In the animal world, the male of most species is always the most colorful, while the female is typically rather drab. The reverse custom seems to be the human preference, for some odd reason, but human beings frequently contradict the coldly unsentimental logic of nature. Here are some thoughts on certain aspects of bicycle and motorcycle safety that warrant close attention in an age of increasing irresponsibility on the shared roadways. [This is one prominent exception to the old Irish blessing that goes 'May the road rise up to greet you...!']
See and Be Seen: A Guide for Future Organ Donors
On my daily bicycle commute to work this morning, actually quite near my destination, I spotted a bright fluorescent pink (perhaps raspberry) dot in the distance. Judging from the fact that the bright dot was also occupying the bicycle lane I was following, it fell to reason that this was another bicyclist somewhat ahead of me. Since I travel at a fairly substantial speed (about 22 mph) on my bicycle, I quickly overtook this difficult-to-overlook visual phenomenon and found that the brilliant pink object was actually a bicycle messenger bag, slung across the back of an attractive young woman who was also commuting to work. Pausing long enough to exchange a few pleasantries as I drew abreast, I remarked on the highly visible bag’s value as a safety factor and then continued on my way.
As I have often reiterated in my past discourses on vehicular safety, among other things I am involved with aviation and roadway safety technology, frequently writing articles dealing with those topics for the general public. Two special complementary areas also of particular interest and importance to me are bicycle and motorcycle safety.
In general aviation, operating under what are called VFR conditions (VFR translates to ‘Visual Flight Rules’, a set of procedures used in clear conditions wherein primary responsibility for crash avoidance relies upon visual search for other aircraft by flight crew in the cockpit), the prime dictum is ‘See and be seen’. This expression quite perfectly expresses the principal safety rule to be followed when in the vicinity of other aircraft. A pilot helps avoid the possibility of mid-air collisions by ‘seeing’ other aircraft that may pose a hazard, due to possibly convergent flight paths in the air, and being certain that his aircraft is also ‘seen’ by other nearby aircraft. While ‘See and be seen’ originated in the aviation field, it has extremely important value as a basic safety philosophy for any situation involving vehicles being operated within close proximity to each other, whether in the air, on the ground, or on water.
Nowhere is that applicability more obvious than on our increasingly crowded streets and roadways, where inherently unstable (unstable owing to their dependence on gravity and inertia to remain upright) two-wheeled vehicles daily contend with far larger and potentially far more dangerous (due to their greater weight and mass) 4-wheeled vehicles for mutual space and operational safety.
One of the chief contentions that American traffic safety authorities have (mistakenly) held for decades is that all vehicles, whether small and light human-powered bicycles or large, fast and heavy automobiles, MUST operate under the same rules governing automobiles. The assumption that a bicycle (and/or motorcycle) is completely EQUAL to an automobile in terms of its operating constraints and requirements is not just wrong-headed, it is laughably absurd to an extraordinary degree. Therefore, insisting that bicycle riders follow exactly the same operating rules as motorists places two-wheeled vehicles at a disadvantage that verges on the suicidal, since there’s no question as to the outcome of any collision between a small, lightweight bicycle with its fragile and exposed rider and someone safely isolated within a four-wheeled, mobile protective steel juggernaut. That, however, is another subject that would require a separate article of many pages to do justice to, and since it is a tangential aspect of this subject (two-wheeled vehicle operator visibility), I won’t be lured into vectoring off in that direction (despite the temptation).
Given the absolutely monolithic opposition that exists in our bureaucratic institutions to accepting the compelling logic that human-powered bicycles should not have to operate under exactly the same constraints as motorised vehicles, and given that most of this opposition is firmly based in an unwillingness to allocate the additional transportation funding that would be required to plan and construct separate bicycle paths, off and away from roadways, that leaves us two-wheel operators faced with a far more limited set of protective safety margins with which to shield ourselves from the hazardous possibilities of death or severe injury (attributable to motorist carelessness or simple disregard).
