As a child in the 1980s, something curious happened in the St. Louis area — fire trucks switched from red to hi-vis lime-yellow. They stayed that way for about a decade and then switched back to red. Huh. This experimentation with a more visible color for fire trucks didn’t just happen in St. Louis — over the past 50 years fire departments across the country have experimented with using colors other than red for their rescue vehicles. But most fire trucks and other emergency vehicles remain red.
But in some cities fire trucks aren’t red. Over the weekend, I was in Miami for the Formula 1 Grand Prix there and noticed that their fire trucks are hi-vis lime-yellow. Here’s a picture of one I took:
It makes sense that emergency vehicles painted hi-vis lime-yellow would be easier to see than red ones. The picture of the Miami fire truck definitely stands out more than the red and black St. Louis fire truck at the top of this post.
Some colors are easier for us to see at night than others, and greenish-yellow colors are the most visible under dim conditions. Red is a difficult color to pick out at dusk and at night. Notably, a research paper based on data from Dallas in the 1970s and early 1980s found that red fire trucks were up to three times as likely to be involved in a traffic accident than hi-vis yellow ones.
A 2009 National Fire Protection Association study “confirmed that fluorescent yellow-green and orange may increase vehicle visibility, [but] the report also concluded that recognizing the vehicle was more important than paint color. Therefore, if people in a particular community don’t associate the color lime with fire trucks, then yellow-green vehicles may not actually be as conspicuous as intended.” Plus, factors other than color of the vehicle matter, such as the emergency lights and reflective stripping. For example, many emergency vehicles have backs that look like this:
So, why are most fire trucks red? Because we expect fire trucks to be red, and expectations play an important role in making fire trucks recognizable. Having red fire trucks with a lot of reflective stripping and the right sort of emergency lights might be better than more visible lime-yellow ones.
How did the other hotel guests feel about you pulling the fire alarm in order to finish your article? Way to commit!