The Conspicuous Motorcyclist: Look, But Don't Touch

Maybe the other driver really can't see your black motorcycle or you in that in that dark jacket and helmet in the shade against that sea of black SUVs. Before you try loud pipes, there is a better, scientifically proven way of keeping him from overlooking

Been cut off in traffic lately? Everybody who rides a motorcycle in traffic has adventures with the lane-changer who doesn't look or the left-turner who doesn't see. Even out on nearly deserted roads you can be punted into the ditch by someone entering from a driveway who "didn't see him."

In the heavy L.A. traffic I endure most of the week, I used to get overlooked almost every day and have to take evasive action (usually not violent) once or twice a week. I used to assume that it just came with traveling on a small vehicle, but I have come to realize that it's not necessarily so.

The trick is making yourself or your motorcycle seen. We have all heard that BS about how "loud pipes save lives," but that ignores the fact that loud pipes project their noise backwards. Most threats -- and virtually all of the most dangerous ones -- are out ahead of you between the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions. If the guy who turns left in front of you hears any loud pipes at all, he does so only after it's too late. And, unless you are passing very slowly, the errant lane-changer probably won't hear you in time either. Any sound-based system of getting a driver's attention also must compete with the nosie sources inside the vehicle -- stereos, screaming kids, cellphones, etc. -- and is likely to be well insulated by the soundproofing of a modern car. The actual research on the issue says that bikes with loud pipes are more likely to be involved in accidents than bikes with stock exhaust systems.

Made Your Look

You can do much to catch the visual attention of other drivers. For one, you can position yourself where you can be seen. Watch the mirrors of cars you are overtaking on the highway, and accelerate through the driver's blind spots. Also be aware of blinds spots when changing lanes on multi-lane roads. When you approach an intersection, pick a lane position that places you within the line of sight of drivers waiting to turn across your line of travel.

Dark colors are stylish and camouflage the inevitable collisions with nature and flecks of chain lube thrown up by your buddy's bike, but they make you disappear into the shadows, trees and other non-threatening bits of landscape out in the background of that driver's vision. The worst color choices are those just slightly darker than neutral -- grays, light browns, and olive drab green. The best way to disappear is to wear camouflage, which after all was designed to help the wearer hide. Flat finishes are less intrusive than glossy ones, and multi-colored patterns may actually make you less obvious because, like camo, they break up your outline.

Even 15 years later, the best source of motorcycling safety data and advice is the "Hurt Report," a government-funded study done at the University of Southern California by a group of motorcyclists led by famed accident investigator Professor Harry Hurt. That report recommended painting the front of your bike bright colors -- whites and yellows -- and wearing a bright colored jacket. Unfortunately, unlike sport bikes and touring machines, few cruisers have any significant bodywork up front to paint. You can wear a bright colored jacket and helmet, however. A single yellow, orange, or almost anything flourescent will make you pop out from the background anywhere. No, they aren't the traditional black uniform or cruisers, but you are arugged individualist, a lone wolf who doesn't have to follow the herd, and you do dare to be different, right?

Shine Brightly

Even without bright colors, there is one thing you can easily do to help you catch the eye of that guy on the side street up ahead whose foot is just about to slide off the brake on to the throttle: Turn on your headlight -- and use the high beam during daylight. Sure, it annoys some people, but unlike loud pipes, it only affects those out there in your threat zone, not the person sitting in the living room listening to Beethoven. When I started using my high beam during the day, it soon became apparent that much fewer drivers were turning in front of me. My theory is that it makes an oncoming motorcycle appear closer than just a low beam and dissuades that guy from trying to jump into that gap in front of you. These days using you high beam also help separate you from the increasing number of cars fitted with daytime running lights.

I have experimented with several other strategies to make myself more visible. I wore a bright yellow jacket for several months and also tried one of those safety vests. The yellow jacket helped me a bit but not enough to make me give up the protection of leather. The safety vest had even less effect except at night, when its considerable reflective surfaces seemed to deter tailgating and also served as a back-up if my taillight failed.

However, about six months ago I tried something that virtually stopped all those transgressions into my right-of-way during the daytime. I started wearing a fluorescent-orange Shoei RF700 helmet. The effect was magical. In that time only one person has tried to "lane-share" with me and not one car has turned closely in front of me. Even drivers who don't check their mirrors regularly notice this glowing orange orb coming up behind them or at least catch the glow when as they eyes flick over their side mirror as they begin a lane-change. Drivers ready to turn in front of me always see me now, and very rarely to I even have to slow for a car that has turned into my lane.

Darkness, Darkness

None of those strategies work at night, of course. After dark, your best tactics for making other drivers aware of you are bright position lights (the running lights in the turn signals) up front which help them pick you out of a sea of headlights (especially tough when they are looking at you in a dirty or rain-splattered side mirror) and enable them to determine your approximate distance, direction and velocity. I'm not much of a fan of neon, but I saw a flashing blue neon license-plate frame that sure made you aware of its presence and position as you approached.

As the average age of motorists increases, being detected by the other guy is likely to be a growing problem. Motorcyclists are a smaller target out there on the road. We take up less space which makes it easier for us to slip through obstacles and our vehicles are more responsive, giving us further avenues of escape. But the best way to escape a bad situation is to avoid it in the first place, and making ourselves conspicuous is the most effective way of achieving that.

And if you say you are using loud pipes to protect yourself, I'm not going to believe you are serious about your safety if you haven't taken a less obnoxious approach -- and a much more proven one -- and put some some effort into making yourself visually loud as well.

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Bright, solid colors on your helmet, jacket or suit, and the front of your bike make it much easier for other drivers to see and identify you as a motorcyclist.
Riders with bright, light, solid colors stand out more and, according to good research, have fewer accidents. So why are you still wearing basic black?
Using high beam and, if you have them, spotlights, can make you stand out during the day. It may also make you appear closer, meaning drivers are less likely to pull out in front of you.