His headlight was on and his motorcycle was brightly coloured yet the driver apparently didn’t see him. He is in hospital now and wrote one handed to tell me his story which has really got me thinking about what studies have been done about this problem.
The Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Centre has some great information for riders. I decided to revisit their site which I came across a few years ago remembering it had some information about being visible to drivers.
There are 20 things listed that a rider can do to make themselves more visible and information on each about how effective it actually is. Headlights on during daytime which I tend to rely on rates rather poorly. Additionally each item has a number of points attached to it and they suggest a rider should aspire towards 10 points to always have good visibility to other vehicles.
Here is the list, click on the highlighted text to read the studies.
1. Fluorescent/Reflective safety vest. 4 points. Studies indicate this is the most effective way to be seen.
I think this is not always true and should be rated fewer points in their scheme.
You need to be in contrast to your background, and that is not always the case with hi vis for a couple of reasons. Some large bikes simply conceal most of the rider behind fairings. Then in urban environments even bright colours can get blended in to the urban noise of signs and lights especially so depending on angle of sun. Some info here. And then the glare from some motorcycle headlights can obscure the details of the area around them which is darkened by the brain to deal with the brightness/high contrast from the headlights hard wired on.
I think this can only be claimed as ‘in the right circumstances’ it can be quite effective.
2. White Helmet. 3 points. A study in New Zealand showed riders with a white helmet 24% less likely to be involved in multi-vehicle accident. Test this next time you are on the road, look at other riders and note how much white helmets stand out.
Actually this is something I really notice. Look at oncoming riders and compare how the white helmets stand out against the black road.
3. Brightly coloured jacket. 2 points. My comment on the vest applies to this also. The effectiveness depends on the light, background, type of motorcycle and if in a country where the headlight is hardwired on. In some cases this is going to be effective in others less so.
I think in urban environment you may not stand out so much but in rural areas then I think bright colours will contrast well if the light is not behind you, better than dark colours which may then blend into the road. The worst would have to be that camouflage military style rider gear as the last thing you want to do is disappear.
4. Strategic positioning. 2 points. Careful lane positioning can keep you in cars mirrors or line of sight, I think we all know this but sometimes forget. I learnt this in advanced rider training years ago but lately I have forgotten it and have put myself in places where I was not visible. Added to this might be something along the lines of strategic pre intersection riding when you see a car edging out to look or you see a driver looking the other way but not towards you.
5. Headlight Modulation. 1 point
I think headlight modulation will just get you a ticket. In Australia police are ignorant to even simple legislation so it is unlikely they would be aware and thus would defect your vehicle forcing you to take it for inspection and I presume court to get fine waived. Then with the current strong anti motorcycle actions by police in Australia you may find yourself subject to all sorts of harassment. The other aspect is given road rage is sadly unpoliced I predict some bogan (*redneck for North American readers) will get pissed and slam the brakes on in front of you or worse.
6. Taillight Modulation. 1 point. Legalities for this I am not able to confirm but I would gamble police in Australia would give you trouble since they target motorcycles so heavy handed.
Not sure being seen from the rear is as big a issue except for people commuting in the city regular. I don’t rate it as dangerous as someone pulling out in front of a rider.
7. Reflective Materials. 1 Point. This relates to after dark having reflective tape or decals on your bike or piping on your clothes so you stand out from side or rear more. It won’t help day time.
8. Movement. 1 point. Moving about a bit in your lane will draw attention. Vary your speed slightly and position to make drivers not forget you.
9. Auxiliary driving lights. 1 point. This one is interesting. The idea is to draw attention by having extra lights to your headlight to form a triangle a method developed by trains to be noticed by drivers quicker.
I find this gets my attention on motorcycles and should perhaps be ranked higher. A set of day time running lights mounted to create a bigger frontal image in the shape of triangle of lights may have some real value.
10. Hand Signals. 1 point. Illegal in many countries as law states hands and legs cannot leave bars/pegs while riding. Principle makes sense, something not often seen so will bring attention to you.