Whether operating a human-powered vehicle or a two wheeled motorised cycle, a great number of carefully conducted research studies have demonstrated beyond a vestige of reasonable doubt that the single most effective defense a cyclist may employ is to assure that he/she may be seen by others in close proximity. It doesn’t take two active brain cells to figure out that, aside from not making risky maneuvers around those big 4000-6000 pound iron beasts two-wheelers are forced to ‘share the road’ with, the best way to accomplish this is to wear bright, high-visibility clothing and gear and at least make it difficult NOT to see you well before you’ve reach the point where your lightly-clad carcass is in dire jeopardy of being smeared across several square yards of tarmac by careless or distracted motorists.
However…big pause for effect…just because it doesn’t take two active brain cells to figure this out doesn’t mean that everyone accepts the pointed, obvious logic behind that assertion. Various semi-ephemeral factors such as personal outlook, regard for peer approval, etc., etc. constitute a hefty virtual monkey wrench that is thrown into the matter, creating annoying contention that strays widely off the principal issue of ‘safe practices’ and into such areas as fashion, status, personal values and individual perception .
Assuming that one accepts the logic that being seen acts in one’s best interests when on a two-wheeled vehicle, why is it that a search of available gear and helmets on the market reveals that bright colored helmets, jerseys, jackets and other rider gear are relatively scarce? In fact, despite the fact that several prestigious studies have shown time and time again that high-viz colors such as bright ‘safety green’ are most effective at being seen over a distance, there are absolutely NO ‘safety green’ bicycle rider helmets produced today. In a parallel manner, there are few bright colored motorcycle helmets of ANY shade to be found on the market. The closest that motorcycle helmets come to being made available in bright colors are the standard white helmets (since white ranks high up on the visibility list, just behind ‘safety green’, interestingly enough).
Each day, whether riding my bicycle to the office or riding my motorcycle for pleasure, I am repeatedly impressed by the preference so many 2-wheelers have for drab, dark, hard-to-see colors (both in terms of their helmets and their clothing choices). As someone who recognises the importance of high-visibility colors for safety, I am hard pressed to understand this, unless it stems from factors not readily singled out (or even perhaps understood) by the individuals themselves.
It’s a known fact that manufacturers of recreational protective gear for potentially hazardous activities (like cycling, motorcycling, et al) are only partially concerned with rider safety, as shocking as that may be to say, and then most likely only due to the costly threat of expensive legal actions. Thus, helmets may be constructed to impact standards, but not necessarily in conformance with other criteria that clearly links bright colors to enhanced safety. Since these businesses are, like every other commercial activity, driven by profit, their marketing adjuncts know that concessions to style will generate more corporate profits than rigid adherence to overall safety considerations.
Speaking of this, you may or may not have noticed that almost all bicycle helmets (and certainly ALL of the most expensive ones by well known makers like GIRO, BELL, etc.) feature swoopy, aerodynamic looking ridges on their upper rear aspect. At the relatively low speeds that most cyclists travel, such aerodynamic affectations are merely that, an affectation. They serve no practical purpose other than looking ‘cool’ and perhaps further enhancing vent cooling capabilities to some limited extent. However, the safety helmet corporations also greatly fear that their products might be seen as appearing ‘dorky’, ‘clunky, or just ‘unstylish’, so these ridges that characterise most bicycle helmets remain as a most conspicuous feature purely as a concession to style (read: profits).
Ironically, a number of safety research studies have revealed that these ridges mentioned above may actually pose a hazard in themselves, since while a smoothly rounded helmet surface will skid along a flat surface (the roadway) and not grab at it, a helmet with ridges may actually get caught on small imperfection on the roadway surface, causing sudden reflexive dynamic hyperextension of the neck in a crash situation that can cause spinal damage (even paralysis). Of course, the helmet manufacturers choose to deliberately turn a blind eye to this body of scientific knowledge, feeling that ‘swoopy’ helmets with aerodynamic ridges will sell far better than unsculpted helmets with rounded curves. And they are right, more’s the pity in terms of consumer safety!
