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Common Tread

Why motorcyclists won't wear high-visibility gear

Jul 23, 2019

Do you wear high-visibility gear? If not, is it because you think it looks "stupid" or it doesn't match the style of motorcycle you ride or you think someone will call you a "Highlighter" or a "traffic cone" because of the way you look?

A series of focus groups conducted with a variety of riders around the country showed that we humans — motorcyclists included — are still a very vain and peer-influenced bunch, and I guess I shouldn't be surprised. While some riders said they didn't wear high-visibility gear because they didn't think it was all that effective, the most commom reasons for skipping the neon had to do with style and fitting in. (Except when it's raining.)

Hi-Viz gear
A splash of hi-viz color is the maximum most riders will accept. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The hi-viz focus groups

The study (read the full report here) is part of a program funded by the National Highway Transportation Safety Aministration (NHTSA) and managed by NHTSA and the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). The presumption was that the use of high-visibility motorcycle gear could contribute to reducing the problem of car drivers hitting motorcyclists. The question was, why do so few riders use it?

Turns out, in a nutshell, most of us are more worried about how we look than we are convinced that some flourescent colors will catch the attention of a driver about to violate our rights of way.

Going beyond the nutshell, here's what the study found.

Eighteen focus groups of different kinds of riders were conducted in four locations: Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Austin, Texas, and Rockville, Maryland. The riders were grouped by gender and the kind of bikes they ride, so we ended up with these groups: men who ride cruisers or standards; men who ride touring bikes; men who ride sport bikes; women who ride all kinds of motorcycles; one group (in L.A.) of men and women who ride scooters; and one small group of women who ride as passengers only. (They couldn't recruit enough women riders to split them up by motorcycle type and they couldn't find male passengers, period.) These groups were asked to fill out a survey about the kinds of gear they use and buy and then they were led through a discussion that gradually focused in on high-visibility gear. They were shown generic samples of different kinds of gear with hi-viz colors incorporated and asked their opinions.

Reactions and opinions varied based on the kinds of bikes the riders owned, but there were more similarities than you might think.

Focus groups of male cruiser and standard riders were assembled at all four sites. These riders in general preferred leather over textile gear, which they felt was more appropriate for sport bike riders. Many of them questioned the effectiveness of high-viz gear and instead preferred to rely on louder exhausts, additional or brighter lighting and riding techniques to deal with the threat of car drivers not seeing them.

"The most common reason riders gave as to why they (and other cruiser riders) do not wear high-visibility apparel was that it was not the right style," the study stated. "The 'cruiser style' has a heavy emphasis on black and leather, neither of which lends itself to bright, high-visibility apparel."

Riders in these groups were more willing to wear gear with retroreflective materials incorporated, because it would still look dark in daylight but would light up at night when hit by headlights.

Focus groups of male sport bike riders were questioned in all four locations. Of these riders, 23 percent said they used high-viz gear some, most or all of the time, making them the group most willing to wear the gear among the men. Still, they preferred gear that had strips or pops of color and they denigrated gear that was mostly or completely high-viz yellow or orange. Riders who wear a lot of high-viz were given disparaging nicknames by this group: "Highlighters" in Austin or "traffic cones" in Rockville. Riders wearing a lot of high-viz were perceived to be older and less adventurous.

"These people don't care what they look like, they just want to be safe," said a rider in Ann Arbor.

Hi-Viz gear on a Gold Wing
Back in 2015, Lemmy and his passenger donned a lot of hi-viz for his Gold Wing review. Many touring riders think wearing hi-viz is not that helpful because fairings and windshields block much of it from drivers' view anyway, RevZilla photo.

A group of male touring riders was interviewed at all four locations and they weren't much more receptive to high-viz gear than the cruiser riders. Only one of the 33 riders in those four groups said he regularly wore high-viz gear. He also said he was frequently "hassled" for his choice.

Four groups of women, one at each site, were interviewed, but they were not segregated by motorcycle type because the numbers recruited weren't sufficient. The women riders were more likely than any of the male groups to wear high-viz gear. Still, users were in the minority and many of the women said they thought the yellow and green colors were ugly.

The one group of scooter riders interviewed also said they generally did not like the bright yellow color and some felt wearing hi-viz gear was not important for urban riding that did not include higher speeds or highways.

Reax Alta gear on a Ducati Supersport
My Reax Alta mesh gear is my standard summer gear choice. My one complaint is that it has too much black soaking up solar energy, since it's always hot when I'm wearing mesh. For most riders, however, this jacket already borders on too much Hi-Viz yellow and not enough black. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Two things in common

There were two opinions that were consistent across all the groups: When looking at examples of high-viz gear, riders in all groups preferred jackets that were mostly black or dark with a "pop" or strips of color, rather than larger blocks of color or all hi-viz. Second, the general distaste for hi-viz did not apply to rain gear. Riders who would not be caught dead looking like a "traffic cone" in normal circustances will change their stance if it's raining. As one member of one of the sport bike groups said, "When it is raining, fashion goes out the window."

The participants in the focus groups were also asked for ideas on how to promote the use of hi-viz gear. The ideas were fairly predictable, such as getting a celebrity to endorse it or forcing all gear manufacturers to incorporate some hi-viz (on the theory that if everyone has to wear it, no one of us will feel dorky for wearing it and be ostracized).

Both of those suggestions just reinforce my dismay about how much the human species is influenced by peer pressure and vanity. We really care a lot, it seems, about how we look on our motorcycles, even to those people who don't see us at all and run over us with cars and kill us.

The study found that attitudes varied more by motorcycle type than by geography, but there were some geographic differences. To me, that's interesting, because on a purely anecdotal level I thought perceptions were starting to change. In my local area, I've noticed quite a few cruiser riders wearing hi-viz T-shirts lately. Not rider gear, exactly, but flourescent yellow or orange, just the same, on middle-aged crusier riders, the ones least likely to accept hi-viz in the focus groups. If a critical mass starts accepting it, then that peer pressure factor becomes a reinforcement, rather than a deterrent.

So I end up wondering what Common Tread readers think. Do these focus groups match your experience with other riders and your own personal preferences? If you shun hi-viz, is it because it doesn't look "cool" or do you just think it doesn't help? The unmoderated focus group is in session below.