Are these the world’s safest colours? Across the globe, researchers are trying to discover which colour of car is the safest to drive. One thing is for sure: Dark coloured cars come off worst.
“I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black,” sang Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones hit “Paint it Black”. That was in 1966. Fifty-three years later, a line of cars rolled up in Biarritz in the south of France. Behind the tinted rear windows, however, were not mourners at a funeral, like in the Stones hit, but world leaders attending the 2019 G7 summit. Almost without exception, Trump, Merkel & Co. arrived in black limousines. And not by chance, as prominent communications expert and colour psychologist Prof. Harald Braem reveals. “Black,” writes Braem in his textbook publication “Die Macht der Farben” (The Power of Colours), “is the colour of power.” Studies show that black is associated with success − and with its undertones of power it can even make people look more attractive. So it’s not surprising that this is the colour of car chosen by most heads of state. At the same time, though, other studies show that dark cars, and black ones in particular, are more frequently involved in crashes than lighter coloured ones. For official cars with their security outriders on sealed-off roads this hardly matters, but for the average driver on the average street it does. And yet in many countries, black is one of the most popular colours with car owners. In Germany, for example, the birthplace of the car, three out of four newly registered cars are finished in grey, white or black. And of those three, for many years black has been the number one.
A study conducted by Center Automotive Research (CAR) at Duisburg-Essen University in Germany shows that the interaction of colours with our acoustic perception of cars has a strong psychological impact. In a series of tests, the scientists discovered that black and red cars are perceived by many people as loud and sporty, even when the engine is not running. Small wonder, then, that drivers of red cars find themselves being stopped by police more often than those in cars of other colours. A majority of people perceive white cars, by contrast, as pleasantly quiet and unobtrusive. Silver or grey cars make a dull, underpowered and even sluggish impression, while green cars, the CAR study shows, come across as noisy and annoying. And as we will see, this psychological impact of the paintwork can be an important factor in road safety.
Around the world, researchers are studying the influence of colour on factors related to safety. One rather quirky study from the UK shows that red cars are the ones that birds prefer to target with their excrement. According to the authors of the study, red signals danger, leading the birds to hightail it as fast as they can, while depositing a splash of white by way of a defense mechanism. Meanwhile, a team of researchers from New Zealand and Australia found that, compared to vehicles of any other colour, silver cars are least likely to be caught up in a crash. And compared to white cars, the silver models very rarely cause an accident. However, experts at Monash University in Australia, reached precisely the opposite conclusion. They found that driving a grey or silver car increases the likelihood of being involved in a crash by at least ten percent. Elsewhere, a 2017 study associated yellow cars with a greatly reduced crash risk: Researchers at the National University of Singapore discovered that, on Singapore’s streets, yellow cabs are involved in crashes far less frequently than the blue cabs that also operate in the city. They attribute this to the higher visibility of the yellow cabs.
So when safety is at stake, studies award top marks to three different car colours: white, silver and yellow. The only thing to emerge for sure, though, is that lighter coloured cars have the edge. Because all of the studies show that darker coloured cars have a far greater risk of being caught up in a crash. But why do the lighter colours win the day? The clue lies in the eye-catching nature and sheer visibility of these colours. Long before anyone considered looking at car colours from a safety point of view, companies used bright colours to stand out on the streets. The colour of New York’s yellow cabs, for example, was chosen to keep them more visible among the largely black cars on the streets in the early 20th century. Because needless to say, dark colours are harder to see in twilight conditions and at night.
And now it’s official: Germany’s TÜV Nord, the technical inspectorate for greater road safety, has confirmed that white cars represent a lower crash risk. Interestingly, TÜV bases its findings on very similar grounds to the originators of the yellow cabs: Bright colours are encountered less frequently on the street scene. And, TÜV adds, sunlight and headlight beams are reflected more effectively by light coloured surfaces than by dark ones. White paintwork is also experiencing a surge in popularity: While in the early years of the millennium not even three percent of newly registered cars in Germany were white, in 2018 more than 20 percent emerged from the automakers’ paint shops decked out in white. In Asian countries the figure is far higher, with almost 50 percent of new cars registered in 2018 painted white. But as a spokesperson for TÜV Nord said: White cannot actually claim to be the safest colour. Technical advances such as the development of adaptive or smart headlights and the increasing use of LED technology in cars meant, she said, that cars painted other colours were also clearly visible at all times. Statistics from German automobile association ADAC show that both the absolute number and the proportion of accidents that happen at night have displayed a clear decrease since the early 1990s. To what extent these falling numbers can be attributed to the colour of the paintwork we can only guess. Because in Germany at least, the colour of the cars involved in crashes is not recorded in the statistics.