Blaze clothing probably exaggerated in bike usefulness

Black is probably more noticeable than hi-viz

Sitting around on Sunday wondering what I should write my column about, I spotted something that triggered the light bulb above my head: hi-viz clothing. I got an idea about motorcycles, and a few recent columns I wrote about motorcycles seemed reasonably popular with the readers.

Most of you probably don’t ride motorcycles, so you won’t know what hi-viz, or “high visibility,” clothing or helmets are. But I’m sure you’ve seen it around town.

Hi-viz clothing is day-glo or neon yellow, that bright, late-1980’s glowing yellow colour, the same colour they make safety clothing out of.

There is a belief in motorcycling circles that day-glo or hi-viz is more noticeable than any other colour, especially black. Apparently, as the story goes, the hi-viz pops out at motorists, grabs their attention and keeps a motorcyclist safer on the road because you are more noticeable.

Conversely, the same people believe black is the worst colour a motorcyclist can wear because black blends into the background, isn’t noticeable and doesn’t make you safer on your bike.

I disagree with these opinions and, in fact, I believe the opposite is true and here’s why.

When I was in college we took a course called ‘layout and design.” Most of you likely don’t know much about how newspapers are generated each week, but once the advertisements and stories are finalized, the editor “lays out” the paper. This involves placing the stories and photos in attractive, easy to read locations. It’s like fitting Lego blocks together, or playing a game of Tetris.

What my instructor taught me in layout and design class is that the human eye, especially at a quick glance, doesn’t look directly at something. The human eye quickly tracks the outline of the object, and the viewer’s brain compares it to known shapes, all, literally, in the blink of an eye.

This is why I think hi-viz fails the “pop out” test. Both in my car and on my bike, I’ve observed motorcyclists coming down the road wearing hi-viz clothing. Other than at point blank range, I actually have trouble seeing it because that colour doesn’t have strong borders, blends into light background colours like blue sky and green grass and my eye has trouble following its outline. The further away the hi-viz is, the more difficult it is to notice.

Conversely, black is much more popping. Black has a distinct, easy to recognize outline, especially when a person is wearing it. That head, shoulders, arms and body shape is very easy to recognize in a black silhouette, even at extreme range. Also, a black human outline shows up easily even against blue sky and green grass.

I find the same thing happens with light coloured vehicles, for example, white or yellow. They’re more difficult to see down the road, whereas a black or grey vehicle is much easier to see.

Hi-viz clothing is quite popular, and lots of stores and websites sell this equipment to people with the suggestion, intended or not, that it is more noticeable, and hence, safer, than other colours.

In my opinion, I think that’s exaggerated; motorcyclists should buy the clothing they like and spend more time paying attention to what they and other traffic are doing.

Stu Salkeld is editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer newspaper and writes a weekly column.

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