Is "Life Paint" a helpful new technology, or a dubious marketing ploy?

There’s no shortage of products designed to make people on bicycles more visible at night, with entrepreneurs lately vying to come up with solutions that go way beyond simple reflectors and flashing taillights. These days you can trick out your bike with multicolored LED wheel lights, make your intentions known with blinking turn-signal gloves, and even create your own moving bike lane of laser light.

Now the Swedish auto brand Volvo has introduced its own high-visibility innovation for people riding bicycles, a water-based spray-on reflective paint called LifePaint, available now in a handful of London-area bike shops. Invisible in the daytime, it shows up brilliant white under headlight beams, and Volvo is touting it as a way to help prevent cycling deaths and injuries.

The promotional video for the product (above) starts on a somber note, with statistics about the number of people on bikes who are “involved in accidents” in the United Kingdom each year (an alarming 19,000). A first-person testimonial from a man almost killed when a distracted driver hit him is accompanied by scary helmet-cam footage of another car-bike collision. Then, when the paint—which lasts for about a week and can be sprayed on just about anything, according to the company—is introduced and the people on bikes light up a brilliant white under the headlights’ glare, the music quickly turns upbeat.

A cycling advocate who appears in the video says he thinks it’s great “that a car brand has gotten involved” with safety for people on bikes. But not everybody is so pleased.

Over at the Copenhagenize blog, the urban-design consultant Mikael Colville-Andersen derides the product, writing, “Volvo [is] doing its best to draw your attention to the fact that motorists kill obscene amounts of people—including themselves—by placing the responsibility on cyclists and pedestrians.” He adds that instead of a “rational” solution to traffic safety such as health warnings on automobiles (which he has suggested for years), LifePaint is “a smoke screen and this time it's sprayed on … It's for you on foot or on a bicycle because you are an irritation to motorists. You are a squishy bug ruining their paint job. You are a threat to their mobility dominance.”

In protest, Colville-Andersen has started a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) petition asking Volvo to flip its emphasis back to cars, which are, after all, the vehicles doing most of the damage in the first place. Citing research showing black automobiles are more likely to be involved in crashes, he calls for Volvo to offer free LifePaint to every person who owns one of their cars, and to push for legislation mandating reflective paint on cars worldwide—"For society. For safety. For the children."

On the LifePaint home page, the spray-on reflector is presented as part of Volvo’s 2020 Vision campaign, which expresses the desire that “by 2020, no person will be killed, or seriously injured, by a new Volvo.” The fine print on the site also notes that not all the paint used in the flashy video is the water-based type; the bikes themselves were coated with permanent oil-based paint created by the same designer, Albedo100.

Whether you agree with Colville-Andersen or not, I can see a few other potential drawbacks to the paint. For one, I’m not sure how practical it is to expect people to spray-paint their possessions on a weekly basis to achieve basic safety. That could get tedious and pretty pricy, not to mention the waste of all those paint cans. And if LifePaint is water-soluble, it would be useless in rain, which is exactly when visibility for drivers is worst.

What do you think—does this seem like a useful tool for bike safety, or a whitewashing publicity stunt?

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