The same marketing attitude is very likely present in the relative lack of bright, high-visibility colors to choose from among both contemporary bicycle and motorcycle helmets. Colors such as black predominate among motorcycle riders owing to a misperception that black is a ‘cool’ look that identifies the wearer as being somehow a rough, tough ‘bad-boy’ who doesn’t worry about such things as personal safety. This laughable idea appears to have its origin back in the 1950s, when Brando forever popularised the motorcycle outlaw in his film ‘The Wild One’. Ever since that time, black apparel has become almost synonymous with the stereotyped image of the ‘outlaw biker’ and whether one is a true outlaw or not, black remains identified with the rebellious protests of adolescence (a retarded state of development that many adults are still ensnared in, as ‘arrested adolescents’) and has shown no sign of going away any time soon.
The only reason why helmets are even produced in white is almost coincidental to the fact that the very first ‘hard’ safety helmets used in cycle and auto racing of the 1950s were constructed with a white shell, a color that resisted effects of solar heating better than darker colors and tended to lessen the possibility of heat exhaustion by the wearer. Today, white and black remain as the two preferred choices of most motorcycle riders as a result of these two causative factors (the ‘outlaw’ look and the ‘auto-racer’ look) and it is apparently almost a losing battle to introduce other, brighter colors that are proven to be markedly safer. Although the auto racing and motorcycle racing scene stimulates consumer interest in buying ‘replica’ helmets, done up in the personal graphics favored by NASCAR and professional cycle racers, the attraction is once more purely one of style and there is no similar concession made for visual safety value.
At the present moment, due to the steep rise in petroleum fuel prices, more interest than ever before is being generated in alternative means of transport like the bicycle. A proportionate rise in the sales of smaller two-wheeled motorised vehicles has also been noted as Americans, long ‘spoiled’ by gas prices kept artificially low (through corporate and Federal subsidies) to promote the automobile industry (and related businesses), have turned to less expensive two-wheeled vehicles in ever greater numbers. At the same time, unlawful use of highly distracting, hand-held cellular communications devices by automobile drivers (predominately by younger drivers, although many older adults engage in the practice as well) has also risen appreciably, thus notably increasing the risk of collisions and/or accidents attributable to carelessness and irresponsible disregard for the safety of others.
Both of these trends are responsible for what is generally recognised by safety experts as a remarkable increase in risk associated with bicycle and/or motorcycle use on the roadways. Statistically, that risk is being borne out by higher fatality stats and greater incidence of serious injury among cycle users. Any logical analysis of all these facts would strongly suggest that any and all measures should be taken to help offset that higher risk, yet few bother to comment on these figures outside of the so-called ‘safety establishment’. A few scholarly papers result, studies are conducted, analysed and then filed away for use by other stat-gatherers and writers, but meanwhile the practical impetus of the findings fails to reach the public. The average public person has little if any awareness of all this and it is likely safe enough to say that there is almost no conscious awareness of the need for enhanced safety as ‘new’ (relatively inexperienced) bicyclists and motor-cyclists take to the road in ever increasing numbers.
Very recently, as a life-long bicyclist (but also motorcyclist, despite the well recognised hazards of that inherently unsafe activity), I found myself in need of adopting a new hot-weather outfit for my daily bicycle commute. My old cut-off red T-shirt had just about disintegrated after years of use and repeated washings, so I decided to look around for a ‘safety green’ sleeveless T-shirt. After an exhaustive search of the internet for a suitable item that fit my criteria (T-shirt, sleeveless and ‘safety green’), I was somewhat perplexed to find that although companies selling occupational safety equipment offered safety green T-shirts, few actually fabricated the sleeveless variety (which I greatly prefer for hot weather use). None of the many bicycle shops and businesses even offered these items for bicyclist’s use, more amazingly. Instead, one found conventionally designed and produced bicycle jerseys (often quite expensive) offered in a wide array of graphic designs, but none of them particularly eye-arresting in terms of being brightly visible.
