The Art of Being Seen On Your Motorcycle - RIDE SMART

Announce your presence

motorcycle not seen on the road illustration
Be seen...Illustration by Ryan Inzana

Dressed in black leather and a graphite-colored helmet, you look and feel like a badass predator. Piercing urban congestion, zapping past Priuses and dodging buses is all in a morning’s work for the Boulevard Bullet. Surprisingly, despite you and your bike’s combined skill sets, you’re actually not the predator—you’re the prey. That’s because in any altercation with a car, you’re dead meat—and the driver walks away, sorry that he “just didn’t see you.” You were dressed in stealth black, after all.

In nature, vulnerable critters blend into their surroundings to avoid detection by predators, thus aiding survival. While this works fine for skinks and shrews, such invisibility actually makes riders more vulnerable to the drivers who might unwittingly take us out. They are an odd genome: hapless predators.

So in a flip-flop from nature’s order, rather than hide, smart riders find ways to grab drivers’ attention, which means appealing to one of their five senses. Since drivers can’t touch or taste or smell you (unless you’re aboard an RD400 sipping Blendzall), that leaves attracting their gaze or hearing. Herewith are some well-proven strategies.

Hyper horns: Especially on older bikes, stock horns sometimes offer little more than an ovine bleat. But wiring up a set of ear-splitting Fiamm or Stebel air horns can roust even drowsy drivers fast.

Loud pipes: The classic bumper sticker, "Loud Pipes Save Lives," is probably true to some extent. They are, however, illegal and don't make many friends for motorcycling, either. And unlike a loud horn, they won't do much good in alerting a car that's about to swing across your bow.

Neon gear: Some emergency vehicles are painted high-visibility neon, which, in conjunction with their warbling sirens, halts traffic like nothing short of a good miniskirt. A growing number of companies make high-vis apparel, and Vemar offers a fluorescent lid that soaks up light energy and then glows all night.

HID lighting: Your BFF may always have your back, but the brightest headlight you can afford will have your front on the street. High-intensity discharge (HID) xenon and light-emitting diode (LED) lighting are super-noticeable in daytime and also brighter than halogen OE units at night. The BMW K1600GTL has an adaptive HID headlight, and you can also buy HID and LED bulbs and lighting kits to fit various models.

Headlight modulator: You already ride with your headlight on, right? Legal in all 50 states, a pulsing headlight modulator from Kisan Electronics draws additional attention to your position in the space-time continuum. Brake-light modulators are also available.

Face Paint: Way back in 1976, Moto Guzzi had it right by finishing the 850 Le Mans bikini fairing in fluorescent orange, a distinctive styling touch that also increased conspicuity. Fairings offer a valuable few square feet of surface area that can be harnessed in reflective or eye-catching colors. I'm not suggesting you should paint your Gixxer or bagger's fairing in Hello Kitty lip-gloss, but anything's better than black, Jack.

Trompe L'Oeil

The science of sight can teach motorcyclists how to become more visible. Robert Poulin, MD, an eye physician and surgeon who club races a BMW M3, shares some surprising facts. “As people age, the eye begins to block light, particularly in the blue end of the color spectrum,” he says. “So a blue bike or apparel won’t look as vibrant to older drivers as greens, reds and yellows.” Another surprise is that riders may be more visible at night than by day. “The dark-adapted eye is very sensitive and has a wider dynamic range for detecting light than the light-adapted eye,” Poulin notes. And finally, get a headlight modulator. “As a driver, I really notice bikes’ flashing headlights,” he says.