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.