Now, perhaps it is the latent social anarchist streak in me, but I have always religiously eschewed the conventions of traditional bicycle apparel. With the exception of Spandex bike shorts, I normally avoid ‘regular’ bicycle apparel. I would far and above prefer to wear a simple cut-off T-shirt any day (costing a few dollars) to any of the status-recognition bicycle jerseys that bicycle businesses sell for substantially hefty prices to wheelmen. I was accordingly rather off put by being unable to find a simple safety green sleeveless T-shirt. Finally, though, my persistence paid off and I was able to find a perfectly suitable 50/50 blend (cotton/polyester) T-shirt in safety green that was sleeveless, although I found out that the company selling them (the company’s name is ‘Hank’s Clothing’ in the state of New York) actually had to cut off the short sleeves they were manufactured with and hem them, so as to be able to provide a sleeveless shirt. The shirts are quite cheap, only $10 each, so I bought several of them and have found them absolutely perfect for my needs during hot weather commuting by bicycle.
Hank’s is probably one of the few such retail establishments that sell an item like this, from what I have seen, despite learning (during my search) that others apparently have also been trying to find similar items for bicycle use. Once again my experience prompted me to suspect that there are other reasons why obviously ‘safe’ items like this are in such short supply. Style and peer-approval both seem to be factors, as well as I am able to determine.
Earlier I mentioned the ‘dork’ factor that prompts bicycle helmet companies to cater to style preferences over inherent safety values. There seems to be some sort of bias against these bright high-visibility colors among many people, if my intuitions are to be relied upon, since I have occasionally run across pointed references in the various media to the fact that some individuals appear to feel that being so conspicuous in public is somehow aesthetically undesirable. My outlook holds to the extreme polar opposite view, at least when it comes to being in proximity to hazards and dangers posed by vehicles. When I run, for instance (and I do this daily), my 2+ miles training course takes me from my office at the California State Treasurer’s Office and down along the long mall that reaches from it towards the Sacramento River (‘Capitol Mall’). Since the course has many stoplights, cross-walks and intersections along its length, it helps to stand out and be seen. Automobiles making right turns around corners on red lights may not be particularly mindful of pedestrians under normal circumstances, but wearing a bright, high-visibility T-shirt helps increase the odds in favor of a runner being noticed, so I have found. Once again, different venue, same rule: ‘See and be seen’. Given the clear advantage that being seen by motorists offers, I’d have to be pretty slavish to style if I felt that I stood out as someone who was somehow ‘uncool’. And if it comes down to that, I’d rather be a live dork than a hip corpse any day.
This subtle ‘reactivity factor’ (let’s call it that, lacking any other useful term) that I have noted in many individuals is a strange thing. As a bicyclist I have noted it in the sometimes aggressive response drivers of larger vehicles like SUVs and pickups occasionally demonstrate in the presence of cyclists. Actions like deliberately failing to yield the right of way, a sort of non-specific threatening stance often observed being taken by some motorists around cyclists, suggests to me that some motorists feel intangibly threatened by two-wheeled vehicle riders. Accordingly, the wear of bright colors might then have the untoward effect of waving a red flag to aggravate a bull; it’s the sort of ignorant, unreflective reaction you’d expect from someone who is not well educated or who is a bit conservative in their outlooks and opinions. At any rate, excluding that sort of esoteric hazard, the act of visibly standing out through use of highly colorful gear (helmet, shirt, etc.) is likely to be far more of an asset than a liability in most situations encountered on a bicycle or motorcycle.
