Why Are Firetrucks Red?

A matador flashes a red cape at the bull, which is thought to enrage the animal.

The reason firetrucks are red is not entirely certain, there are claims that firetrucks are red because red paint was the cheapest color and early fire stations were manned by unpaid volunteers. Another hypothesis is that fire trucks are red because when firetrucks were initially invented practically every other vehicle was black and therefore a firetruck would stand out.

When we look at the world around us, we see colors that define all the details of what is around us. From red fire trucks to blue mailboxes, colors are one of the many ways we label and understand the world.

To see, our eyes pick up on the light that is reflected off of objects. When light hits an object, the object absorbs some of the light and the rest bounces off at a particular wavelength. This wavelength defines the color that we see reflected off an object. Bananas absorb most light and reflect back a wavelength of 570-580 nanometers, which produces the yellow color that we see.

Because of the limitations of our eyes, we can only pick up wavelengths that are within the visible light spectrum. The visible light spectrum is a region of frequencies within the electromagnetic spectrum that includes things like gamma radiation or microwaves. Each color we see is a particular wavelength within the visible light region.

A triangular prism disperses a beam of white light into the different wavelengths (colors) that make up the visible light spectrum. Credit: Wikipedia

Humans typically see colors that are within the wavelengths of 390-700nm. While we typically imagine that there are seven colors, the many different paint colors and colors around the world show us that they are not so easily defined. Like the ombre trend of past, colors on the frequency change gradually as you move from long wavelengths to short wavelengths and vice versa.

At the short wavelengths, we have violet and at the long wavelengths, we have reds.

Science Of Red

In the visible light spectrum, red can be found at 625-740nm. This is opposite the violet colors and represents the tail end of the visible light at the long wavelengths.

The visible light spectrum. Credit: Georgia State University

As with the other colors of the spectrum, red comes in many different shades as we move from one end of the wavelengths to the other. We have yellow-tinted reds to deep dark burgundy red. Beyond red are the infrared wavelengths that humans cannot see. These include things like heat, microwaves, and radio waves.

Red is a popular color used in nature because we see it all around us, on us, and in us. The red planet Mars is red because of large amounts of iron oxide present on the surface. When they absorb light, they reflect back the red portion of the spectrum. A very small portion of the human population has naturally red hair because of a rare mutation that alters hair color.

Red-Green Color Blindness

Given the frequency of red in the natural world, from fruits to fur, and the frequent use in human things, it is unfortunate that some pockets of humans experience red-green color blindness.

Red-green colorblindness is used as a general term to define a series of color blindness that affects our ability to understand reds and greens. They are typically the loss or limited function of our red and green photopigments, which are used to pick up their respective colors.

In protanomaly, the red photopigment is defective so red, yellow, and orange appears greener and less bright. In protanopia, the red photopigments do not work at all so reds appear as black, and some shades of yellow, orange, and green appear yellow.

In deuteranomaly, the green photopigment is defective so yellow and green seem redder while violets and blues are difficult to differentiate. Finally, in deuteranopia, the green photopigment does not work so reds look more brown/green and greens look more beige.

These disorders are linked to the X chromosome and predominately affect men because they have fewer X chromosomes then women. There is a higher chance that women will have a dominant X chromosome to counter the effects of the genes that cause color blindness.

Why Are Fire Trucks Red?

There is no general consensus as to why fire trucks are red, but there are a few that stand out amongst the rest.

According to the Rockland Firefighters, the most commonly accepted reason is that different fire brigades wanted to compete and stand out against the other fire trucks. To that end, many of them painted their fire trucks red because it was the most striking and expensive color to get.

Another theory states that in the 1920s, Henry Ford wanted to create the most inexpensive car for the populous. This led him to have all his automobiles be painted black, a very cheap paint. To stand out against the sea of black, fire brigades painted their trucks red. This created something that stood in stark contrast to the black and was easily identifiable.

A more scientific reasoning is that red has the longest wavelength of the other colors, which means that it can be seen from further away. This means that drivers on the road would be able to see it and have enough time to move out of the way. Also, many countries have associated red with danger or threat. This association allows us to view fire trucks, painted in red, as something serious.

Supposedly, in the 1800s, firefighter volunteers would paint their trucks red to stand out among the MANY different fire brigades.

Human Association With Red

For many of us, red is seen as an aggressive color because of the association with danger and violence. We bleed red when we are wounded. We blush red when we are angry. These connotations have allowed the negative impressions to grow. In some species, like mandrills, there is an association between red and dominance as well as testosterone levels. In the mandrills, alpha males are typically redder than other males.

Perhaps contradictory, we also consider red a color of love and lust. This is because of the unfortunate association we have made between aggression and sex. Researchers from the University of Rochester found that male participants viewed women as more attractive and desirable when they wore red versus wearing any other color.

As opposed to the violence and aggression of red in some countries, other countries view red as a positive and joyous force. In China, red is seen as a good fortune and joy. It is found throughout many happy gatherings, like the Chinese New Years, and forbidden in sad gatherings, like funerals.

Our association with colors can be found in both biological and psychological reasons. They help to shape what we see on a purely physical level to more metaphorical ones.

More from Mohendra Shiwnarain

What Is Chemical Weathering? With Examples

Weathering is the process by which rocks, minerals, wood, and many other...
Read More
Opinions expressed are solely the authors and do not express the views or opinions of Science Trends nor the author's institution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *