The science behind high-visibility clothing

Please welcome Mike Moloney as Canada Moto Guide’s safety columnist. Mike is an advanced motorcycle instructor with RoSPA, Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. In 1983, Mike founded The Sportbike Rally, which took place in Parry Sound. Mike is a veteran of dozens of self-organised international tours and cites his favourite destination as, “next’.


Do you consciously choose to wear high-visibility (hi-vis) motorcycle gear such as a jacket, vest or helmet? Why? Does it simply seem like a sensible idea, or is it because of a traffic incident where you weren’t seen?

And what exactly do we mean by hi-vis clothing? Wikipedia describes it as “any clothing worn that is highly luminescent in its natural matte property, or a colour that is easily discernible from any background.”  That’s pretty much the opposite of camouflage, which is “the use of any combination of materials, colouration, or illumination for concealment.”

Brightly coloured clothing is not only easier to see, but it registers with more priority to the human eye.

The big picture

Perhaps, on your motorcycle, you’ve experienced the distinct displeasure of being on the receiving end of the time-worn phrase, “Sorry, I didn’t see you.”  An accompanying police accident report might contain the line, “The driver looked, but failed to see”, which is useful only to a statistician. While car drivers are not deliberately trying to cause us harm there remains the unfortunate fact that, all too often, we are not being seen.

Why is this? Like it or not, we are part of the problem. There is an assumption among riders, a common belief, that we are actually being seen, not just merely ignored, but there are many factors that can determine our visibility to others. Let’s start with Global Precedence.

Global Precedence is the visual big picture. Generally speaking, a motorcycle is only a small portion of the big “global” picture, particularly when head-on to an approaching vehicle. A person’s eyes, and recognition, goes to the largest objects first. Our brains process that information almost twice as fast as the local aspects. If something, anything, is larger and visually more compelling, that is where another road user is most likely to first focus their attention. It takes precedence.

These British police riders really stand out on the road, which is essential in their line of work.

Standing out

We may believe that because we have a bright headlight, or wear hi-vis gear, other road users will naturally see us. However, although they may see an object, they may not immediately register what it is that they are seeing, or realize the distance between us, or be able to determine with any accuracy the speed at which we are approaching. Recognition, then processing the information and then acting on it, involves time, which is completely variable depending on the given situation and the actors involved.

Can we assume that other road users are paying full attention? Of course not; we should expect the exact opposite. The relentless march of technology provides innovative new ways for drivers to be further distracted. In recent years, automakers have been falling all over themselves to increase the size of in-car infotainment screens. Connectivity! Yeah, with everything but the principle task at hand. Then there’s the conversation with a passenger (the Number 1 distraction), the Shih Tzu in the lap, or the screaming kids in the rear seats.  What motorcycle? Where? “Sorry, I didn’t see you.”

Researchers agree that our brains process form and colour separately from motion. Within the larger scene of Global Precedence, we are first identified as an object, a form. The use of highly discernable colour is one way to make ourselves – an object – more visible, earlier.  It gives us precedence.

Roger Foster, seen (easily) while out for a ride near Las Vegas on his Suzuki, jumps out visually on a grey day.

Making it work

Working from empirical data, safety regulators in many countries now stipulate a certain amount of retroreflective material for motorcycle jackets. This usually involves a minimum amount of striping or piping on areas such as shoulder and arms. In some places, such as France, it even includes helmets (18 square cm for French heads, if you must know). A better strategy is for the entire area of the jacket, vest or helmet to be one luminescent colour, making you appear as both a brighter and larger object.

“But”, we hear some riders say, “I’ll look like a dweeb”.  Well, we know that fashion is fickle and subjective but if Harley-Davidson can see the benefits of including plenty of hi-vis safety clothing in its catalogue – although it does tend to orange for some reason – then surely it has passed a key chic-to-wear test.

Let’s face it: no one goes to a hospital for the fine dining. Since we’re among the most vulnerable of road users, those things that may be able to give us a distinct safety advantage should be worth our consideration. When you’re the one waiting for the ambulance to arrive, do you really want to hear someone say, “Sorry, I didn’t see you”?

Bright clothing is just one aspect of providing useful information to other road users. There are also some options for making our machine more visible. Beyond that, we must look within ourselves. Factors such as our position on the road, bearing and speed are key components of being seen by others. We can look at these in future articles.

Alright then, I’m outfitted like a motorized macaw. Can you see me now?

It’s not warm and it’s probably not waterproof, but high-visibilty clothing can make all the difference for a motorcyclist.

15 thoughts on “The science behind high-visibility clothing”

    1. Not that I am aware of at present. A recent conversation with the owner of a riding school in Ontario suggested that this a no-go area for insurance companies. After all, you wouldn’t want licensed and insured riders to be adequately trained to ride safely on public roads now would you? Parking lots are much safer places to ride your bike.

      1. It’s a pity, I should’ve taken the IAM test back in home country before I moved here.
        Ah, yet again… it would not help me with insurance as it did in home country anyway right?
        But I cannot deny the effort of Canadian authorities to rip me off. My full license and former IAM evaluations were considered as piece of junk and I had to start from the beginning to get a learners license here.
        Now I’ve already invested more than a thousand dollars to be a privileged student of a school which hands in garden gloves and jerry pots (thank god I have my gear) as protection to students.

        Wish I’d spent that money for a Rospa star or an IAM badge… and a new Hi-Viz rain suit.

  1. Wearing hi-viz seems like a good idea, but are there any actual studies that show a benefit for motorcyclists, not just anecdotal stories?

    1. Yes.

      1) The influential Hurt Report, published in 1981 by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, claimed that approximately 75% of motorcycle accidents involve another vehicle, most commonly a passenger car. This study also found that “the failure of motorists to detect and recognize motorcycles in traffic is the predominant cause of motorcycle accidents.” Hurt, H.H. Jr., Ouellet, J.V. & Thom D.R. (1981b). Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures. (DOT HS 805 862). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

      2) A 2004 study by Wells et al., at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, found that “drivers wearing any reflective or fluorescent clothing had a 37% lower risk than other drivers”. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14742349

  2. I once read that there was a study in Europe that people were developing a blind spot for hi-viz because they see so much of it. Road crews, police, ambulances, even pedestrians trainers are hi-viz these days but I’m sure you’re still better off with it than without it. Hi-viz doesn’t saturate the landscape in Canada yet like it does in Europe, so you’re definitely better off using it here.

  3. I bought into the hi vis five years ago and immediately notice the difference within 5 miles. On the highway approaching cars from the sideroads would stop and start to go and then really see me and stop. I just bought a White HJC full face helmet. First white helmet in forty three years on two wheels but if it helps why not.

  4. I purchased a Tour master Hi Vis jacket a few years ago and last year a Hi Vis helmet. I don’t care if I look like a giant lemon, I want to be seen. All this helps, but of course due to other distractions I still get cut off by 4 wheel drivers.

  5. Agree 100%. I bought a high-vis green ADV style jacket and pants a couple of years ago, now cagers acknowledge my presence rather than ignore it.
    I also carry an orange reflective vest with me for out-of-town trips in case I get stuck by the side of the road.
    Time for a new slogan – “Loud Kit Saves Lives !!!”

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