Survival on any two-wheeled vehicle, given the inarguably increased hazards a cyclist faces on the roadways these days, depends to a great extent on anticipating the actions of ‘the enemy’ (roughly defined as any large, four wheeled vehicle that is in close proximity) well in advance, possessing quick reflexes, and not making any unanticipated or unexpectedly sudden movements near larger vehicles on the road or street that might provoke a collision or 'startle reaction'. The key is to act as 'expected’ as possible, so to speak. Hopefully using common sense to operate a two-wheeled vehicle appropriately AND using brightly colored gear will provide as large a margin of safety as might be reasonably expected.
As far as high visibility colors are concerned, a number of studies have shown that the color known as ‘safety green’ (sometimes referred to as bright lime green, or bright lime-yellow) has the greatest safety factor of any color in the visible spectrum. Decades ago, public safety (fire, etc.) vehicles used to be red. More recently, high-visibility orange gained increasing favor and was adopted almost universally by military aviation life support and survival organisations to aid search and rescue operations personnel in being able to spot victims. After years of use by the US Air Force, however, statistics offered up the startling fact that use of ‘survival orange’ clothing and gear did not appear to have ever been a decisive factor in the successful survival and recovery of a downed pilot. Shortly after that finding was discussed, sophisticated laboratory studies examining the value of certain colors to enhance visibility determined that of all the colors, bright, high-visibility lime-yellow green appeared to be the best possible hue to draw attention. That color was shown to be measurably more effective in low-light situations, equally effective under artificial light (incandescent lighting) and the brightest color in the visible light spectrum.
It was therefore adopted in place of former shades of warning color (reds, oranges, etc.) for public works safety apparel, use by public safety personnel, and for issue to anyone operating in or around significant hazards. Today, ‘safety green’ (or bright lime-yellow) is the preferred high visibility color used around the world, almost without exception.
Travel on two wheels has never been simple or effortless. The entire history of two-wheeled transportation has been fraught from its onset with a range of problematic concerns, not least of which has been ordinary ‘reactivistic bias’ by individuals who possess a narrowly limited outlook on or perception of life’s broader possibilities. Despite an American tradition of championing the underdog, and/or taking the side of the least advantaged in any conflict involving human will, our modern culture centered in self-gratification and consumer materialism has continually eaten away any former broad sympathies the average person might maintain towards those battling superior odds (whether political, social, or economic). That spirit of taking the side of the put-upon likely originated in aspects of the Christian religion emphasizing so-called ‘Christian charity’ (e.g. ‘love thy enemies’, et al.), but as rampant Western consumerism has grown, feeding upon human ignorance and the indigenous human desire to gratify one’s self foremost, such religiously altruistic ethics have faded away to the point where sympathetic regard for others is now firmly emplaced upon the ‘endangered qualities’ list of American characteristics.
As the demographics of vehicular forms of transportation continue to change, with more and more vehicles crowding existing roads and streets (both of automobiles and bicycles/motorcycles), more recent economic changes (specifically the rising cost of petroleum fuel) have caused a substantial surge in the number of riders of both bicycles and motorcycles sharing the roads with four wheeled vehicles. A further dynamic making its influence felt via statistics is the fact that older Americans figure significantly in the numbers of those who are now cycling. While this would not necessarily be an alarming fact in and of itself, it is a demonstratable fact that as human beings age, their reflexes and thinking processes slow measurably, placing them at statistically greater risk of being involved in an accident in circumstances wherein vehicles are crowded together and traveling at high rates of speed (i.e. on freeways and busy city streets). This dynamic is already being seen on the latest statistical studies involving vehicular mortality and accident rates and the ‘serious accident’ rate involving bicycles and motorcycles in particular is rising disproportionately.
