Bulletin Reports

Roadside Visibility Issues

Keeping Officers Safe on the Road, written by Beth Pearsall, contains information from several reports that highlight visibility issues for law enforcement and safety personnel responding to roadside incidents. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) collaborated with fire service and automotive engineering agencies on several studies that address roadway safety. Increasing emergency vehicle visibility and developing training and tools aimed at keeping first responders safe on the road emerged as the next steps in the effort to prevent future tragedies.

The Human Toll

Preliminary data for 2009 from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund showed that for the 12th year in a row, more officers were killed in the line of duty in traffic incidents than from any other cause of death, including shootings. According to a U.S. Fire Administration study for 2008, 28 out of the 118 firefighters who died while on duty were killed in vehicle crashes. Another 5 were struck and killed by vehicles. These sobering statistics clearly demonstrate the need to protect law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other first responders as they perform their duties on the nation’s streets and highways.

The Standards

Several factors affect a vehicle’s visibility, including its size and color. Environmental conditions, such as the weather and time of day, also play a role in whether drivers easily can see emergency vehicles along the road. Emergency vehicles have features designed to draw attention to them (e.g., warning lights, sirens and horns, and retroreflective striping that reflects light back to its source) that provide information about their size, position, speed, and direction of travel so drivers can take suitable action.

Some emergency response fields have national standards that govern the visibility of vehicles. The National Fire Protection Association’s Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus requires fire trucks and ambulances in the United States to have retroreflective striping and markings in multiple locations. Although law enforcement does not have a similar national standard, many agencies apply retroreflective markings to patrol cars, motorcycles, and other vehicles. In addition, the demands of the law enforcement profession create unique visibility issues. Under certain circumstances, officers may need to have their vehicles become nearly invisible to other drivers, so a balance must occur between high visibility versus stealth situations.

The Studies

The NIJ-funded research conducted by the U.S. Fire Administration and the International Fire Service Training Association took a closer look at some commercially available products to determine whether they help increase emergency vehicle visibility and improve roadway safety for emergency responders and the public. Researchers found that retroreflective materials can help heighten emergency vehicle visibility, especially during nighttime conditions; contrasting colors can help civilian drivers find a hazard amid the visual clutter of the roadway; and fluorescent colors, especially yellowgreen and orange, offer higher visibility during daylight hours. They also identified ways for first responders to improve the ability of civilian drivers March 2011 / 25 © Connecticut State Police/Photo Unit to see and recognize emergency vehicles, including using retroreflective material to outline an emergency vehicle; placing these markings lower on the vehicles to take advantage of headlights from approaching traffic; using fluorescent retroreflective material when responders want a high degree of day- and nighttime visibility; and applying distinctive logos or emblems made with retroreflective material to improve emergency vehicle visibility and recognition.

The U.S. Fire Administration and the Society of Automotive Engineers conducted a separate NIJ-funded study to examine warning lights. Researchers looked specifically at how the color and intensity of warning lights affect driver vision and emergency vehicle safety during the day and night. They examined whether the lights alerted drivers to the presence and location of an emergency vehicle as intended or whether they unnecessarily distracted drivers or hindered their ability to detect emergency responders on foot. Based on the findings from this study, researchers offered three recommendations.

  1. Consider different intensity levels of warning lights for day and night.
  2. Make more overall use of blue lights both day and night.
  3. Use color to make a clear visual distinction between parked emergency vehicles in two different paths.

The Tools

NIJ also has supported developing Web-based tools that will help improve the safety of law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other emergency responders on the roadways. The U.S. Fire Administration collaborated with the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association’s Emergency Responder Safety Institute to create ResponderSafety. com. This Web site contains the latest news and training on roadside safety, as well as recent cases of on-duty responders injured or killed by vehicles. The site aims to become a place where transportation, public safety, and emergency personnel around the country can share lessons learned, thus helping them to respond more safely and effectively to roadway incidents.

The U.S. Fire Administration also worked with the International Association of Firefighters to develop “Improving Apparatus Response and Roadway Operations Safety for the Career Fire Service,” a separate Web-based training program. The two organizations are expanding this to cover all emergency responders, including law enforcement.


Roadside safety issues are complex. Using warning lights and retroreflective material to increase an emergency vehicle’s visibility is just one important focus area. Setting up a proper safety zone at the scene of an accident or other roadside hazard, as well as increasing the visibility of emergency responders on foot, also is critical. Perhaps one of the most essential parts of the equation is the alertness of civilian drivers and their ability to recognize an emergency vehicle and take suitable action.

The National Institute of Justice is continuing to work with law enforcement, firefighters, and other emergency responders, as well as the public, to address these concerns and help improve safety for everyone on the road. To read the complete report (NCJ 229885), access the National Criminal Justice Reference Service’s Web site, http://www.ncjrs.gov.