Hunter Orange: Proving the Obvious

Hunter Orange: Proving the Obvious

By Wayne Jones, New York State
Hunter Education Administrator

For years, hunterorangeclothing has been just as much a part of hunting equipment as your rifle, shotgun or hunting boots. However, according to recent observations and at least one survey, this is changing whereverorange is not required by law. According to information on the IHEA website (there are lots of exceptions to hunter orange requirements; and seven Canadian Provinces and Territories, and 10 U.S. States don’t have orange laws. With the increasing popularity of camouflage clothing,hunter orange may no longer be the standard for hunters unless the law forces them to wear it.

Deer have the equivalent of red-deficient color blindness in humans. This makes orange and green look very similar, as seen in the photo above (made with Vischeck color blindness simulation software). That's why hunter orange does not alarm deer. In spite of this, fewer hunters are wearing orange, seemingly unaware of how this affects their safety.

Most hunters know that deer and most other game animals (except birds and probably bears) are what humans would call red-green color blind, as well as being less sensitive to light at the red-orange end of the spectrum. They can’t see orange and red colors the way we do, and they are not alarmed by motionless hunters wearing it. There is a ton of scientific evidence of this, plus the experience of millions of successful hunters who would not be caught in the woods without hunter orange.
Even so, many people notice that the hunters on TV, in magazines, and in the field are wearing hunter orange less. There is scientific proof, too. Surveys of hunters in New York, where hunter orange is not required, found that use of hunter orange by big game hunters rose from 81 percent in 1991 to 85 percent in 1996, but then fell back down to 81 percent in 2001. That’s a five percent decline, and there was also a seven percent drop in the use of hunter orange for small game hunting. With the use of hunter orange declining, it would be nice if we could tell hunters and our hunter education students exactly how much safer wearing hunter orange makes them.
Those numbers are not easy to find. It’s common sense that a color that stands out like a neon sign to the human eye will make it less likely that another hunter would shoot in your direction. But some people—especially those opposed to requiring hunters to wear hunter orange—raise questions about the effects of hunter orange.
To answer those questions, New York State did an intensive study of hunting-related shooting incidents. The results answered those questions and established hard numbers proving the effects of hunter orange.

QUESTION: If hunters are required to wear hunter orange, won’t a lot of careless hunters shoot at anything that is not orange, resulting in more non-hunters getting shot?

ANSWER: This question shows a very low opinion of hunters who have actually been reducing shooting incidents for many years. Beyond noting that 99.99 percent of hunters don’t cause shooting incidents, the question is very easy to answer. Since 40 states have passed laws requiring hunter orange, if hunters were as careless as some people seem to think, all those states would have experienced increases in non-hunter victims after new hunter orange mandates. New York looked at the 32 states who had orange laws and also had detailed incident data before and after the legislation passed. Not even one of them had any increase in the number of non-hunter victims in the five years after requiring hunters to wear orange. (That kind of incident is very rare to begin with.) That’s the kind of historical proof that answers the question, and should give the skeptics a higher opinion of hunters.

QUESTION: Some states with mandatory hunter orange have higher hunting injury rates than states with no such requirements. Does that mean hunter orange causes accidents?

ANSWER: To answer this, NY looked closer at the comparisons between states. States that had higher rates of hunting-related shooting incidents after they mandated hunter orange also had higher rates before they mandated orange, and those rates never increased after requiring orange. On the contrary, incidents decreased every time. That means that hunter orange laws certainly were not the cause for differences in injury rates. In fact, it does not even make sense to compare rates between states. There are hundreds of differences between states such as species hunted, length and timing of seasons, vegetation, terrain, and hunter density to name just a few of the most obvious. Blaming differences between states on any single factor such as clothing just does not make sense. For a more obvious example, would it be logical judge the effects of highway guard rails by comparing state-tostate accident rates? States like Vermont with lots of guard rails have more cars sliding off the roads than states like Oklahoma with fewer guard rails. Does that mean guard rails cause increased accident rates? (Don’t bother answering.)

QUESTION: Hunting-related shooting incidents are already rare. Can hunter orange really make that big a difference?