Given these facts, it stands to reason that every possible asset needs to be managed effectively if a diminishing margin of safety that two-wheeled vehicle drivers may now enjoy is to be preserved (all other things being equal and assuming appropriate situational awareness is maintained by all drivers, all the time). Naturally, one of the biggest potential detriments to enhancing two-wheeled vehicle safety, aside from basic irresponsible behavior and diminished adolescent awareness, is adult driver distraction. With the massive disregard for laws making use of cellular communication devices illegal that exists, incidents in which automobile drivers fail to maintain adequate regard for the safety of bicycle and motorcycle riders abound. Given these facts and a reasoned assumption that nothing is going to change this unhappy status quo any time soon, the only real control two-wheeled vehicle owners have over this situation is to exert as much proactive caution as possible while under way.
Of the possible actions two wheelers may take to maintain that slim margin of control is to make themselves as visible as possible, since even a distracted driver (or even a simple-minded dipshit) may see bright color out of the corner of his eye in time to avoid causing an accident. The argument for ‘bright yellow-lime’ (or ‘safety green’) is accordingly quite easy to make, in this context. Darker clothing and gear should be avoided like the plague, unless one has a substantial death-wish (of coure many motorcycle riders seem to have a subliminal death wish, anyway, given the risks and hazards implicit).
Interestingly, darker clothing has a substantial link to certain events that took place in 1947 over the 4th of July weekend, when the American Motorcycle Association scheduled a rally in the small town of Hollister, CA. Over 4,000 motorcyclists (many of them WWII veterans who had become motorcycle enthusiasts following the war) descended upon the town and their sheer numbers soon overwhelmed civic order there. Due to ‘yellow journalism’ reports that described events there in lurid detail not fully deserving of the actual event, the scene came to be viewed by the public as a mass riot of outlaw ‘bikers’. Although there were incidents of public drunkenness and street racing, the level of general violence and disorderly conduct was grossly distorted by the news media who were eager to draw in their audiences with wildly exaggerated accounts of the affair. To this day, the popular public impression that is associated with Hollister on that date is one of 'out of control motorcycle outlaw gangs', a misconception popularised to no small extent by Hollywood’s ‘The Wild One’ movie (starring Marlon Brando as the leader of an outlaw MC gang). The favored garb of such ‘outlaw bikers’ was Levis and a black leather jacket, which quickly became a uniform (remember 'Fonzie' of 'Happy Days'?) for rebellious adolescents of the 50s (most motorcycles were also produced only in black paint).
Thanks partly to our American fascination with the Wild West outlaws, the image of socially hip, cool adolescent rebelliousness soon fixated on the ‘outlaw biker’ image, all of which became indelibly linked to the color black that symbolised the motorcycle rider image throughout the 1950s. Only when Ochiro Honda came along and ‘nicified’ motorised two-wheeled vehicles once again with his successful ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda’ marketing campaign did the status quo change appreciably. From about the mid-60s onwards, motorcyclists generally split into two camps, one being riders who favored large, noisy, traditional American motorcycles of the Harley-Davidson type and the other consisting of those who preferred the new, adfvanced Japanese ‘street-racer’ technology.
While darker clothing and gear remains the choice of the former group (and to some extent of the latter), the latter group at least have less built-in aesthetic bias against brighter colored clothing and gear. Among what are called ‘roadie’ bicyclists, brightly colored clothing has been a favored norm for decades, although helmets for the general public riders tend towards more subdued colors rather than very bright ones. As an aside, I’m sure the psychology of this matter regarding color preferences would make for a fascinating research study, but unfortunately there’s no room here for tangential reflections beyond those superficialities already hinted at!
The bottom line regarding the need to gain widespread acceptance for high-visibility colors throughout the pro two-wheel transportation community is this: bright colors enhance survival in an increasingly distracted, increasingly dense pack of road users. We need to get that message out however and whenever we may if we are to keep the bicycle and motorcycle roadway fatality stats from zooming up and off the charts.
