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Is car safety color blind?

Consumer Reports News: December 09, 2010 11:57 AM

We’re not exactly a fashion blog, but we couldn’t help noticing the results of DuPont’s annual car color report highlighting color popularity around the globe.

In the United States and Canada, white/pearl stayed on top, but black edged out silver, which used to be the most popular color around the world. Those results combine passenger cars and commercial vehicles. 

So it got us thinking...are any of those colors safer than the others? 

It turns out that it’s not an easy question to answer, as there’s a rainbow of factors to consider. 

One study of cars in Auckland, New Zealand, published in the British Medical Journal (free registration required) in 2003 says that “silver cars were about 50% less likely to be involved in a crash resulting in serious injury than white cars.” In a follow-up online discussion, the authors responded to some complaints about the validity of the study, given that it was done in a single location. “There is no snow in Auckland in winter, and snow may influence the visibility of silver cars, which may make a difference to the ‘safety’.” They also said, “We would expect that the lightness or darkness of the colour (i.e., how it would appear in a black and white photocopy) would be more important than the actual hue.” 

A report from the AAA Foundation (PDF) in 2004 states that just because a color is more visible doesn’t necessarily mean it’s involved in fewer crashes. “The relationship between car color and safety is complex. Background color (trees, desert, etc.), weather conditions (rain, fog, snow), and daylight have a profound effect on conspicuity.” 

And a 28 pager from the Monash University Accident Research Centre (PDF) in Victoria, Australia concluded that “Compared with white vehicles, a number of colours were associated with higher crash risk. These colours are generally those lower on the visibility index and include black, blue, grey, green, red and silver...The association between vehicle colour and crash risk was strongest during daylight hours where relative crash risks were higher for the colours listed compared to white by up to around 10%.”  

We would add that even considering accident frequency by color doesn’t necessarily factor in demographics and driving behavior. Drivers of red cars may have different personalities than drivers of beige cars, for instance. 

So, it would seem that you can let way more important factors govern your color decision, like how well the hue coordinates with your house when your car is parked in the driveway. 

We’ve often wondered about all those silver and grey cars; don’t they blend right into the roads they’re driven on? And the forest green ones out in the countryside look a lot like, you know, the forest green of the countryside. 

However, as we have seen in motorcycle studies, bright coloring (in that case, for jacket and helmet) can help one to stand out from the background and traffic. A bright colored car, one that contrasts with the surroundings, might be worth considering over a flat black or textured asphalt grey.

Although the most visible car would seem to be the safest, whichever car you’re driving, you are the biggest factor in getting safely from point A to point B. 

So: 

Don’t drive distracted.

Be proactive: Turn your headlights on at dusk and dawn and when it’s foggy, raining, or snowing; keep a close watch on what the cars around you are doing; wear your seatbelt. 

Stay alert and awake

Check out our Guide to Car Safety for a rundown of safety features as well as safety resources and videos. 

—Jonea Gurwitt


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