And the safest car colour is…

What if there was one choice you could make when buying your next car that would substantially reduce your risk of collision?

What if that choice could be made regardless of what make and model you were considering? And what if it didn’t have any effect whatsoever on vehicle performance, space, comfort, function or availability? And what if this special selection didn’t cost one penny extra? For the sake of your safety and that of your family and passengers, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?

When you’re flipping through the latest glossy brochures in the dealership showroom or clicking your way through an automaker website’s ‘build and price it’ options window, stop at the colour palette and pick the armour you’ll shield your next set of wheels in. If you choose white as the colour of your new car, then congratulations, you have picked the hue with the statistically best chances of NOT getting into a motor vehicle collision. Yes, colour does make a difference.

While websites and certain publications are full of anecdotal evidence and hearsay regarding the luck (or lack of it) when it comes to certain auto colours, an Australian university completed a very thorough study of more than 850,000 multi-vehicle collisions.

Monash University in Melbourne reviewed fender benders in the states of Victoria and Western Australia occurring between 1982 and 2004. Their first finding was that no other shade of automotive paint was safer than white when it came to vehicles involved in collisions (no matter what the time of day or ambient light level). In daylight bang-ups, black cars had the worst luck with a 12-per-cent higher risk than white. (Go figure, what could be easier to see than a black car in daylight!) Grey was second, at 11-per-cent riskier, and our Canadian favourite, silver, came in third with a 10-per-cent margin. Red and blue were tied for fourth.

When the sun was just rising or setting, black’s edge on being the colour of doom jumped to an astounding 47 per cent, with grey landing at 25 per cent over white and silver at 15 per cent.

Interestingly enough, during the study period, daytime running lights were not in common use in Australia, leaving that visibility safety feature out of the equation. And in case you thought white was an unpopular colour, leading to a low number of white vehicles on the road to get into a collision in the first place, think again; during this study period, 39 per cent of all vehicles (the largest colour group) registered in the two Australian states involved were painted white.

Silver and grey vehicles (which again topped the Canadian all-time favourite list with 25 per cent of the 2009 new car market) tend to blend into the urban backgrounds with grey asphalt and concrete road surfaces and buildings. When the weather is dull (or grey) and rain or snow is falling or it’s foggy, these two colours can cause a vehicle to become almost invisible to a slightly inattentive driver. Greens and browns can blend into rural backdrops, but to a much lesser extent.

While daytime running lights have drastically improved road safety in this country, they offer no additional protection when the vehicle is viewed from the side or rear (save for the few Asian vehicles that light up front and rear lamps on daytime mode). Try this little test the next time you’re in the passenger seat on a cloudy day: when approaching a group of cars from behind on a multi-lane highway, narrow your field of vision onto three or four cars with at least one of them being silver or grey and one coloured white. Then squint your eyes until the vehicles are almost blurred beyond recognition and you’ll find that the first ones that seemingly disappear are the grey or silver ones. White vehicles stand out because they reflect all the colours of the spectrum rather than absorb them like black.

Insurance companies don’t set rates base on vehicle colours, but maybe they should. A review of various Canadian insurance institutes and federal and provincial transport authorities reveals that no one has completed a study like Monash University. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) does receive detailed collision reports from the OPP on all reportable incidents and officers do indicate colours of vehicles involved in such mishaps on the reports.

But until that research appears on the horizon, you can have any colour of vehicle you want to be safe, as long as it’s white.

The MTO does report that in 2006 there were 398,385 vehicles involved in collisions on Ontario’s roads and the top five colours were black (14 per cent), grey (13 per cent), red (12 per cent), white (12 per cent) and blue (12 per cent). However these stats weren’t weighed against the total number of these colours registered in the province, so the actual risk factor won’t likely match these percentages. They also pointed out that data on vehicle population by colour weren’t readily available (but, of course, it is listed on all of our ownerships).

What is needed is a study of the same magnitude as that completed by Monash University, weighed against the vehicle population colour. In the meantime, to improve your chances, switch all your exterior lights on during stormy weather or dull cloudy days.

Photograph by: Paul Giamou