Volvo's controversial LifePaint

Volvo’s controversial LifePaint

Last week we took a quick look at Volvo’s #LifePaint, the non-permanent, highly reflective spray-on paint that cyclists can put on anything, so says the marketing. It’s like perfume for the eyes.

In case you missed it:

It’s caused quite a stir. People either love it or hate it. It has been getting the blame as yet another car-centric product that is putting the responsibility of cyclists personal safety squarely on cyclists, rather than the far more life threatening drivers of motor-vehicles.

The always outspoken Mikael Colville-Andersen, of, is pretty clear about what he thinks about LifePaint:

I don’t think we realise how slippery a slope it is we are on as a society when morons like this produce crap like this and actually get taken seriously.

The basic argument everywhere is that cars kill and cars are the danger, and even the Volvo promo video points this out quite plainly. However, it’s the cyclists that are made to take measures to keep themselves safe while motorists run rampant.

Sarah Goodyear over at CityLab seems to share his opinion, although she’s mostly just reporting it. Attempting to come off a little more even-handed, the article nevertheless suggests that LifePaint might just be “a dubious marketing ploy” and “a whitewashing publicity stunt”.

The social barometer that is Twitter has been aflutter with all kinds of mixed feelings (many of them Mikael’s).

They’ve got a point. However, it’s got nothing to do with LifePaint.

Yes, people driving motorized vehicles kill a staggering number of people every day, yet policy and infrastructure seem to be in favour of protecting their freedom of movement over the safety of all, even at the cost of society more generally, one could argue (emissions, using non-renewable resources, noise pollution, the high cost of heavy infrastructure, etc). This car-centric attitude also seems to permeate society and the media more generally. Hi-Viz. Helmets. Lights. These are all tools of repression, apparently. “Volvo’s new attack on pedestrians and cyclists is insulting to every traffic user.”

Really? We’re talking about the spray paint, right?

Look, I’m on the cyclists side, but I tend to get a little suspicious and, quite frankly, annoyed and insulted, when the immediate reaction to a situation like this is to make black and white, absolute statements about what is actually a problem with more than a few factors, not to mention that I must be assumed to be an idiot to buy this line of reasoning.

It’s all Volvo’s fault, apparently. They are pulling the rug out from cyclists and pedestrians everywhere, brainwashing us into believing that we need to stay out of the way of cars. Our safety is up to us, and motorists shouldn’t have to worry about it. This is a product of oppression. “An attack on pedestrians and cyclist” everywhere, don’t forget.

Firstly, how can anyone actually be surprised that a company is trying to sell it’s own product rather than advertise it’s danger, or any other potentially negative effect it has on something, however divorced it may be from it’s intended use? Are you actually being serious in suggesting that you expect cars companies to promote that they are instruments of death? Obviously they can be, and all too often are, but you don’t hear cries or protest over cooking knife brands not advertising the risk of murder or accidental stabbing, do you?

Furthermore, how is LifePaint any different than cycling lights or bells? Are you going to start protesting the sale of cycling lights because it doesn’t directly address the responsibility of motorists for exercising a higher standard of driving? Like LifePaint, it’s just a safety product. A product, mind you; not a law or policy. The fact that it comes from a car brand shouldn’t make any difference.

I wonder if it would be getting the same reaction if it came from a bike brand? Come to think of it, how is any of the cycling-specific clothing getting away with the car-centric practice of applying reflective elements or bright colours to their clothing?!? Outrageous! I demand satisfaction!

Let’s get serious. If LifePaint is highlighting a problem, an inequality, an attack on the rights of people to choose how they get from A to B and do so in relative safety, then let’s talk about the real issue instead of just blaming a product.

What arguments like those from Colville-Andersen are actually doing is providing a red-herring that actually works against their cause. Think about that. They are so zealous that they are actually compromising their own quest for justice by diverting attention from the real issue. Who decides on the laws, puts them in place, ensures that they are enforced, and how seriously? Volvo? Really, your quest for better cycling infrastructure, stronger laws protecting pedestrians and cyclists, and a general public that accepts and treats non-motorists as equal is going to come from raging a crusade against a reflective paint?

Oh, but it came from a car brand. How could I be so naive.

Go ahead and ride with no lights or reflective elements and no helmet at night, but then accept the fact that you are actually a a liability. “Oh, but cyclists shouldn’t be forced to ride in the streets with these instruments of death! Motorists don’t have to wear helmets! Drivers should be more careful!” Sure, yeah. I agree. So I’ll ask you again: what does that have to do with reflective paint?

This isn’t about LifePaint. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. It’s about who should take responsibility for individual and collective safety, and how much.

I have discussed this before, and this is a pretty good read on the subject too.

Volvo has a responsibility to make sure their cars are as safe as possible – not their drivers.

It’s like this: You are responsible for your own actions, first and foremost. If you want to leave it entirely up to the more dangerous road user to exercise sufficient caution, if you want to put 100% of the obligation on everyone else but you and wander through the streets on your bike like the pure, unspoiled snowflake that you are, then you go right ahead.

The government is responsible for the laws that govern us all. Business leaders are responsible for the actions of their companies (but are unfortunately, more often than not, responsible to their bottom line first). Pet owners are responsible for the actions of their pets. You are responsible for taking your garbage our when it’s full. Everyone has a scope of responsibility, and that scope should depend on what and how much of an effect a given thing has on others.

If you don’t like your actions, change them. If you don’t like the laws that govern us, seek to change them. If you don’t like a product, don’t buy it. If you think a product is actually contravening an existing law, or that a law/policy/regulation should be in place to keep a product from causing harm, and that penalties should be in place to incentivize that harm from ever materializing, then do something about it. If you don’t want to be visible at night, don’t be surprised when you get hit, and if you do want to be visible but don’t want to use a product that is marketed by a automobile brand, then don’t. There are better options anyway. I’m not going to use it – not because I believe it to be part of a grand conspiracy against cyclists, but because it is generally not really very practical. Nice concept, but that’s about as much as I’ll give it.

Really, this whole thing is a bit ridiculous. Sure, if you want to use this to highlight road safety, and more specifically, the huge responsibility that lies with people driving automobiles, then do that, rather than harping on about a reflective spray that would technically enhance your own safety and help you not get hit. By focusing on LifePaint rather than better infrastructure and harsher penalties for careless driving (and cycling and pedestrianing), you’re completely missing the point and wasting your breath, not to mention looking a bit of a prat in the process.

I can’t take this crusade seriously. How do you expect those who aren’t already pro-cycling to?


Header image: source