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Motorcycle Paradise

Be Seen, Be Safe

2nd Update 2018 - I now think all this being more visible is safe to be bullshit. Riding around SE Asia has shown me that it is stupid to think of putting the onus on being safe to the driver. I would never put on hi vis and expect that to make any difference riding in SE Asia so why would I think it would help in Australia or anywhere else. You need to ride as if every car is going to possibly kill you not think a fluro vest will make you safe.

1st Update - I revisited this article some years after posting to reflect how my views have changed on this subject. For many years I paid no attention to being visible to others. Then I went through a stage of wanting to be more visible that started about the time I wrote this article originally after experiencing couple close calls where cars did not see me. I have now come to the point of view that too much emphasis is placed on hi-vis when this will not prevent the main reason drivers do not see you which is all about tuning out some of the massive amount of stuff being fed to the brain while driving to bring attention to threatening things like large vehicles but not smaller non threatening things to him like bikes. Drivers will notice a Motorcycle police man because this is a risk item but can tune out guy in hi vis on a yellow goldwing with his headlight on high beam.
So I feel it is up to the rider to be prepared, be skilled at avoidance and emergency braking. To place themselves in a way to always be drawing attention to themselves by moving about not riding in straight line when car is in side road looking to pull out, not sitting still behind a car and whenever possible get clear of cars regardless if breaking rules or risk being taken out.
I do think you can make yourself harder to see. All black on tar background at a distance is harder for me to see. The most noticeable thing for me when looking at different riders is how much a white helmet stands out compared to dark ones. I ride in a lot of tunnels in Japan (100’s per day on expressway) and I noticed bikes are hard to see amongst other fast flowing traffic (i.e. same direction) when the cars forget to turn on headlights so I added some reflector tape like the trucks use to my panniers. Beyond that I don’t think the rest makes much difference.

Original post below:

I received an email from a Motorcycle Paradise reader recently who has been injured when an elderly driver pulled out in front of him.

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 and urge riders to be more visible which got me reading what studies exist on this.

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 is. Headlights on during daytime which I tended 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 can only be in limited circumstances. Besides drivers tuning you out because you are smaller thus no danger to them I personally cannot tell if oncoming rider has hi-vis on or not until he is side on to me. Bikes conceal most of the rider behind screens or the glare from the headlight makes it impossible to see the chest area. Bright colours get blended in to the urban noise of signs and lights especially so depending on angle of sun. Some info here. 

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 might tend to agree with. Not the stats but black helmets for me can blend into road tar but again it is only in some circumstances.

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.

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. This to me is what an experienced rider does all the time anyway not some be seen thing.

5. Headlight Modulation. 1 point. Headlight modulators, surprisingly seem legal on motorcycles.

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.

8. Movement. 1 point.  Moving about a bit in your lane to draw attention.

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.
10. Hand Signals. 1 point. Illegal in most countries as law states hands and legs cannot leave bars/pegs while riding.

From here the items get much less effective or practical.

11. Avoid riding at night. ½ a point. 

12. Avoid riding at dawn or dusk. ½ a point.

13. Aftermarket horn. ½ a point. Will this make you more visible?

14. Marker lights. ½ a point. USA and Japan only I think.

15. Avoid riding in poor weather. ½ a point.

16. Avoid riding during low sun in the sky time of day. ½ a point.  

17. Bike profile. 1/2 a point. A study has shown the shape of a motorcycle can impact on visibility?

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. But can you see the fuel tank colour of an oncoming bike? The front mudguard colour? I sure cannot.

19. High beam in daytime. ¼ of a point. Most riders think headlight will help but more than one study shows it gets tuned out. 

20. Unusual effects. ¼ of a point. Anything out of the ordinary affixed to you or you bike that might draw attention to it.

You can read the research by clicking on the links.

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?  Does any of this make a real difference?

Here is an interesting article about motion camouflage - Why Motorcycles are Invisible.

Follow up.
I just revisited this post. Already over 4 years has passed since I wrote it. Along the way I have had time to compare a couple of the main points. A white helmet does seem easier to see. Not sure about much of the rest. It really depends on what riding you do also. The weekend warrior who visits his local mountain on Sunday morning would have a totally different perspective to the person who daily is in heavy traffic commuting. I think better to never assume the car will see you or do the right thing. I have twice had people attempt to run me off the road just 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 all the time.