Jun 5, 2017

What You Need To Know About Picking A Safe Motorcycle Color

Recently I posted pictures of a red motorcycle and a black motorcycle to Facebook telling my friends I was considering a purchase and wondering which color they preferred. The majority picked red.

While I didn't ask why, several of those who picked red, told me it was out of concern for my safety. They believe a red motorcycle is more easily seen by other drivers.

Now having ridden motorcycles since 1974 and having owned red, white, blue, black, green, gray, and various two tone and even mural painted motorcycles, my own opinion was that the color of one's motorcycle makes no real difference in how visible you are to other traffic at night. And quite possibly, black motorcycles become the most visible in the daytime.

But that was just my opinion based on what my eyes were telling me. The truth was yet to be seen.

So I posted the following question to Facebook:

"I'd like some answers from real, experienced motorcyclists based on your many years of safe, and sometimes not so safe riding. In your opinion, does the color of your motorcycle make your motorcycle any safer and if yes, which colors are the safest?"

A friend, Paul, with whom I sometimes ride and who has been riding motorcycles even longer than I've been riding, had the following to say:

"Most bikes are either pulled out in front of or hit from behind while stopped. Both are when the least amount of machine can be seen."
I didn't reply to anyone's comments as I didn't want to influence the conversation.

A couple of friends suggested yellow as being the most visible.

So I decided to see if I could find out if there has ever been any scientific studies done on motorcycle colors and crashes and here's what I found.

From INVESTIGATION OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN VEHICLE COLOR AND SAFETY by Stephen O. Owusu-Ansah, University of Dayton:



The link above allows you to read the entire study from which the conclusion was taken.

"Consequently, we draw a conclusion based on the results of the present study that no vehicle color was found to be statistically significant."
Still, it seems to me that black vehicles of all kinds tend to stand out more in daytime traffic. Is it just me?

I decided to do more research while I waited on the results of my informal and unscientific poll. In this study I found:

"A high level of color contrast enhanced the visibility of motorcycles when they appeared in front of the participants."
Now you tell me, what color contrasts the natural daytime environment more than black?
Motorcyclists have long held the suspicion that green motorcycles are bad luck and when you take a look around North Carolina and most of the World's rural areas in the Spring and Summer, everything is green.

And in our suburban and urban environments? Red brick everywhere you look.

This other study I found via an article in The Guardian titled, Why cycling in high-vis may be not as safe as you think, had the following to say:


That's right, Black is back, Baby!
"Similar to the results of experiment 1, in urban environments the reflective and white clothing provided an advantage to the detection of the PTW, while in the inter-urban environment the black outfit presented an advantage."
Well, black is back except when it's not. There's a lizard living 'round these parts called a Carolina Anole-- ever seen one? I saw one just 2 weeks ago sitting atop a fence post. They use color to become invisible, counting on a lack of contrast to do their magic. Like a Chameleon the Anolis carolinensis can change its color to hide itself from predators and prey alike.

Ever notice the Military uses different color camouflage for different locations? Being seen, just like being invisible, is a riding style, a skill that riders learn over time, and assuming colors alone will increase your safety is a good way to get yourself killed.

The real trick to staying alive on a motorcycle is to make your motorcycle appear to be bigger and faster moving than it actually is.


Remember: the key word is appear. You achieve that appearance of big and fast through lighting and driving style-- not by going faster.

Of course, big motorcycles, being an illusion, can be difficult to achieve. And no one can do it 100% of the time.

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation cites a study saying:

"The color of and equipment on a motorcycle can play a significant conspicuity role."

But nowhere do they say which color. Wonder why that is?

Many years ago I painted an old Jeep in what I called Urban Camouflage. It was basically a standard military camo pattern using neon colors rather than the usual drab colors. Everyone who looked at it said the same thing, "They're going to see you coming a mile away."

Less than 500 miles after having done a full off-the-frame restoration, a woman in an Oldsmobile turned left, clipped the corner of my Jeep, and sent me, Jeep, and all, tumbling down the road. Years later I would learn about Dazzle camouflage as was used by the American and British Navy in World War I, not as camouflage but to confuse range and distance so that enemy gunners, who, prior to the invention of modern Rangefinders, estimated distance with their eyes. From Wikipedia:

"The American data were analysed by Harold Van Buskirk in 1919. About 1,256 ships were painted in dazzle between 1 March 1918 and the end of the war on 11 November that year. Among American merchantmen 2,500 tons and over, 78 uncamouflaged ships were sunk, and only 18 camouflaged ships; out of these 18, 11 were sunk by torpedoes, 4 in collisions and 3 by mines. No US Navy ships (all camouflaged) were sunk in the period."

Wish I'd had Wikipedia back then before I painted my Jeep. The woman driving the Oldsmobile saw me but thought I was much farther away than I really was. Even in a steel topped Jeep I ended up with lots of stitches to the top of my head. When the Jeep bounced on it's top the top collapsed into my head. Hitting her boat of a car on my bike would have probably killed me.

That's not to say that color has no roll in motorcycle safety. It does. But I think my friend Paul summed it up best and the studies seem to support:

"Most bikes are either pulled out in front of or hit from behind while stopped. Both are when the least amount of machine can be seen."

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation also says:

"Motorcycles equipped with additional frontal bodywork (fairings which protect the rider from wind and weather) were found to be under-represented in crashes where motorists violated the motorcyclist’s right-of-way. The larger the fairing and the brighter the color, the more effective it seemed to be in preventing other vehicles’ right-of-way violations (Hurt, 1981)."

But again, they don't tell us what colors are best. Me, I still believe the highest amount of contrast provides the greatest amount of safety. And depending on time of day, lighting, and weather conditions the color with the highest amount of contrast could be almost any color.

So I'm thinking go ahead and pick any color that trips your trigger. Whatever spins your back tire. If there were any conclusive evidence that one color makes motorcycles more visible in all situations, you can be certain big brother would mandate that all new motorcycles be painted that color-- no exceptions. Just remember the words of Sheriff Andy Taylor, AKA Andy Griffith, who said, "Barney, act like you got good sense."

And ride safe.

Photo credit: Robert Michniewicz (edited by Ark) - made by Robert Michniewicz and Wikipedia.