Be Conspicuous: The Fine Art of Being Seen
The statistics on motorcycle crashes are truly sobering. Of all the many factors that contribute to these accidents, inattention by other motorists is the most frightening, because it seemingly takes our safety out of our hands. Ride long enough, and someone in a car will eventually push you toward a crash.
A 2013 study of motorcycle crash trends in North Dakota found that, in 2/3 of bike accidents in that state, motorcycles had the right-of-way. These ROW accidents happen when another car either enters a motorcycle’s lane or pulls in front of it. They commonly result in an angled crash, with catastrophic damages to bike and rider. National studies back up these findings. Car drivers cause the majority of motorcycle accidents.
As motorcyclists, we become accustomed to the fact that our safety is in our own hands, but we still tend to get angry at other drivers when they don’t see us. Distracted drivers are a constant menace, but there are things we can do to be more conspicuous to those who are paying attention. Motorcycle conspicuity — our ability to stand out from our surroundings — should be a major consideration in our personal safety decisions
Many countries around the globe mandate daytime running lights (DRLs) on motorcycles. Though the U.S. has no federal law requiring these always-on headlights, many states do. If you’re lucky enough to own a pre-1979 motorcycle without a DRL, consider keeping it on anyway. Evidence continually points to DRLs as reducing daytime multiple-vehicle collisions.
Other effective tools in the conspicuity bag include headlight modulators and the use of high beams in daylight hours. Headlight modulators get attention by oscillating the intensity of a headlamp’s beam, creating a strobe effect. Auxiliary lights help us see in low light, especially off road, and their unusual placement also increases our chances of being seen.
The daytime use of high beams may distract other drivers, though, and the same may be true for headlight modulators. Still, if you’re annoying people, then they see you. Researchers continue to debate the ultimate effectiveness of these solutions, but DRLs remain undeniably effective.Hi-Viz Gear
You’ve either seen them or you are them. Black bike, black leather, black helmet (or no helmet). Riding a bike means looking the part, and dark, non-reflective gear permeates the safety market. Bright, neon-like colors have been out of style since the 1980s ended, but high-visibility gear is ubiquitous in work zones on the highway.
There is a reason why traffic cops and road crews wear those brightly colored vests: The neon-like colorways get attention. Passing motorists are used to yielding to people wearing these colors. They are scanning for them, so they notice when they are present.
Hi-viz gear works, but some people are averse to the loud colors, and that’s okay. Any bright color can help you command attention in traffic — hi-viz just works best. A brightly colored motorcycle and a matching helmet stand out more than drab colors. The helmet’s height in traffic is also beneficial because it is unusual to drivers — They notice it, but only if they can see it.
For nighttime conspicuity, consider adding reflective clothing and stickers to your bag of tricks. Reflective materials flash and glow when headlights hit them in low-light conditions, commanding attention from other motorists. Modern psychological research shows that these materials, especially when combined with the chevron shape or European-style Battenburg markings, stand out to motorists who are used to scanning for more common vehicles. It works for emergency vehicles, and it will work for you.
After an accident with a bike, motorists often comment that the motorcycle they hit seemingly came out of nowhere. Their words mimic the person who almost steps on a snake, and for good reason. Like a camouflaged snake, motorcycles blend in with their surroundings, but they also often hide behind objects and seem to simply materialize when they are clear of them.
Lane position is one factor beginning riders and veterans both overlook, but they do so at their peril. Choose your position in a lane so that you maximize your conspicuity. Give other drivers every chance to see you by swinging toward the middle of a two-lane road, especially at intersections. Don’t tuck in next to the curb or near parked cars. Make room as you approach the other vehicle, but position yourself in open space when possible.
Be ever conscious of your bike’s smaller silhouette and its ability to blend in with what’s around you. No matter how big your bike may be, your silhouette will fold neatly in with surrounding vehicles, architecture or greenery. Understand that your headlight can blend with the vehicle behind you, even if it is half a mile back. Be an active participant in your own safety and always looking for ways to stand out, such as always using hand signals, even though your turn signal is blinking.
One way I avoid blending in with the headlights behind me is to swerve within my lane as I approach traffic. I move from the far left of the lane to the far right like a racer scuffing and warming new tires (which doesn’t work for motorcycles). This way, my headlight moves between the ones behind me, giving oncoming motorists the best chance to see me.
The old adage says, “Ride like you’re invisible.” Drivers don’t see motorcycles because they are not looking for us. They are either distracted or are scanning for cars, trucks, pedestrians and any number of other things they encounter more often. When you make being conspicuous a habit, you improve your chances of making it home safely. But don’t trust that people see you, even when they look directly at you. Ride like you’re a ghost, so that you don’t become one.
At 1MotoShop, we take your safety as seriously as you do. That’s why we carry a full line of high-visibility gear. Our Hi-Viz helmets and safety gear grab attention on the road, day or night. Your lights can’t help you be seen if their lenses break. Check out our headlight and auxiliary-light guards to keep your lenses intact on your next off-road adventure. Also, be sure your brake pads are in tip-top shape so you can stop when trouble arises. We have fully sintered, high-performance brake pads to fit most makes and models.
For more on Hi-Viz apparel and other motorcycle conspicuity issues, check out the SMARTER website (formerly Hi-Viz.org) and its links to conspicuity research studies.
This NHTSA study shows the undeniable benefits of auxiliary lighting on motorcycles.
This Nick Ienatsch article in Sport Rider magazine describes tactics for surviving urban motorcycle rides.