When a new motorcyclist asks a veteran rider how to avoid becoming bumper jam, the answer is usually something like, "Ride as if you're invisible." It's good advice because although it should be impossible not to notice an adult-sized human on a 500-pound motorcycle with the headlight on, the most common statement given to the cops at car-bike crash scenes by drivers is, "I didn't see him." The trouble is, if you're riding around on a black bike in black leathers on a cloudy day, you really are hard to see. Here's how to increase your visibility so you never have to hear those four little words. First, forget what the loud-pipes crowd says. With stereos, Bluetooth phones, and screaming kids vying for drivers' attention, the best strategies for making your presence known are visual. Start with high-viz riding gear that stands out even in low-light situations.
You mean that stuff works? It does. A study conducted in New Zealand from 1993–'96 strongly suggested riders in high-viz gear and white helmets were significantly less likely to be involved in injury accidents. If you don't want to give up your bad-boy black gear, consider a reflective safety vest for commuting and city riding where the risk of unintended face-to-fender contact is greatest.
Even geekier: Make your motorcycle stand out with a headlight modulator that pulses the main beam during the daytime, and add a few strips of reflective tape for night riding (Ari Henning approved!). Another tactic is to install auxiliary driving lights to give your headlight some context so it isn't mistaken for a car with one bulb out; the big light in the middle with two smaller ones on either side doesn't look like any other vehicle but a bike. Our experience in Hell-A (say it out loud) suggests that a pair of properly bright and astutely aimed driving lights goes a long way toward getting and maintaining a motorist's attention. It should go without saying that you should check all your lights before every ride, especially the tail- and brake lights.
Motorcycles are faster and more maneuverable than cars, and darting in and out of traffic makes it hard for someone with a cell phone in one hand to keep track of you. That puts the onus on you to change lanes smoothly and signal every move. When you drive your own car, take note of the blind spots and stay out of those areas when you ride. If you can't see the driver's face in the car's mirror, the driver can't see you.
The same goes for following big rigs and other trucks on the highway. Given a semi's length and the resulting turning radius, you'll be squashed like a bug if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time and the driver can't see you. Hang well back from trucks, or ride near the left side of the lane when safe so you show up in their mirrors.
In town, when you brake for a stoplight or a turn, tap your brakes a couple times to flash your brake light. When you're making a left turn or an oncoming car is about to turn left across your lane, move slightly side to side in your lane to get the attention of your potential accident partner in the four-wheeler. But don't wave or hit the high beam in case the driver thinks you're giving the go-ahead to violate your right of way. It's never a bad idea to assume that'll happen anyway, so cover your brakes as you approach the intersection.
What you can't see can hurt you a lot more than what you can. If the car to your left slows down, it could be because an oncoming car is turning left across your lane. If you're positioned so the left-turner can't see you and you can't see him, expect the cop to nod in agreement with the "I didn't see him" defense. Finally, get in the habit of watching the faces of the drivers around you to see if they're paying attention to traffic.
Raise your hand if you ride with your high beams on during the day. It’s a controversial subject. Some riders swear by it—even as most motorists swear at it. Yes, you might have a better chance of being seen, but running your brights deprives the other drivers of the ability to identify what kind of vehicle you are, especially at a distance, and makes it harder to judge distances and closure rates.
Riding with your high beams on during the day is a problematic way to increase visibility. Drivers will have a hard time seeing past the harsh glare to the motorcycle beyond and just look away—not really the effect you’re after. Headlight modulators and driving lights are a better alternative because they attract attention less annoyingly.