From here the items get much less effective or practical.
11. Avoid riding at night. ½ a point. May not be possible but sure fire way to eliminate some risk if you can avoid it.
12. Avoid riding at dawn or dusk. ½ a point. Yep that is a dangerous time even with zero cars as very real risk of wildlife feeding and wandering onto the road.
13. Aftermarket horn. ½ a point. Will not make you more visible, however sure would be handy for drivers that merge into your lane on highways.
14. Marker lights. ½ a point. Most places don’t have this system, some states in the USA have their vehicles indicators on full time. Might be a good thing for motorcycles only in other countries as would be different but then after time I think drivers would tune them out.
15. Avoid riding in poor weather. ½ a point. We all know many accidents happen in the rain due to poor visibility, reduced road grip thus longer braking distances and people not driving to suit the conditions. Not something always possible.
16. Avoid riding during low sun in the sky time of day. ½ a point. Again difficult to do but a worthy tip as the facing the sun when low can blind both cars and motorcycles, especially entering shaded sections of country road.
17. Bike profile. 1/2 a point. A study has shown the shape of a motorcycle can impact on visibility. Sounds feasible to me that a huge bike like a Goldwing or full dresser HD will be seen more than a supermoto. Not really helpful for most people.
18. Bike colour. ½ a point. The same study then found that motorcycle colour was not a factor in crash involvement.
People seem to get steamed up about this one. Again if your riding a Goldwing then I think a yellow one will be more visible than a black one. But can you see the fuel tank colour of an oncoming naked bike? The front mudguard colour? I sure cannot. Even sports bikes have a very narrow front profile and the glare from the headlight makes our brain darken the area around to compensate and until the bike is closer and slightly side on the colour is very difficult to make out. By then it would be too late to make any difference hence the low rating.
19. High beam in daytime. ¼ of a point. Yep told you it would be a surprise. Most riders think this will make them seen however a study unfortunately found it is not effective. Drivers tune out headlights. I know I have done it myself.
20. Unusual effects. ¼ of a point. Anything out of the ordinary affixed to you or you bike that might draw attention to it.
So there you have it. Not all I agree with but the results of research which you can read by clicking on the links. At first when riding I paid only a passing interest to my visibility. More recently I have tried to do something after nearly being hit.
Take away the ‘avoid riding’ items above and the horn and see how many points you have for a fine days ride. Did you make 10? I sure didn't but I think I can easy improve my score with a couple of the above ideas.
Quick Update: Here is an interesting article about motion camouflage - Why Motorcycles are Invisible.
I just revisited this post. Already over 4 years has passed since I wrote it. Along the way I have had time to compare and test myself a couple of the main points. A white helmet really does get you noticed and when you ride, take a look yourself at other riders, you will see the black helmets blend with the background of the tar but white or yellow or orange really stand out and as a reader noted the white has the added power of being the same as worn by police so car drivers do notice you.
The other item is having a jacket with better visibility. I love my classic brown leather jacket but my old Alpinestars one that has a splash of bright yellow on the upper portion stands out much more according to people I have spoken to.
I don’t think visibility from the rear is as big an issue, rear ended at traffic lights is less likely to kill you than someone pulling out in front. Secondary stop lights are compulsory on cars so perhaps the helmet mounted tail lights that are being sold could be something for the urban rider to consider. I used to commute by motorcycle 20 years ago and I had a few close calls. If I had to return to that I would probably go for a hi vis lemon optic yellow vest as peak hour or urban riding in Australia really is a much higher risk compared to a weekend ride in the country side.
Besides not addressing aggressive driving police have openly encouraged anti motorcycle sentiment in Australia to the point where riders are at greater risk because of drivers attitudes fuelled by police propaganda. So never assume the car will see you are even do the right thing. I have twice had people attempt to run me off the road out of spite. Both women drivers so the stereo type that men are the road rage types is just that, be on guard against everyone.