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  • Writer's pictureMuhammad Ali

Hi-Vis Apparel: Past and Present

Most people don’t even notice how common high-visibility clothing is until they are driving at night and something in their headlights stands out, far too distant to be visible if not for the few surfaces softly returning the glare right back into the drivers’ eyes. High-visibility apparel is an example of incredibly satisfying science. It isn't even just the awesome chemical breakthrough itself, but the principle of making something capable of literally improvising on its own and using the most minuscule amounts of light to be visible. Cyclists, runners, construction workers, and police officers have all incorporated these safety elements as standard articles of clothing. These measures become all the more important in the vicinity of long, straight roads that entertain speedy drivers.

How It Came to Be

The evolution of high-visibility apparel, however, was far from an overnight ordeal. According to lore, it all started with Bob Switzer's head injury in a Heinz Ketchup factory in 1933. Doctors instructed Switzer to stay in a dark room for several months, during which period his brother would visit him. Bob's brother, Joe, had been experimenting with fluorescent materials to produce objects that would glow in the dark. Once Bob was healthy, he got to working on these chemicals again. Soon enough, the brothers had produced the first fluorescent paint and were calling it "Day-Glo".

In the decades that followed, high-visibility dyes and pigments would see a great many uses. From paratroopers and buoys in World War II to children's glow-in-the-dark toys, the spectrum is far too wide to list and grows wider each day.

What's With the Colors?

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) only defines the minimal surface area to be covered in high-visibility material for an article of clothing to meet their safety standards. No absolute rule links any high-visibility color to certain risks or occupations, but there are some broad classifications based on functionality. Fluorescent yellow-green is scientifically labeled the brightest color and is hence a very common site in most societies where safety standards are respected. It is usually used in environments where monotonous gravel, concrete, orange barrels, and traffic cones are present. Workers in such environments have to stand out and catch the eyes of drivers as they move past at breakneck speed.

Fluorescent orange, on the other hand, is slightly less conspicuous than yellow. Due to widespread usage of red and orange shades to symbolize danger, fluorescent orange now serves as a potent warning sign for risks of inflammable or explosive natures as well as points of high-velocity collision. One interesting use of orange high-visibility apparel is by hunters to not be mistaken for game by other hunters. Fluorescent orange is a good fit for this purpose since it contrasts with any colors found naturally in hunting environments.

The Impact

Academic research proves that high-visibility clothing has very practical effects. A 2017 survey in Denmark revealed that cyclists who used some form of high-visibility gear on their bodies or their bikes reported at least 38% fewer accidents per month than cyclists who did not bear any high-visibility surfaces. Another interesting study from 2020 had a cyclist test a variety of different outfits and measured the distance of other passing drivers as they overtook him. Once again, a high-visibility vest had almost the greatest effect when it came to keeping other drivers at a greater distance.

With high-visibility apparel being one of the few modern inventions that are smart, cheap, clean, and durable, it is clear that the safety they provide deserves nothing but cheers from us.

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