Ride Like You're Invisible...Or Be Seen?

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>> Aaron Cortez

Ride Like You're Invisible...Or Be Seen At All Costs?

Do you look like a ninja when you ride...or more like a Power Ranger? What we mean is, do you think being stealthy and riding like you're invisible is the best way to stay safe, or do you attract as much attention as possible to make sure you're seen? We present both sides of the debate.

motorcycle rider hi vis gear lane splitting
This rider wears his hi-vis gear while splitting lanes. But does that make him more safe? The answer is...it depends.

Why Don't Drivers Notice Motorcycles?

Whether you ride like you're invisible, or ride a neon orange bike in a hi-vis yellow suit, this issue begs the question: why are drivers so blind to motorcycles on the road in the first place? The answer to that is actually rooted in human psychology, a phenomenon called inattentional blindness.

I've discussed this in other articles, but basically, it is the phenomenon that occurs when the brain is overloaded with stimuli as it tries to focus on a task at hand – in this case, driving – leaving no surplus of attention for unexpected things to be noticed. Add in the distraction of cell phones, GPS, the radio, screaming kids, or a breakfast burrito...and the brain that should be focusing on driving is essentially on auto-pilot.

Drivers expect to see cars and trucks on the road, so they are generally aware of them, but motorcycles don't even cross most people's mind when turning into traffic or changing lanes. In other words, drivers don't see what their brain isn't looking for – even when it's right in front of them. It's not because they're "dumb cagers" either; it's just how the human brain works, and were all susceptible to it at some time or another.

For a neat demonstration of how inattentional blindness works, check out this 2-minute vid from National Geographic's Brain Games that drives the point home in an interesting way.

Ride Like You're Invisible

So one school of thought says "I know they won't see me - and I don't expect them to." Riding like you're invisible – or to take the more extreme view, riding like everyone is trying to kill you – is based on the premise that your life is constantly endangered by what drivers might do, and so the best defense is a good offense.

The Ride-Like-You're-Invisible school puts only themselves in charge of their own safety, rides in a hyper-aware mindset at all times, and anticipates being turned in front of, swerved into, cut off, or anything else that might put them in a dangerous position.

motorcycle rider black motorcycle lane splitting
Black bike, black gear, in traffic. May seem like a bad idea - unless you don't expect anyone to see you anyway.

This is the advice I got when I began riding, and it's served me very well in the last 8 years. I expect nobody to see me when I ride, and I'm pretty liberal with my speed and lane position in whatever way maximizes my own safety.

But "ride like you're invisible" isn't just hearsay that's passed around in riding circles; it's actually the position taken by the leading safety organization in the motorcycling industry, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. In an infograph released by the MSF in 2013, they say:

Pretend you're invisible. If you assume others on the road can't see you, and any car that can hit you will hit you, you will tend to ride in a hyperaware mindset and learn to notice every detail in your surroundings. In other words, you will take extra responsibility for your safety and ride defensively.

You will vary your speed and lane position to place yourself in the best spot on the road to avoid collisions, plan escape paths in case a driver violates your right-of-way, cover your brake controls to quicken your reactions, use your horn to alert a driver who doesn't notice you, and always ride within your limits.

Be Seen At All Costs

But if riding like you were invisible were the solution to all the perils of motorcycling, what explains safety measures like hi-vis motorcycle gear, headlight modulators, or flashing tail-lights? In other words, why do many motorcyclists try to attract as much visual attention to themselves as possible?

This is the alternative school of thought, which the use of bright hi-vis gear, vividly colored bikes, and flashing lights that are next to impossible to notice to make sure they are seen by drivers. This is what I'll call the "Be Seen At All Costs" crowd, which also has its merits – and interestingly, uses human psychology as a tool in its arsenal as well.

motorcycle rider hi vis gear sharing lane with truck
Fully hi-vis'ed out, this rider will be hard to miss...but it can still happen.

Just as the brain is trained to look only for things it expects (therefore being virtually blind to the unexpected), the brain is also subconsciously trained to snap to attention when it receives certain visual signals. This is why hi-vis gear works so well; not only do the bright colors exists in the part of the spectrum the eye is most sensitive to, but the brain is also used to seeing those colors only when some kind of hazard exists.