One last word on high-viz. Both bicyclists and motorcyclists need to keep the pressure up on gear manufacturers to provide adequate high-viz options in helmets, jackets, and protective clothing. While very good weather-proof bright ‘safety green’ jackets are generally available for bicyclists these days, high-viz options for helmets are another story. Bicycle protective helmet manufacturers need to get the message that consumers demand this option in addition to conventional ‘decorative’ colors. In warm weather, rather than spending lots of money on expensive, trendy, graphics covered bicycle jerseys, a far better option is to find a good-quality cotton or cotton-polyester blend sleeveless ‘safety green’ T-shirt. If a search for a sleeveless T of this type proves problematic, a conventional short-sleeved ‘safety green’ T-shirt may be bought at just about any safety products business and the sleeves cut off.
For the record, after several such fruitless searches myself (for a sleeveless ‘safety green’ T), I finally stumbled across an East Coast clothing store called ‘Hank’s Clothing’ (located in New York) that sells a good quality T of this type for only $10. These are cheap, comfortable and long-lasting. I’ve bought several myself, since you never know when you’ll run across more of the ‘sleeveless’ variety, and I am quite happy with them.
For motorcyclists, there’s too much ‘name brand’ commercialism and too few practical options in high-viz protective gear and helmets in the market. Hardly anyone offers high-viz motorcycle helmet (see 'Rev-Zilla' URL below) options, although good road-worthy protective jackets are now available in reasonable quantity. Given the paucity of high-viz helmets for motorcycling use, a cheap option may be to simply mask off and spray your road helmet with a can of high-quality, high-viz green. [One word of caution here; since some paints can actually damage (chemically weaken) newer polymer helmet shells, care should be taken to determine the suitability of a selected paint for this application before availing this option.]
Two very good sources for high visibility motorcycle jackets are AEROSTICH and MOTORCYCLE SUPERSTORE, however one of the best sources (in my opinion) for high-visibility motorcycle helmets and jackets is REV-ZILLA. I was delighted to find that Rev-Zilla actually specialises in high-viz MC gear. AEROSTICH offers some of the highest quality and most thoughtfully designed motorcycle wear on the market today, while MOTORCYCLE-SUPERSTORE carries an incredibly broad variety of high-quality riding jackets (with some high-viz models among them). For an unmatched range of quality high-viz gear and helmets, though, REV-ZILLA takes top honors.
In the interim, regardless of what action you yourself take to remain highly conspicuous on the roadway (among 4000-6000 pound steel, four-wheeled killing machines), strive to always think SAFETY, both for yourself and the sake of those dim-bulb yahoos in cars whose distracted lapses of judgment could well make you a highly visible RED smear across several lanes of pavement!
[And in case any of you are wondering how a safety-minded bicycle person can justify the greatly increased hazards of also operating a motorcycle, the personalised (vanity) plate on my Yamaha FZR 1000 is 'PSYCHOL'...]
SOME ADDITIONAL NOTES ON TWO-WHEELED CONSPICUITY
Very recently, I happened to be reading a book titled ‘More Proficient Motorcycling: Mastering the Ride’. Written by David L. Hough, the book is an amazing comprehensive compendium of timely information bearing on the ‘art’ and science of riding a powerful motorised two-wheeled vehicle safely.
Although I have never encountered Hough’s work previously (despite being well read, apparently I am not well read enough, since Hough is an acknowledged authority on motorcycle safety!), I had been recently prompted to pick up a few new books on cycling operation and riding, given the recent acquisition of a new (and powerful) sports bike with a lot more ‘oomph’ than my trusty old 1982 Yamaha XJ750R Seca. With the liability of my advancing age (a status concurrent with appreciably slowing reflexes) and the increasingly reckless disregard distracted motorists of all types of vehicles are now daily manifesting on freeways and streets, I thought it would be a good idea to broaden my repertoire of skills and awarenesses a bit before hitting the mean streets on my new suicycle.
Hough’s book is a very, very valuable asset for anyone who already rides or has ridden for a number of years, but it is definitely a ‘must read’ for anyone with little or no experience on motorcycles. The pages of Hough’s book are full of extremely cogent and thoughtful insights into just about any aspect of motorcycling you can think of. Not least among them are several sections on the artful practice of the ‘see and be seen’ school of thought written about above.
