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.And now I have now come to the point of view that too much emphasis is placed on hi-vis and putting motorcycle safety in the hands of drivers instead of the rider. 

Besides countries where they don’t give a damn about bikes even in places like Australia hi-vis 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. There is some good research to back this. 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.

I do think you can make yourself harder to see. All black on tar background at a distance is much harder for me to see as my eyesight ages, I am sure many older drivers would have same issue. The most noticeable thing for me when looking at different riders is how much a white helmet stands out compared to black ones. I ride in a lot of tunnels in Japan and I noticed bikes are hard to see from behind, these modern tail lights are tiny and in Japan blur into the 100’s of other s in the low light. Perhaps again this is older age affecting my judgement. Gear with reflective piping or panniers with reflectors really do stand out here in low light but in places like Australia where tunnels are rare it isn’t relevant. Anyway… the original post is 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 up what studies exist on this.

The Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Centre has a lot of info. 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 there that a rider can do to make themselves more visible and information on each about how effective it is. Headlights on during daytime which guys tend to rely on rates extremely  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. Not sure I agree but here is there findings.

1. Fluorescent/Reflective safety vest. 4 points. Studies indicate this is the most effective way to be seen.

IMO – 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.

IMO- this is something that I do notice but do you want to trust the car sees you because of your white helmet. 

3. Brightly coloured jacket. 2 points.

My comment in no.1 the vest applies to this also. 

4. Strategic positioning. 2 points. Careful lane positioning can keep you in cars mirrors or line of sight.

I think this is what an experienced rider does all the time anyway but better to not be where the car can side swipe you because they will.

5. Headlight Modulation. 1 point.

I think headlight modulation will just get you a ticket. In Australia police are ignorant to even simple legislation 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.

See previous comment.

7. Reflective Materials. 1 Point.

This relates to after dark having reflective tape or decals on your bike or piping on your clothes. I know in the long highway tunnels here bikes are hard to see among the traffic.

8. Movement. 1 point.

9. Auxiliary driving lights. 1 point. 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 don’t think lights help that much but the train triangle is proven to be more noticeable than simply one or two lights (I am ex rail guy and know this reduced level crossing accidents) so if you had an ADV bike with the driving lights then it would not cost you anything to try this.

10. Hand Signals. 1 point.

Illegal in most countries.

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. Definitely agree on that one but not always possible.

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

17. Bike profile. 1/2 a point.

18. Bike colour. ½ a point.

People seem to get steamed up about this one. But can you see the fuel tank colour of an oncoming bike before it is close? The front mudguard colour? I sure cannot. 

19. High beam in daytime. ¼ of a point.

And there it is right down here worth almost nothing according to the studies. 

20. Unusual effects. ¼ of a point.

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 as they suggested?  Does any of this make a real difference – I tend to think not that much.

Here is an interesting article about motion camouflage – Why Motorcycles are Invisible which suggests just being visible in the normal sense may be of little help to riders because drivers tune you out. 

I think it is best to always assume the driver has not seen you and ride anyway needed to keep yourself away from cars that could turn into your path.

14 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    10 points! From the first 10, unless you wear a hi-vis vest and a white helmet it's only possible to get 10 points if you do absolutely everything else on the list. Seeing as some of these are illegal in Australia thats simply not possible.
    It also doesn;t make much sense. Colour of the bike doesn't make much difference, but coulour of the helmet does? I'd have to question these findings.
    Anecdotaly, I've had a white helmet, and currently have a bright yellow bike, and I am still as invisible as I ever was. I think it's up to riders really. Car drivers are mostly completely inattentive – I treat every one like it's actively trying to kill me.

  2. I think the target of 10 points is set as the ideal result and not what everyone has to achieve.

    That said most riders should be able to get a reasonable score with only minor additions. For myself to get up to a 10 without the vest I need a brighter coloured jacket and some driving lights, I already have a white helmet and can tick off more than enough other items.