Hi-vis orange and yellow are the colors of road construction crews, emergency personnel, road signs and traffic cones, and from the time we begin driving, we are used to seeing those colors on something we know we should be paying attention to. White motorcycle helmets jolt the brain's attention for a very similar reason; at a glance, we think a rider in a white helmet might be a cop!

motorcycle paramedic melbourne australia hi vis gear
As drivers, we're used to associating hi-vis colors with hazards or emergency personnel - so we take notice.

And interestingly, the MSF itself takes the "Be Seen At All Costs" position to an extent as well; in the same publication, they advise riders to "Be as conspicuous as possible. Wear bright clothing and a light-colored helmet. Always have your headlight on, and use your high beam or an aftermarket headlight modulator during the day (where allowed)."

So...Which One Is Right?

With two very different schools of thought on what can be a controversial topic, what riding strategy are we supposed to go with?

First off, it depends a lot on what you ride, and where. It stands to reason that bigger bikes like touring bikes and cruisers should try to get noticed, since their size makes it difficult for them to make quick evasive maneuvers safely. Quicker, more agile bikes like sport bikes and standards can probably get away with acting invisible, darting ahead or stopping hard as necessary to avoid a sketchy situation.

Where you ride also makes a difference. If you live where you can split lanes, you probably prefer the invisible approach, as you have many more evasive maneuvers available to you. Where you can't escape traffic, it's better to make your presence known; the last think you want is to be rear-ended by someone who was looking at the car in front of you, and have nowhere to go.

hi vis motorcycle gear splitting lanes
The best advice is to try to be seen, but still ride expecting nobody to see you (like the jerk on the cell phone.)

But ultimately, prevailing wisdom says you really should do both. Riding like you're invisible and dressing to be seen seem contradictory, but they aren't mutually exclusive; you can make an effort to be seen, and still ride like you might not be. Ultimately, they aren't even necessarily related – riding like you're invisible is a riding style, and dressing to be seen is an appearance. One is mental, and one visual; one offense, and one defense.

Wearing hi-vis gear is a good practice and will definitely help you get noticed by many more drivers, but its not a magical solution - you should still be very vigilant when you ride. If you ride less attentively because you assume the hi-viz gear reduces your need to do so, you could be giving yourself a false sense of security that actually ends up increasing your chances of getting into an accident!

The bottom line: you should wear hi-vis gear to increase the odds that people will see you, but don't let your guard down - keep riding like you can't be seen. It only takes one person to not see you for a crash to happen, so the stakes are high for you as the rider; doing both of these practices increases your margin of safety and is the best way to avoid trouble on the road.

We posed this question on our FaceBook page – see what other riders from around the country had to say on the topic!

"I could be on fire with flashing police lights and still not be seen by cagers." –Lou W.

"I wear what I wear and it generally goes with my personal style and tastes. However I chose generally not to ride around traffic and don't expect anyone to see me, it's my job to see them and position myself with an escape plan." –Derek N.

"I say spend more time learning to stay alert to every scenario around you with a defensive strategy to get you out of potential trouble instead of relying on your clothing for others to detect you by." –Eric H.

"I like to leather up for the stops. Good lights on the bike. Hi vis is a good idea but not really cool when you stop on a poker run or at a biker bar. :)" Peter D.

"My hi viz is without question my best PROVEN safety tool. It only takes one slip when riding invisibly, and in a two to three hour ride I believe it's impossible to concentrate that long that well." –Jim G.

"I pretend i am invisible. try it it will change how you ride." –John C.

"Why would you split the two, do both." –Zach W.

"I say wear hi-viz gear AND ride like you're invisible." –Merle C.

"Most of us agree: Visibility helps, but nothing can replace vigilance. I have strategies to keep myself out of harm's way. Just saying: "ride like you are invisible" does not tell you how to handle those sticky situations that can pop up during a ride. Riders need education and practice to learn how to stay safe." –Dwight B.

If you're interested in learning more about hi-vis motorcycle gear and what to look for when buying your own, check out our Hi-Vis Motorcycle Gear Buyer's Guide below!

hi vis motorcycle gear buyers guide banner

Got an opinion about whether you should ride like you're invisible or make yourself seen? Let the Community know by joining this conversation on FaceBook!

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