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What Colors Should Police Cars, Ambulances and Fire Trucks Be? (Hint on Fire Trucks: NOT Red)

It's as American as apple pie: fire engines are red, police cars black and white, and ambulances white. These are the traditional colors we remember as kids, and those that are still around, to some extent, today. But though they may be recognizable (what 5-year-old does not color a fire truck red?), they may not be the best color choices in terms of safety.

Thousands of Vehicles Collide With Fire Trucks

safety vehicles

Why are fire trucks still being painted red when another color has proven to be safer?

In 2001, 14,900 accidents occurred between motor vehicles and fire trucks on their way to or from an emergency. Though it would seem that bright red would be among the best choices to make a truck stand out, it turns out that it's one of the hardest colors to see.

"Red and black are the two least visible colors and any two-tone using red and black and any other color. Red and white. Black and white," said Dr. Stephen Solomon, an optometrist and leading expert on emergency vehicles, color and visibility. "It actually enhances camouflage rather than visibility."

What color is best? Yellow-green lime shades are the easiest, most noticeable colors for humans to see, including at night, which is why some fire departments have started replacing red fire trucks with a lime-green variety.

Is Lime-Green Really Safer?

Solomon and his colleague analyzed data from the Dallas Fire Department, which has used red fire trucks, lime-yellow trucks with white upper cabs, and red trucks with white cabs. The four-year study found that color does indeed make a difference:

  • Risk of a visibility-related, multiple-vehicle accident was as much as three times greater for the red or red/white fire trucks as the lime-yellow trucks.

  • When the lime-yellow truck was in an accident, the risk of injury or tow-away damage was less than with the other colors.

Further, a previous study by Solomon found that lime-yellow fire trucks were half as likely to be involved in an intersection accident as red fire trucks.

What About Black-and-White Police Cars?

See a black-and-white car on the highway and you're likely to instinctively slow down. Why? Because black and white have been associated with police cars since the '30s and '40s, and it's hard to erase the connection. In recent decades, though, many townships have switched to solid color cars such as black. How do they rate, safety-wise?

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"The problem with black is it blends in with the background very well, day and night," Solomon said.

Many cities are now actually switching back to black and white, a move that pleases officers but may not be the best safety move.

"I think they're great," said Gilbert, Arizona police Sgt. John Lyle of their recent decision to bring back the black and white colors. "They grab people's attention. For me, personally, it does have some historic value. That's what I grew up knowing as a police car. There's no doubt when people see a black-and-white car, they know what it is."

Nostalgia aside, according to Solomon using two-tone cars such as the black-and-white variety breaks up the silhouette of the vehicle, decreasing its visibility and increasing the risk of visibility-related accidents.

The best color choice for police cars? Same as the fire truck: lime-green, or at least a solid color with reflective material added. In terms of a solid color other than lime-green, highway studies have found that cream, yellow and white are more visible than others. Ambulances, of course, could benefit from these color schemes as well.

Are Some Sirens More Effective?

Emergency sirens come in a variety of different sounds, with some sounding like a wail, others like a yelp, and others with an alternating high-low pattern. While it's agreed that adding a siren to warning lights is more effective than either alone (particularly at short ranges), the effectiveness of each sound type has been debated. Certain studies have found that the high-low siren is less effective, however a national consensus committee recommended it as the most appropriate signal for emergency vehicles.

Other studies have found no difference between different siren sounds, while experts have suggested using a different siren sound for different emergency situations.

Will U.S. Emergency Vehicles Go Green?

Only time will tell, but getting emergency officials to let go of tradition seems to be a tough sell. While certain organizations, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, have adopted the lime-green color for their emergency vehicles, many municipalities are slow to change.

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