Hough relates that a Road Rider Magazine (a popular motorcycle periodical) journalist, some years ago, had reservations about the ‘high-visibility’ and conspicuity recommendations contained in the famous ‘Hurt Report’ (the ‘Motorcycle Accident Factors Study’, released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1980 and named for principle researcher Harry Hurt). Accordingly, this journalist decided to do some research of his own on ‘hi-viz conspicuity’. Since he daily commuted to work on his motorcycle, he decided to perform a series of tests on the roadways employing three different levels of ‘visibility’. Starting off with a sort of ‘stealth’ appearance, using a narrow, dark colored motorcycle, he rode with his headlight off and donned black riding gear (jacket, pants, helmet) for a week. The next week he rode a bright yellow touring bike, donned equally bright clothing & helmet, and rode with all his lights on (‘high visibility mode’). The third and final week he rode a white and black road bike (a big Harley), wore a khaki shirt, tall black leather boots, a white & black visored half-helmet and sunglasses (‘cycle cop mode’). The object of his study was to see how frequently automobile motorists violated his right of way or otherwise behaved recklessly around him while riding to work in each of the three modes described.
His findings were quite startling but extremely revealing in that there were noticeably fewer safety infractions occurring around him while he was wearing the ‘police’ mode gear. Otherwise, the dark and hard to see ‘stealth mode’ and the ‘conspicuity’ (high-visibility) mode were both regarded with about the same level of disregard by motorists! So much for the purported value of ‘see and be seen’, so the initial findings would appear to suggest. Author Hough’s conclusion was that ordinary drivers actually have no real difficulty ‘seeing’ motorcyclists but treat them with varying levels of concern. Clearly, motorists have a particularly watchful regard for the ‘threat’ that a motorcycle cop poses to them, whereas they perceive no threat in an ordinary dark-clothed or highly visible cyclist. Drivers are therefore quite capable of picking out a perceived ‘threat’, even if it isn’t conspicuous due to high-viz appearance (bright colors, lights, et al). [In this very human response, the brain’s primitive Amygdala is hard-wired to prioritise threat above almost anything else (including food and sex).]
In seeming support of this theory that drivers selectively regard cyclists on a screening basis more highly prioritised for ‘threat’ than the obvious ‘assumed safety value’ of mere high visibility, I would imagine almost all of us can recall having seen various public functions (such as funeral processions) being escorted by Harley-Davidson motorcycle riding individuals who at first glance appear to be regulation LEO (Law Enforcement Officer), owing to their conspicuous motorcycle cop riding gear and big B&W motorcycles; in fact these are merely club motorcyclists that perform services like this as a courtesy (not in a law enforcement capacity) and for fees. I remember being taken in every time by the sight of these pseudo cycle cops; their appearance is deliberately quite suggestive of the real thing, despite their purely civilian status. The result is unignorably effective.
So what is the overall conclusion that one might draw here, given this rather unsettling data? It would be easy to postulate that high-viz conspicuity does not assure any cyclist of appropriate safe regard and consideration any more than does fresh road-kill. There is also what I like to call the ‘asshole’ factor to consider, a sort of reactively aggressive (often overtly belligerent) bias against anything on two wheels (whether on a bicycle or on a motorcycle) displayed by many mean-spirited morons in cars. However, that having been said, and given the tendency of any target population to contain as many thoughtful, intelligently well-intended individuals as immature dipshits, the use of high visibility/conspicuity aids such as lights and brightly colored riding gear is STILL highly recommended. The chances that a distracted driver will respond somewhat faster to augmented/enhanced visual safety cues are about even, meaning that ‘see and be seen’ is still among the best tactics any two-wheeled vehicle operator may employ to appreciably increase survivability (the other ‘best tactic’ is, of course, ‘always drive safely and defensively’ on any two-wheeled vehicle). Have a safe ride!