In my previous installment of Risky Business, I looked at being vigilant and acutely aware of the hazards when riding on the street. This time let’s take a look from the other perspective, making yourself visible to other vehicles on the streets with you.
How often have you heard someone involved in an crash say “I never saw the other driver, rider, etc”. More often that you would think, this is actually a true statement. The driver may have actually been looking right at motorcycle and their brain never registered the bike as an object to avoid or be concerned with.
Drivers can get used to just looking for cars and other hazards on the road. Let’s face it, motorcycles just aren’t as plentiful on the roads as cars and trucks. It’s hard for some motorcyclists to understand this but as riders, we often take note of other bikes. Being on a bike seems to make us “tuned in” to see other bikes where drivers of cars simply aren’t.
So what can one do as a rider to mitigate this phenomenon? Let’s learn how to be seen. The following are some ways to improve your visibility on the road.
High visibility, or “High Viz”, riding gear has come into its own over the past few years and is becoming more and more popular among motorcycle riders. If you’re not familiar with the term, you’ve most likely at least seen riders in jackets, vests, and even helmets in bright fluorescent yellow-green or bright orange colors ( pink and red are sometimes used too).
These are the same colors that for years have been used by emergency, roadside, and other types of workers that are in situations where it is important that they be seen. Now these colors may not be the height of fashion or match the color of your bike but they are proven to be more eye catching than other colors.
The reason that fluorescent colors work so well is that they absorb and emit light in frequencies that the human eye is particularly sensitive to. This is great asset out on the road to help distinguish the rider (and bike) from other vehicles and the surrounding area of the road. Also when visibility is reduced due to rain or lower light conditions High Viz gear will improve your chances of being seen.
While High Viz gear can be effective during daylight and even less than perfect light conditions, what about nighttime?
If you ride at night High Viz colors are not much more effective than other colors for visibility. Reflective can be used to make one stand out when a car’s headlights have you in their beam. Many High Viz vests and jackets have reflective strips that will glow brightly when hit by direct lighting. But what if your High Viz gear doesn’t have reflective strips or spots on it.
Fortunately there are reflective accessories that can be used to stand out at night. One option is the use if reflective stickers. Starting from the ground up, there are reflective wheel stripes. While these can seem more like a fashion statement than a safety precaution, reflective wheel tape can really light up the night when headlights strike them. The side of a motorcycle is typically the “darkest” area of a bike at night with headlights and tail/brake lights being difficult to see from the side. It doesn’t help that some riders remove the factory side reflectors to make their bikes look
Speaking of the factory reflectors, one shouldn’t remove them. If some sort of customization requires their removal they should be relocated if at all possible. In some states (and countries) these reflectors are a required and can prevent the bike from passing inspection.
Moving up to the bike are lots of areas to apply reflective stickers and they are available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some of the most effective material is 3M® SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) reflective tape which incorporates reflective glass beads in the tape for an extremely bright reflection.
Other products include sheets of pre-cut stickers in various shapes incorporating Scotchlite® material allowing you to place the reflective adhesive material in various places on your ride. Stickers can also be placed on rear luggage and cases to help other vehicles understand how wide your touring rig is and that it is wider than the average street bike.
The thing with High Viz gear and reflective materials is that they are a “passive” way of increasing visibility, meaning that they rely on light from other sources to be effective. These solutions are also static as they do not move or pulse to add that extra bit of attention getting power. In order to really grab attention of other drivers on the road one needs to go on the offensive.
Ever notice that you can spot a police or emergency vehicle from a great distance? These vehicles use very bright lights, but more importantly, these lights flash or pulsate. To our brains the flashing is like movement so our attention is very quickly drawn to the source of the “movement”. How many times have you glanced over at the image on the right of the flashing motorcycle headlights. Getting kind of annoying isn’t it?
Annoying or not, it proves the point that a flashing light is hard to ignore. This is something motorcycle riders can take advantage of thanks to FMVSS 108 (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) which allows motorcycle headlight modulation systems in all 50 states.
Headlight modulators are pretty easy to install (typically) and available for most *incandescent headlight configurations. I had one of these on my SV650 and used it for over 20,000 miles and never had an issue. It also didn’t seem to shorten my bulb life as I never had to change one during that time. The real question is, however, do they work?
In my experience I have to say “Yes!”. After installing the modulator I noticed a real l drop in the number of vehicles that would pull out in front of me (or start to). The same was true for cars trying to change lanes “into” me. One might think that this was just psychological but I don’t believe so.
Editor’s Note: The use of headlight modulators is a subject that many riders seem strongly divided on. Some feel that they are a nuisance and they annoy other drivers/riders on the road. Others say to that “At least they are seeing me”. At present I am not running a modulator on my Ninja 1000 as the driving lights seem to work well for me. Each individual needs to decide what works best for them and their motorcycle.
During the time after I sold my SV650 and purchased a Triumph Sprint, I noticed that I appeared invisible to drivers again and vehicles seemed more apt to turn out in front of me. After I installed a modulator in the Triumph the occurrences dropped off noticeably .
If flashing everyone in front of you doesn’t sound appealing there are lots of options in the driving light style of add-on lighting. LED lighting has come down in price drastically over the past few years. As LED lights offer very high brightness for much less wattage than traditional bulbs, most motorcycle electrical systems can easily support a pair of very bright driving lights.
These lights are designed to help one see at night, they can make also be very effective at making the bike more conspicuous, even in full sunlight. They key is to mount the lights away from the headlight. This provides a larger “array” of bright spots coming down the road and will make you more noticeable.
I have a set of 9 watt LED lights mounted to the fork legs on my Ninja 1000 that are very visible during the day. Careful aiming of the housings also makes them useful at night while not “dazzling” drivers coming toward me.
In addition to the headlight, there are many kinds of modulators available for brake lights. There are units that modulate your existing brake light setup as well as accessory lights that flash on their own when the brakes are applied or even when one is simply slowing down with out the brake being applied.
I added a set of add-on brake lights from Skene to my Ninja 1000 last year. That particular kit allows one to customize various types of flashing sequences depending on your preference. For my part I just use them in the normal “extra brake light” mode because I feel the factory LED brake light is a little weak and hard to see with a top case installed.
Not all of these attention-getting modifications may be to your liking. I’ll admit that I don’t employ all of the myself. Motorcycling is a fun activity, but it is also an exercise in risk management. One has to decide how much risk to take each time you get out on the streets. Taking extra steps to be seen is certainly beneficial and has few if any drawbacks.
Note: This article originally appeared on Nashvilleriders.com in September, 2012. It has been edited to bring the content up to date as it is nearly five years old.