Color’s an indisputably important part of life. Most of us start using color as a way to influence the world from the moment we wake up. When we pick various articles of clothing it’s usually in an attempt to make an emotional statement with their aesthetics. Likewise we accessorize with jewelry, timepieces, makeup and even hair coloring to play on those colors.
Even the daily drive to work is guided by orders from the various colors appearing on traffic signs and signals. We don’t carefully make out the word “stop” on a stop sign. Instead we see that distinctive red and instantly know it’s time to hit the brakes.
However, there’s one item of color which plays a more mysterious role during our daily commute. All of our cars have very noticeable and distinct coloration. There’s a few different reasons for this variation. We obviously want other drivers to see us on the road. And at the same time, even if it’s a stranger, we all like to make a good impression. We want to be seen for both safety and personal reasons.
The question is, does our choice of car color influence how police see us? Will our car color determine how often we’re pulled over by the police for speeding?
Common Wisdom Provides a Compelling Narrative
Many drivers go over the speed limit on a regular basis. It’s one of those issues in life where practicality usually wins out over idealism. The whole concept and history of speed limits is a complex dance involving any number of different arbitrary factors. But in practical terms it’s a rare individual indeed who doesn’t go a few miles over the speed limit on a regular basis. In fact, people often believe that it’s legal to exceed the speed limit by anywhere from 5 to 10 mph.
In reality the speed limit is just that – a limit. Exceeding the speed limit by even a single mile is illegal. However, that doesn’t always translate into direct action by the police. The statistics show that in 50 mph zones less than 1% of tickets were issued to people exceeding the speed limit by a single digit. In 65 mph zones only 2% of the tickets were issued to people whose excess speed was still in the single digits. These numbers show two things.
The first thing to take away from these statistics is that the speed limit really is an absolute rule that we’re not supposed to exceed. Going over the speed limit is always illegal and will always come with some risk of legal repercussion. That said, the other takeaway from this is that there’s a lot of personal judgement involved by the police. The fact that some people are pulled over for exceeding the speed limit by a tiny margin shows that police are making on the spot decisions on whether to strictly enforce the laws.
This all leads into the biggest question. What makes police decide which cars to pull over for speeding? One of the commonly assumed beliefs revolves around color. Ask the average person about which color is pulled over more often and they’ll probably answer red. It’s one of those facts which is commonly held up as something “everyone knows”. However, common wisdom has a pretty bad history of holding up when we put it to the test. Do red cars actually get pulled over more often?
Delving Into the Numbers
Thankfully we have access to some important statistics which can help us delve into the matter. Statistically, red cars are pulled over for speeding quite frequently. This one color makes up a full 16% of the tickets for traffic violations. In comparison the color below it in frequency, gray, only accounts for 10% of traffic tickets. A 6% difference is quite significant when looking at such a wide variety of possible colors.
However, these statistics also disprove the widely held assumption about red cars being the most ticketed. When we look at the numbers we can see that white cars are ticketed far more than red – by a full 3%. And the data confounds expectations even more as we delve further into the car color statistics.
Different Shades of White
When we look at the traffic ticket stats we can see one especially odd fact. Three out of the top four colors are shades of white. White is the most commonly ticketed color. Red is the sole non-white color. And we see variants of white, specifically gray and silver, in 3rd and 4th place. White, gray and silver are all quite similar to each other. And none of them have the wild feel to them which we usually attribute to red.
Why Do We Assume That Red Is Ticketed the Most Often?
It’s obviously difficult to know why various people might believe that red cars are ticketed more often. But we can extrapolate some things from our cultural perceptions of the color red. We often associate red with impulsive actions and a more energetic mindset. There’s even evidence that just wearing red clothing can make us perform better in most forms of competition.
We might not think about how red influences behavior all that much on a day to day basis. But deep down we know that red and a faster lifestyle often go hand in hand. All of this means that we’re more prone to assume people in red cars will drive faster. Likewise, when we think of a police officer’s reaction to a red car we might assume he’d think along those same lines.
Finally, we also assume that red cars will simply be easier to see on the road. Red is usually our first choice for bright and flashy colors. If we want to be seen in a crowd we’ll often go for red clothing or accessories. It’s easy to assume that the same would hold true on the road.
Red Might Act as Camouflage in Some Areas
We can examine how visible red cars are by considering how often they’re involved in accidents. The more visible a car is the less likely it’ll be in an accident. Obviously a lot of factors are involved in car accidents. However, the single largest factor is how aware other cars are of a vehicle.
When people see a car earlier they have more time to avoid hitting it. Likewise, people have more time to take defensive action when they find themselves in the path of another car. And yet we find something rather startling when we look at accident statistics. Red cars are 7% more likely to be involved with accidents than the average.
The fact that red cars are in accidents despite their visibility should come as a surprise. However, it’s important to remember that even the brightest colors only stand out in isolation. Red stands out amid most other colors. But a red object against a red background will instead just end up camouflaged. This may well be what’s happening on the road.
Drivers are continually aware of the color red when they’re driving. Stop signs and traffic lights are the most common example. Red isn’t out of the ordinary on the road. Rather, we expect to see red when we’re driving. Red isn’t the exception when we’re on the road. Rather, red is an expected part of driving. The color doesn’t catch our eye or surprise us as it might in other situations. This may very well mean that red cars are somewhat camouflaged by our expectations. Red is certainly highly visible. However, it’s far less visible on the road than we might expect.
Stacking Red Cars Against White
The statistics point to white cars as the safest on the road. Again, safety in this context usually suggests visibility. This is fully in line with what we see with speeding tickets. White cars are the most commonly ticketed. Red’s normally extreme visibility is lessened on the road. This probably accounts for it coming in at second place. And third and fourth place are taken by gray and silver cars. Again, all but one of the top four are variations on white.
Other Factors to Consider
The make of a car also has some impact on ticketing. For example, convertibles are more commonly ticketed. Likewise Mercedes are statistically more likely to get a speeding ticket. At the same time it’s important to remember how statistics are created. We need to keep in mind that raw traffic statistics aren’t a carefully controlled scientific experiment. There’s absolutely no experimental controls put into effect to rule out other factors.
For example, men and women have different rates of success when trying to talk their way out of a ticket. Likewise men are more likely to get speeding tickets while women are more likely to receive parking tickets. If men and women are drawn to different styles of cars, then this will automatically skew the results of ticket comparisons.
However, with color comparisons we have a larger pool of numbers to draw from. It’s not a perfect method of sampling by any means. But the larger the pool of data the more individual variables tend to even out. In short, when we involve more of the average type of driver we get a better statistical base to compare to an average situation.
A New View of Color on the Road
At this point we have a much broader understanding of how color impacts perception on the road. So what can we take from this? Does color really impact our likelihood of being pulled over for speeding?
Color does seem to have a measurable impact on whether we’re pulled over. However, it seems that the larger issue comes down to how likely an officer is to notice our car in a crowd. The more noteworthy we are the larger the chance of being noticed and pulled over. Red is more noticeable in most situations. But that’s not the case on the road. This makes a color which would normally be the most obvious come in at second place for speeding tickets.
Instead white gets first place for speeding tickets. And variations on the color white are in third and fourth place as well. Of course this doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically get pulled over if you’re driving a white or red car. But it does mean that you might be more noticeable on the road than other drivers. So if you’re in a white or red car you might just want to be a bit more careful about obeying the speed limit.