Tips for Improving Emergency Vehicle Visibility

The USFA/FEMA Emergency Vehicle Visibility and Conspicuity Study offers well-researched advice on how to improve vehicle visibility

   You would think that with all their flashing lights and reflective surfaces, first responder vehicles would be hard to miss. But apparently they're not, because police, fire and EMS vehicles are regularly hit by motorists-and first responders are killed or injured.

   The 2009 USFA/FEMA Emergency Vehicle Visibility and Conspicuity Study offers well-researched advice on how to improve vehicle visibility. Here are the authors' top tips:

1) Use retroreflective materials on vehicles. Stripes, shapes and other markings that efficiently reflect back light when hit by an oncoming car's headlights are known as retroreflective materials. They make fire and EMS units easier to see and more eye-catching to drivers. But don't use them so much that your vehicles end up distracting motorists!

2) Fluorescent colors are best. They may be loud, but fluorescent colors catch people's attention. For maximum impact, use fluorescent yellow-green and orange. The USFA report says, "Consider (and allow) the use of fluorescent retroreflective materials in applications where a high degree of day-/night-time visibility is desired."

3) It makes sense to outline your cars and trucks with retroreflective markings. This way, motorists will be able to understand what they're seeing. In contrast, markings that appear to float in space for no apparent reason can cause driver confusion and distraction. Worth noting from the USFA report: "Ready-to-install packages of retroreflective material for applying edge markings to common types of U.S. law enforcement and other emergency vehicles are now commercially available at a relatively low cost."

4) Concentrate retroreflective materials where they will be hit by oncoming headlights. This is usually on the lower sections of emergency vehicles. "For law enforcement vehicles, retroreflective material can be concentrated on the rear to maintain stealth when facing traffic or patrolling," the report advises.

5) Using high-efficiency retroreflective material can improve conspicuity-or how noticeable your vehicle is-while reducing the amount of vehicle surface area requiring treatment.

6) Use retroreflective materials to make your logos. These will help drivers recognize your emergency vehicles more quickly. According to the USFA report, retroreflective markings have been shown to reduce rear-end collisions by 15%!

   This said, the Emergency Vehicle Visibility and Conspicuity Study still sees a role for flashing lights and other forms of "active conspicuity treatments" (retroreflective treatments are classified as "passive"). In fact, "Advancing the state-of-the-art in emergency vehicle visibility/conspicuity will likely result from a combination of both active and passive conspicuity treatments," the report concludes. But "Additional research specific to emergency vehicle visibility and conspicuity is critically needed in the United States, particularly since vehicle recognition is such a crucial facet of understanding how to improve responders' safety along the roadside."

Find the report at

James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering computer technologies.