Fire Trucks are Supposed to be Red, Right?
Not If You Want To Reduce Accidents
Red may be the traditional color of fire engines, but human factors and ergonomics research finds that lime-yellow fire vehicles are less likely to be involved in accidents.
Picture a fire truck and you are likely to see red – fire engine red. But when it comes to safety, human factors and ergonomics research paints a different picture. Much of human factors and ergonomics research relies upon psychological research done on human visual and auditory perception. This research shows that because the color-transmitting cones in our eyes don’t work well in the dark, some colors are easier for us to see at night. We are most sensitive to greenish-yellow colors under dim conditions, making lime shades easiest to see in dim lighting.
Researchers Stephen S. Solomon and James G. King (volunteer firefighters themselves) were aware of these perceptual differences when they analyzed accident data from the Dallas Fire Department. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the City of Dallas started replacing its all-red fire vehicles with lime-yellow fire vehicles with white upper cabs. After the early 1980’s, the fire department bought red vehicles with white cabs. During their four year study published in 1995, Solomon and King found that the risk of a visibility-related, multiple-vehicle accident may be as much as three times greater for red or red/white fire pumpers compared to lime-yellow/white pumpers. The results also show that 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. An earlier study by Solomon involving nine cities and 750,000 fire-vehicle trips found that lime-yellow fire pumpers were half as likely as red fire pumpers to be involved in intersection accidents.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates that in 2001 there were 14,900 motor vehicle accidents involving fire department vehicles that were responding to or returning from incidents. These accidents – which included vision-related accidents involving red fire vehicles – often resulted in serious injuries to firefighters and other motorists.
Applying the findings of human factors and ergonomic research, the Federal Aviation Administration has converted their aircraft rescue and fire-fighting fleets to lime-yellow. Many communities are also switching to lime-yellow fire vehicles, resulting in fewer accidents and lives saved.
- Solomon, S. S., & King, J. G. (1995). Influence of color on fire vehicle accidents. Journal of Safety Research, Vol. 26, pp. 41-48.
- Solomon, S. S. (1990). Lime-yellow color as related to reduction of serious fire apparatus accidents: The case for visibility in emergency vehicle accident avoidance. Journal of the American Optometric Association, Vol. 61, pp. 827-831.