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“Conspicuity” - What is it & why you need to worry about it


Posted on - 04/11/2007
by ABH

"Conspicuity" is the level or quality of being "conspicuous." This term has become a hot buzzword in accident reconstruction and accident analysis. The "whack me on the head" theory here is that people riding motorcycles who make themselves or their machines more "conspicuous" will be less likely to become involved in accidents. Does wearing a black helmet versus a white one make a difference? Are black jacketed riders more likely to become involved in crashes than those wearing Day-Glo Yellow vests?

Bernard S. Abrams, a Columbus eye doctor and good friend, was a leader in the world of "conspicuity." Prior to his recent death, Bernie testified frequently as an expert witness in many cases where a motorist claimed "I didn't see." the motorcyclist, bicyclist or other patently visible object. He believed that 90% of motor vehicle accidents could be avoided by improving the visual aspects of vehicles, signals, clothing and lighting and spent his life trying to prove this in court.

I don't know if Bernie's theory can be statistically supported, but in 2004 a group of epidemiologists and medical professors published an article in the British Medical Journal entitled "Motorcycle rider conspicuity and crash related injury: case-control study." While there are several studies on the use of headlights in the daytime due to an ongoing political battle over requiring lights, there were very few studies comparing "conspicuity" and the risk of crash: four, to be exact, all over 20 years old. Hurt [he of the infamous "Hurt Study" discussed in last month's article] did find that wearing an highly visible "upper torso" garment was associated with a lower level of crashes.

The BMJ article [which can be read at www.bmj.bmjjournals.com] discusses research conducted in New Zealand over the course of three years. They wanted to find out whether relatively low cost measures - a light, a helmet, some bright colored clothing - could make a difference in accident risk. Without going into an in depth discussion of the research methods, the conclusions they reached were:

  1. Drivers wearing some type of reflective or fluorescent clothing had a 37% lower risk of crash related injury than those who were NOT wearing such materials.
  2. Helmets - The three main colors of helmet they found were black [~40%], white [~30%] and red [~14%]. Compared to wearing a black helmet, use of wearing a white helmet was associated with a 24% lower risk of injury. Even comparing those who said they were "light coloured" helmets versus those wearing "dark coloured" helmets, there was a 19% lower risk of injury associated with wearing a "light coloured" helmet.
  3. Headlights - Daytime headlight use was associated with a 27% lower risk of injury.
  4. Clothing & Motorcycle Color - In the BMJ study, some 80% of the 1233 control drivers wore either black, blue or brown on their upper bodies. Interestingly, the study found NO association between the risk of crash related injury and the color of the rider's clothing or the color of the bike. However, because they studied crashes which occurred in the past [and the clothing of those riders] and did NOT place brightly garbed riders into traffic, the authors admitted that this study may not have had the ability to capture relevant data here. The authors indicate strongly that reflective or fluorescent materials offer the rider ".maximum conspicuity advantage in differing ambient light conditions - fluorescence at twilight and reflective material at night."

Having experienced many hours of "road time" on both bicycles and motorcycles, I have my own view of the "I didn't see the bike" response of motorists who crash into oncoming riders. My suspicion is that motorists spend time scanning the road ahead and have a particularly heightened response to large, oncoming "box-like" things that represent an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm to them. Motorcycle and bicycle operators whose color scheme does not significantly distinguish them from the background of trees, buildings and such can be overlooked by these road scanning motorists. Just like a professional outfielder sometimes has difficulty determining the speed, angle and trajectory of a line drive hit right towards him, a motorist seems to have difficulty determining, or accepting, the speed that a bike travels until a crash is unavoidable! I have always believed that anything a two-wheeled rider can do to stand out in the eyes of a motorist will lessen risk of a crash.

As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel in Springfield, Missouri. I rode the bike from Cincinnati to Santa Fe, New Mexico. In preparing for this trip, my very first extended road trip, the concept of "conspicuity" weighed heavily on me. I knew I was going to be riding mostly freeways on this particular trip, at least until I got to Santa Fe. If I wanted to cover the 1500 miles in the short time allotted, I also knew night driving would be required and, having handled too many "I didn't see the bike" cases, I wanted to be "conspicuous" both in the daytime and at night.

When budgeting for my pre-trip purchases, I hesitated for a couple of days while considering a new jacket. I finally hit "Send" and bit the bullet - I bought the "Darien Light" jacket from Aerostich - in the dorky "Hi Viz Yellow" color! The jacket looks like something a firefighter would wear - the color is that bright and the material that heavy. There is a wide piece of reflective material along the top of the back - running roughly from shoulder to shoulder. Not only do I now feel "conspicuous," I have a sense that motorists actually get out of the way, believing me to be some sort of EMT or other professional! Given my relative speed through Oklahoma and Texas, these concessions by motorists were greatly appreciated!

One other purchase I made from Aerostich was also very helpful [and hundreds of dollars cheaper!]. They sell a piece of highly retro-reflective material that is roughly two inches wide. You can cut it to fit and peel off the back to stick it anywhere - to the bike, clothing, luggage, helmet. I taped two long strips of this material on the back of my saddlebags. The difference was incredible. Instead of simply my small red tail-light, cars approaching me from the back at night now see two brightly luminous strips from a considerable distance away!

A third "conspicuity" purchase I made was to have "MotoLight" auxiliary lighting added. These two halogen lights are mounted on the fork. Thus, they turn with the fork and provide an incredible wide swath of light on dark roads. In addition, the triangular 3 points of light make you more conspicuous, day or night. Once I used them for the first time at night, I couldn't imagine going back to a single headlight.

So, the bottom line is this: Know the risks. Understand that clothing, helmet and lighting choices can affect your risk of injury! Despite ALL of this research, remember that the BIGGEST risk factor is YOU. More than half of the motorcycle deaths on Ohio's roads are one-vehicle crashes, so let's be careful out there!
GOOD LUCK & GOOD RIDING!

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