Motorcycle Tips & Techniques

Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics

Skip Repetitive Navigational Links
Safety TipsNew Rider   Tip229   Print article Print

Don't give them the excuse

By: James R. Davis

We have all heard and lament that car drivers inevitably argue that they didn't see the motorcycle before the collision occurred. Certain that the real problem is that they were otherwise busy talking on their cell phones or simply not paying attention, we do not credit that excuse other than with a "Yeah, sure". But what if it's true?

Most motorcyclists have heard the word 'conspicuity'. It means conspicuousness or obviousness. It is a ten-dollar word that turns off most people who hear it, but there is substance behind it. It certainly helps your ability to be seen if you are conspicuous or obvious, though that person on the cell phone still might not notice you, and even if they do, they may not be able to recognize what they are seeing.

When you hear the word 'conspicuity' you probably think 'light colored clothes'. Yep, that can certainly help - when the sun is shining. But I suggest that at night you are FAR better off having reflective strips of some kind on your jacket/helmet/motorcycle than if you are wearing a light colored jacket as opposed to black. Those reflective strips or patches should be across your upper back and on your shoulders (facing to either side) for best effect.

And why is it that we tend to think of the person who is ahead of us needing to see us more than the person behind or from the side? The truth is, it doesn't matter where 'they' are, they MUST be able to see you and recognize you for what you are.

Curiously, despite the natural desire to be seen by drivers coming toward us, when motorcyclists think about adding some lights to their rigs they think about rear facing lights first. They add bigger, brighter, brake lights and even modulated lights to aid those who are behind them. I say curiously because most threats to a motorcyclist are in front of your motorcycle, not behind.

Many years ago the railroad industry determined that the most conspicuous lighting arrangement, and safest, was to have a triangle of forward facing lights, the largest, brightest light at the top and two slightly smaller/dimmer lights mounted horizontally below it. This configuration had benefits that might not be immediately obvious. Most notably, when a train is moving toward you the two bottom lights appear to get farther apart. Thus, you not only recognize the lights as coming from a train, but you can tell if it is moving toward you, and you can even estimate at what speed.

A motorcycle can have exactly the same lighting advantage. If you mount running lights below your headlight you have created that magic triangle. When seen from the front you no longer look like a far distant car. Since nobody expects to see a train coming toward them on a public road, you are recognized for being 'something else' - indeed, almost certainly a motorcycle.

Unlike modulating brake lights, I am absolutely against modulating headlights. They are distracting and easily confused as being from an emergency vehicle of some kind. They may be illegal in many states if setup incorrectly. They are also, like magnets, strongly attracting to your eyes which increases, in my opinion, the chance that an oncoming vehicle driver will target fixate on them. That, I assume you agree, is not your intention at all.

As to drivers behind you ... you are well advised to remember that engine braking does NOT turn on your brake lights. If you roll off your throttle while someone is following you you should either lightly use your brakes as well, or simply double tap your front brake lever to give them notice of your change of speed.

Don't give them the excuse. Insure that they see you.

Copyright © 1992 - 2024 by The Master Strategy Group, all rights reserved.

(James R. Davis is a recognized expert witness in the fields of Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics.)

A plea for your help