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Auto and Road User Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
February 1, 1997
TranSafety, Inc.
(U.S. and Canada)
(360) 683-6276
Fax: (360) 335-6402

President Clinton Unveils New Universal Child Seat Attachment System to Make Installation Safer, Easier
NHTSA Issues Final Rule; Proposes Two Changes to Reduce Air Bag Dangers
NHSTA Announces Comprehensive Plan to Improve Air Bag Technology and Reduce Air Bag Dangers
Coping with Driver Fatigue
Maryland Man Amazed
Drivers Voice Support for Zero Tolerance, Graduated Licensing
Insurance Institute Publishes Vehicle Death Rate Comparisons for 1990-94
Improving Highways for Older Driver Use
Insurance Institute Video Describes Steps to Airbag Safety

Highway Safety Publications Catalog. Articles on Road Engineering, Road Maintenance & Management, and Injury Litigation. Information and consulting for the Automobile and Road User, as well as for law professionals in accident investigations.
TranSafety's free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and highway safety publications catalog. See our free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and a highway safety publications catalog.

Lime-Yellow Fire Trucks Safer Than Red -- A Conclusion from Four Years of Data

Classic emergency vehicles--red fire engines--may be more dangerous for the public and for firefighters than lime-yellow fire engines. Tabulation and review of data from Dallas, Texas produced the following conclusion:

If other factors are the same, the probability of a visibility-related accident for a red or red/white pumper is greater than the probability for a lime-yellow/white pumper. . . Lime-yellow/white fire pumpers are significantly statistically safer than red and red/white fire pumpers.

These are the findings of researchers Stephen S. Solomon and James G. King. Solomon is a practicing optometrist and consultant on color and safety. King is an electrical engineer who holds patents for electronic circuits that carry out numeric algorithms. Both have long-term experience as volunteer firefighters. For this study, Solomon and King analyzed data from the Dallas Fire Department, the Dallas Department of Transportation, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The data were for October 1, 1984 through September 30, 1988.

Results of Solomon and King's study appeared in the Spring 1995 (Volume 26, Number 1) issue of the Journal of Safety Research as an article entitled "Influence of Color on Fire Vehicle Accidents." This is a summary of their findings.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimated that 11,325 motor vehicle accidents involved fire department vehicles in 1990. These accidents resulted in injury to 1,300 firefighters who were responding to or returning from alarms. The NFPA did not provide information on the number of private citizens injured. Beyond the personal tragedy of injury to firefighters, fire vehicle accidents are costly to society in several ways:

  • Private-citizen motorists suffer property damage, injury, and death because of involvement in accidents with fire department vehicles;

  • Accidents delay the response of fire emergency vehicles, causing increased property damage or injury at the scene of the fire;

  • Municipalities incur the expense of compensation and disability payments to injured firefighters;

  • Communities must cover the cost to repair or replace expensive fire department vehicles (e.g., $200,000 for a pumper truck);

  • Fire departments assume additional expense to hire replacement firefighters;

  • Fire department insurance rates increase as a result of frequent department vehicle accidents; and

  • Lawsuits resulting from fire department vehicle accidents may cost the community because of liability awards to plaintiffs.
  • Motorists can better avoid accidents with emergency vehicles or lessen the seriousness of accidents when they have clear auditory and visual warnings of an approaching emergency vehicle. Solomon and King contended, "Driving a vehicle may be described in part as multiple stimuli competing for attention and response of the operator." Sirens associated with emergency vehicles provide stimuli that grab the motorist's attention and cause the driver to respond in a way that helps keep private vehicles from crashing with fire vehicles. The researchers felt fire vehicles should take advantage of both effective auditory and visual attention-getters, and a major factor in attracting visual attention is color.

    Red Versus Lime-Yellow
    Several studies have shown that lime-yellow is more effective in attracting human attention than red. One investigation indicated greenish-yellow and yellow are the band of colors to which the human eye is most sensitive. Human vision does not see red when the eye has adapted to darkness and sees red only poorly when it has adapted to bright light. Research has found that "lateral peripheral vision for detecting yellows is 1.24 times greater than for red." One-fourth of the 8 percent of the male population with red-green color vision deficiencies cannot see red at all. Finally, a 1959 study concluded, "Golden yellow . . . [is] the most easily visible color for both normal and color deficient groups under all testing conditions."