    When I see a motorcycle approaching me on the road I rarely can make out it's colour until it is closer or at an angle to my line of sight due to headlight glare. Naked bikes have such a small frontal area that I cannot tell their colour until side on to me where I can see their fuel tank.

    After the headlight I generally can see the riders helmet and upper body before I am able to process the make or colour of the bike – again the headlight glare obscures the bike until closer.

    So if we look at the issue of a car pulling out or turning in front of a rider then I think this article holds some value. The driver glances in our direction for a second before making a decision to stop or go, as studies have shown human brains see vehicle headlights and tune them out. So we are left then to choose if we wish to make ourselves more visible in other ways or not.

  3. Update, headlight modulators are legal in Australia. I have HID lights so no can do but not sure if I would fit one if I had regular lights as might bring on road rage from cars I am riding behind. Guess you turn it off in that situation but then have to remember to turn back on.

  4. I have noticed that wearing a white helmet seems to make drivers think (albeit briefly) that I may be a cop so they tend to notice it and pay more attention (hey whatever works!).

  5. I have twin head lights on my 250 Honda Forza, high beam, low beam modulating is illegal. Only one head light is allowed to modulate either the high beam light or the low beam light not both lights modulating (which would have looked awesome)
    The rules regarding Headlight modulators in Qld are legal (Division 2 Headlights 59 Headlights to be fitted to vehicles section 3) https://www.legislation.qld.gov.au/LEGISLTN/REPEALED/T/TrantOpRUVSSR99_04B_080315.pdf

    • I personally think headlight modulation would likely get you pulled over in QLD. It's sadly the most anti motorcycle state in an anti motorcycle country and police are looking for anything at all to stop motorcyclists. Of course can always carry the legislation with you but it only rates one point in the studies so need to weight up is it worth it.

  6. Anonymous

    My best result to being noticed on the road was when I had a white ex police BMW and a white helmet. Instant reaction from car drivers. The problem is that it looks dorky and when they realize you are not a cop their reaction ranges from being mildly annoyed to attempted murder

    • I have seen that combo and it got my attention too. They sell hi-vis vests in the UK that look a bit like the ones the police use and the results reported seem similar to what you experienced with some drivers getting hostile.

  7. Hi there

    I stumbled across your blog and was hoping you can help me determine where to ride in Tokyo if I rent a motorcycle for four hours?

  8. Hi there. Can you help me determine a ride in Tokyo? I'll be staying near shinjuku and renting a motorcycle in that area. I will be renting for four hours only. I am thinking of riding to Yokohama to see the bridge and road along the ocean. What do you think?

    • Hi Kevin, I cannot recommend riding around in Tokyo. It is over 30 million people in the greater Tokyo area. Yokohama is part of same metropolis and it's port is heavy industry. The roads are highly congested and there is multiple traffic jams at any hour of any day. Furthermore the roads are extremely difficult to navigate without dedicated Japan GPS to guide through junctions that can have 3 vertical levels multiple ramp options on each level to try pick with zero space to stop.

      To see nice seaside and have enjoyable ride you need two days, get on highway west and ride direct out of Tokyo to somewhere like the Isu region which I can highly recommend.

  9. Hi,

    Okay, I will continue to keep looking at routes. I can only do a 4hour rental – could you recommend a route or area to head towards with the starting point address of: 1 Chome-15-18 Chihaya, Toshima-ku, Tōkyō-to 171-0044, Japan.

    I'm guessing a route that would take me out of Tokyo the quickest might work?

  10. Sorry, I'm not sure if my last post made it through. I can only allocate time to do a 4 hour rental. Can you recommend a route to head towards with the starting point of Ikebukuro? Ideally, it'd be less than a 2 hour ride one way so that I can make it back.

    • Hi Kevin. If you have a GPS then you can try for Oume to the west, there is mountain roads from there which is closest nice place I can think to go but I doubt you will make it beyond the city within two hours whereupon you need turn around. Seems easy looking at Google maps but reality is can take a hour to move 10 km in Tokyo. Good luck.

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