We’ve all heard the stories. A car hits a motorcycle, and the driver tells police, “Officer, I just didn’t see it!” Why does this happen time and time again? The most obvious answer is that motorcycles are smaller and less noticeable than cars and other vehicles. But a trick of the mind is also at play. Studies show that people subconsciously don’t see things they aren’t in the habit of looking for. Or, maybe they’re distracted by texting, looking at GPS, or checking their hair. In these situations, a motorcycle’s rider’s best defense is to take active measures to make themselves more visible. Here are a few ways to become more conspicuous:
Riding experts are divided on whether riding with your high beam on during the day is a good idea. On one hand, a high beam can get you noticed more readily by oncoming drivers. On the other hand, if your high beam annoys drivers, you may be doing more harm than good. Always remember to first check your local laws to determine if riding with your high beam on during the day is legal where you live. If so, ride with your high beam on during the day. But remember, in bright sunlight, a high beam often looks like no beam.
Another way to draw attention to your presence is to tap the brakes once or twice when stopping. The flashing of the brake light helps you stand out when you stop or slow down—even if you’re slowing down without using your brakes. Of course, in an emergency situation, maximum stopping power is most important and a proper emergency stopping technique should override flashing your brake light.
It’s also helpful to equip your bike with extra lighting. Auxiliary lights—such as Daymaker® Reflector LED Fog lamps—help make your motorcycle look bigger and brighter—day or night. Keep them on whenever you ride for maximum effectiveness.
Black is considered fashionable for riders, but white is more visible. If you aren’t willing to give up your dark helmet, you can add some reflective tape. You can even buy black reflective tape, so it’s barely noticeable in daylight, but reflects brightly at night when caught by the light of another vehicle. You don’t have to go crazy. Even a little bit of carefully placed tape can make a big difference.
You might even consider having two helmets in your collection: one that’s dark and mysterious for daytime and another that’s bright, reflective, and conspicuous for riding at night. The same goes for your riding gear. Bright is better. But again, you don’t have to sacrifice style for visibility. An easier way to draw attention to yourself is to throw on a brightly colored reflective vest.
You can also look for a riding jacket with built-in reflectivity. Harley Davidson offers many options, such as the new FXRG® riding and rain gear, that include 3M Scotchlite Reflective Material in stripes and graphics that lights up brightly when headlights catch it.
While you’re at it, you might even consider a little bit of strategically placed reflective tape on your motorcycle itself. Yes, this sounds like blasphemy to some, but when done carefully, tastefully, and subtly, it can add conspicuity to your nighttime rides.
Before riding, also consider the ambient lighting conditions. What’s it like outside? Riding at night presents certain obvious challenges, but so does riding in the fog or riding at early morning or dusk.
For instance, riding in the fog can be even more challenging than riding at night because you can’t count on other vehicle headlights to light up your reflective apparel. Visibility can be reduced to almost nothing, not to mention that the road surface is probably damp, which can make stopping and turning more hazardous. In some cases, it might even be best to pull over and wait it out or stop for the night. And, remember, don’t use your high beam in fog.
Dawn and dusk present the challenge of potentially blinding glare. When the sun is low in the sky, it can blind other drivers, particularly when the sun is behind you. This can also be true when riding in the winter. The further north you are, the lower the sun gets in the sky, which can cause visibility issues in the middle of the day. Here’s a tip: Anytime you can see your shadow in front of your tire, use extra caution. Assume that oncoming drivers are going to lose you in the glare and be prepared to stop or take evasive action as needed.
In general, the best place to be is the left third of your lane, or position 1. This makes you the most visible to oncoming traffic and also puts you in the view of the driver’s side mirror of the vehicle in front of you.
Once you’ve established position 1 as your home base, you can maneuver within the lane to make yourself more visible. For instance, imagine riding on a two-lane highway when you see a large truck coming from the other direction. It’s a passing zone, so there’s a chance a car might pull out to try to get around the truck. This would be a good time to move to the right side of the lane, position 3, making yourself more visible to any vehicles behind the truck. It also gives you the best opportunity to SEE (search, evaluate, and execute).
When making your way through a crowded intersection, try to make eye contact with drivers who might inadvertently cross your path. This helps confirm that they know you’re there. A little nod or quick wave of acknowledgement can help seal the deal.
Don’t assume they’ve seen you. They might be looking right past you. Don’t dwell on any other thing. Take everything in. Watch the driver’s eyes, watch for tire movement, and keep an eye out for other potential conflicts or threats. Roll off the throttle to create more time to SEE and be seen. Cover the controls to reduce reaction time. Change lane positions to create movement that attracts the eye and helps drivers notice you. And, don’t flash your headlight, as this can sometimes be perceived as a go-ahead signal.
Always use your turn signal, even when it feels unnecessary—like when leaving your driveway or pulling out of a parking lot onto an empty road. Make it a habit, an automatic action. It’s the best way to make sure you’ll remember to signal when it matters most.
A well-timed beep of your horn is another effective way to get noticed. Don’t overdo it, of course. Using your horn gratuitously is obnoxious and does more harm than good to rider-driver relationships.
Assume that other drivers can’t see you and act accordingly. This will help keep you in a defensive state of mind. After all, you can’t do anything to make the drivers around you drive better, but you can do a lot to help make yourself more conspicuous and to ride defensively.
A version of this post appeared in HOG® magazine.