It's an invention that has been billed as "saving cyclists' skin", "keeping bikers safe at night" and even "the safety solution cyclists have been begging for" – so why are some cycling advocates sceptical?
Launched in a media splash by carmaker Volvo a few weeks ago, "LifePaint" is a spray-on material that attaches itself to clothes and other surfaces. In natural light, we are told, it is invisible – but it bursts into bright, white reflectiveness the moment it catches the beam of a car's headlights.
To demonstrate their new product, Volvo produced a compelling video, summed up with the statement, "the best way to survive a crash is not to crash". You can watch it here:
At present, LifePaint is not for sale. Volvo gave away 2000 cans of the stuff at a few outlets in Britain, where it quickly disappeared off the shelves.
As a promotional exercise, it was a coup. A motor vehicle manufacturer creating a product to protect bike riders! Cycling, motoring, tech, marketing and general news websites ran the story under headlines sampled in the first paragraph of this blog.
And there was an additional message attached: the product was released in part to spruik Volvo's Vision 2020, an ambitious creed stating that: "By 2020 no person will be killed, or seriously injured, by a new Volvo."
But does it work?
So, is it a safety solution? The video is intriguing, but there are reasons to be cautious. The manufacturers advise that the stuff lasts for about a week after an application. How would you know if it was still working – find a friendly car to beam at you?
Furthermore, it washes off, meaning you could pedal out of the office looking like a scene from Tron, only to be rendered less visible by a sudden downpour.
And while LifePaint might dance brightly in front of headlights, a cyclist at night needs to be visible when intersecting with a vehicle from any direction – especially from the side, as a motorist glances left and right while waiting at, say, a T-junction. However, it could make cyclists more visible in side view, especially if they had no other reflective material facing sideways.
Some leading cycling advocates had strong views on the product.
Carlton Reid, the editor of Bikebiz.com and the author of the crowdfunded bestseller "Roads Were Not Built for Cars", took to Twitter to say:
I was interviewed for that Volvo retroreflective "lifepaint" stunt. I said it was victim-blaming & cars should be painted hi-viz. Not used!— Carlton Reid (@carltonreid) March 28, 2015
In similar vein, Mikael Colville-Andersen, the urban mobility expert I interviewed in Denmark last year, launched a Change.org petition suggesting that Volvo and other manufacturers apply something like LifePaint to their own products, rather than "trying to place responsibility on pedestrians and cyclists".
The Copenhagenize movement founder pointed to research described as "definitive" by Melbourne's Monash University, which found silver, grey and black cars were 10 per cent to 12 per cent more likely to be involved in crashes, while white cars are the safest.
No (reflective) silver bullet
The disappointing truth is that there is no fail-safe way to make oneself visible. Even in Volvo's video, one cyclist describes how "the young driver lost concentration and hit me from behind" - it doesn't sound as if visibility was an issue.
Nevertheless, lights are not only legally required, they are the best way to make yourself more visible at night. White on the front, red on the rear, flashing or steady, and visible for 200 metres - with a red reflector facing backwards.
What about high-visibility materials? The first thing to remember is that "fluoro" clothing only glows in daylight - at night, when there is no UV light, it loses its effectiveness.
In the glare of headlights, reflective materials are useful, especially when they are in motion.
"Cyclists should add reflective strips to their knees and ankles because the pedalling movement makes light from headlights bounce back to the driver, making it easier to register they are there," Dr Philippe Lacherez of Queensland University of Technology recently told Ride On magazine.
Destruction by distraction
But that's the limit of it, Chris Carpenter of Bicycle Network told me: "All these other tricks with special paints and clothing are fun and decorative, but they do not result in significantly faster or improved recognition by motorists.
"The promotion of hi-vis paints and the like actually has a negative effect because it attempts to shift the driver's responsibility to observe traffic to the victims of the motorist's inattention.
"Cars collide with bikes, not because bike riders are invisible, but because drivers are distracted or not paying attention."
In a recent court case in Gympie, a driver pleaded guilty to driving without due care and attention when he was unable to explain how he fatally struck a cyclist wearing a reflective vest on a bike with several lights.
Volvo has a strong record when it comes to safety innovations, and they have released this trial product with a host of caveats, including that: "Cycle safety is the cyclist's responsibility and LifePaint is one of the many products that can aid visibility but cannot prevent accidents caused by the individual or other road users."
Their UK media office didn't respond to a request for comment by deadline, but in a road.cc article containing similar criticisms, Volvo spokeswoman Nikki Rooke was quoted as saying: "It's about making the invisible, visible. By applying LifePaint, cyclists can make themselves more visible and therefore be better protected in vulnerable situations. If LifePaint saves the life of just one cyclist it will have proved beneficial."
She said the pilot campaign would "help us understand the reaction towards the concept", and further research would be needed.
So what do you think? An interesting addition to cycling safety products - or a distraction from more proven measures? And what are your preferred safety choices when cycling at night?
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