    Separate studies revealed light colors such as yellow and white are the most easily seen against the background of a well-worn highway; and red-and-white stripes decrease the visibility of a vehicle, while yellow-and-black stripes increase contrast and visibility.

    In 1984, Solomon conducted a study involving nine cities and 750,000 fire-vehicle trips; the data showed that "the frequency of lime-yellow fire pumper intersection accidents is half that of red fire pumpers." The follow-up study described in this article incorporated all accident data (not just intersection accidents) and included two-tone vehicles (red/white and lime yellow/white). The research also measured accident severity by considering data on injuries and vehicle towing.

    The Study
    During the 1970s and early 1980s, the City of Dallas stopped buying all-red fire vehicles and began purchasing lime-yellow fire vehicles with white upper cabs. After the early 1980s, the fire department bought red vehicles with white cabs. This one-city, mixed-color fleet allowed Solomon and King to analyze accident data that presented a minimum of confounding variables. They limited the study to data for accidents where visibility was a factor (e.g., not including accidents with parked cars). To control for vehicle size, the researches considered only data for fire pumpers, excluding such vehicles as ambulances, chiefs' vehicles, and aerial trucks.

    The objective was to learn if color had an influence on accident data. If color had no influence, then an equal percentage of accidents should have occurred when red or red/white fire vehicles responded to an emergency fire call as occurred when lime-yellow/white fire vehicles responded.

    During the four years of the study, red or red/white pumpers responded to fire calls 153,348 times, and lime-yellow/white pumpers responded 135,035 times. Those runs (responses to fire emergencies) resulted in twenty-eight accidents involving fire pumpers. Since eight accidents were not visibility-related, study results included only 20 accidents. Of the 20 accidents, red or red/white fire pumpers accounted for 16, while lime-yellow/white pumpers accounted for only 4. Red or red/white fire vehicles resulted in 10 towaway accidents and 7 injury accidents compared to 2 towaways and 1 injury accident for lime-yellow/white vehicles.

    Considering the number of runs by red and red/white pumpers and the number by lime-yellow/white pumpers in relation to the number of accidents involving each group, Solomon and King concluded:

    [O]ne would expect results this extreme in less than 5% of a large number of similar analyses. Therefore, it is probable that one color is safer than the other.

    In addition, fire pumpers were involved in "significantly more accidents than motor vehicles as a whole." In Dallas, red or red/white fire pumpers accounted for 22 times more accidents per million miles driven than motor vehicles as a whole. By comparison, lime-yellow/white fire pumpers had a record of only 10 times as many accidents.

    Conclusions and Recommendations
    Solomon and King drew two major conclusions from this study:

  • The risk of a visibility-related, multiple-vehicle accident may be as much as three times greater for red or red/white fire pumpers as compared to lime-yellow/white pumpers and

  • When lime-yellow/white fire emergency vehicles are involved in an accident, the likelihood of injury or towaway damage is less than for red or red/white vehicles involved in an accident.

  • Arguably, the safety benefits of lime-yellow fire vehicles would extend beyond the responding fleet when it is on the road. Unlike audible warning signals, an emergency vehicle's color does not have to be "turned on." A lime-yellow pumper parked at a fire would still benefit from its increased visibility as compared to a red pumper.

    The researchers made three recommendations:

  • Officers and officials responsible for purchasing these vehicles [should] be encouraged to accept the change [to lime-yellow fire vehicles]

  • The representatives of firefighters should be seeking safer vehicles for their constituents, and

  • Firefighters themselves should be educated as to the personal benefit gained in improved probability of safe transport to and from the alarm scene.

  • To give firefighters and their representatives more data to back their requests for a change in fire vehicle color, the researchers suggested broader-based studies of the effects of color on emergency vehicle accidents. Future studies should include more cities and data on the entire fire fleet and on all vehicles.

    In response to early studies showing the positive effects of lime-yellow rather than red emergency vehicles, the Federal Aviation Administration has converted their aircraft rescue and fire-fighting fleets to lime-yellow. Most municipal fire service vehicles, however, are still traditional fire-engine red. It is a tradition that appears to increase the likelihood that firefighters and the public will be injured or killed in a motor vehicle accident.

    Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.

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