numbers of cyclists – and motorists who are looking out for them.

Do you wear bright or hi-viz colours while cycling? Do you think it's a good idea?

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