ANSWER: First, remember that one of the reasons that hunting injuries are rare is that most hunters wear hunter orange. Looking at the numbers scientifically, there are two valid ways to measure the actual effects of hunter orange on huntingrelated shooting incidents. The first is comparing injury rates before and after mandating orange on the same turf. Yet even this has problems, because other factors can change from year to year, too. The second method is the best test—comparing injury rates of hunters who wear orange with those who don’t wear orange in the same time and place. Calculate that you need detailed information about each hunting-related shooting incident (HRSI), AND a good measure of the percent of hunters who do and don’t wear hunter orange. The problem with this is that it’s not easy to find good statistics of how many hunters in the population don’t use hunter orange, especially if the law requires it. In New York, there are close to 700,000 hunters, and there are no laws telling them what to wear. As a result, you can expect honest answers when you ask what they wear to hunt. We already talked about the percentage of hunters who wear hunter orange. Here’s what we found out about the differences in the injury rates of the two sub-populations of hunters—orange versus no orange.

Before and After Data: Every state that requires hunter orange reported a decrease in injuries when the orange requirement was enacted. That’s no surprise. Along with the color requirement, there is generally a lot of public information about hunting safety, so it’s hard to separate how much of the reduction was due to the direct effects of hunter orange and how much was due to more cautious hunters. An indication of this is that many states and provinces see a reduction in all kinds of hunting injuries—not just the visibility-related ones (victim mistaken for game and victim in the line of fire when shooting at game). The important thing is that hunter orange works, but some might argue that a strong public information campaign is responsible for a big part of the safety improvement. One experience, however, left no doubt about how much hunter orange was directly responsible for reducing injuries. Prior to mandating hunter orange statewide, the state of Maine did a landmark five-year trial in one heavily hunted county. Maine required hunters in York County to wear hunter orange starting in 1967. Looking at only those injuries that could be directly affected by hunter orange, Maine found that York County had 41 percent of the state’s visibilityrelated incidents during the five years before the one-county orange requirement, but only 23 percent in the five years after. Even if some of the Maine hunters outside York County got the safety message and wore orange, the County where virtually all hunters wore it is where the big injury reduction occurred.

Comparing Injury Rates : Orange Versus No Orange— The best proof is counting visibility-related injuries and knowing what each victim was wearing, as well as how many hunters wore orange and how many didn’t. That allows us to compare injury rates of hunters who did not wear orange against those who did. Adding up these simple counts over a period of years gave New York clear, quantified answers about the effects of hunter orange. The results were part of a 1994 report using HRSI records from 1989 through 1993. See chart (left) for the results.

DRAMATIC UPDATE: Short messages summarizing one important point are more effective than mountains of data in terms of affecting hunter behavior. New York hunter education staff combined the big game and small game figures about hunter orange (even though it is combining apples and oranges) to coin the phrase that “Hunter orange keeps you seven times safer.” More recently, the figures about big game hunting fatalities in New York have provided an even more dramatic example to urge hunters to wear hunter orange, even if the law does not require it. This year, the New York State Hunting and Trapping Regulations Guide and news releases feature the following message. “Don’t be a victim! Four out of five NY big game hunters wear hunter orange. Since 1992, none of them have been mistaken for deer and killed. But 18 hunters who did not wear hunter orange were mistaken for deer and killed.” Let’s hope hunters get the message. Better yet, let’s deliver it!

(excluding bowhunting and muzzleloading seasons)

Clothes Hunters No. Rate Ratio No. Rate Ratio
Orange 2,787,866 1 0.04 1.0 12 0.43 1.0
No Orange 653,944 9 1.38 38.4 35 5.35 12.4

Clothes Hunters No. Rate Ratio No. Rate Ratio
Orange 2,787,866 2 0.07 1.0 36 1.29 1.0
No Orange 653,944 18 2.75 38.4 65 9.94 7.7

(excluding turkey hunting and waterfowl hunting)

Clothes Hunters No. Rate Ratio No. Rate Ratio
Orange 1,630,369 0 0.00 1.0 8 0.49 1.0
No Orange 957,518 3 0.31 infinite 30 3.13 6.4

Clothes Hunters No. Rate Ratio No. Rate Ratio
Orange 1,630,369 0 0.00 1.0 25 1.53 1.0
No Orange 957,518 3 0.31 infinite 79 8.25 5.4

• Hunters generally do not wear hunter orange for bowhunting and muzzleloading, or for turkey and waterfowl hunting, so those figures were not included.
• Hunter numbers and injuries are cumulative, counted and added each year.
• Rate means injuries per 100,000 hunters in the category
• Ratio – Example: A big game hunter not wearing hunter orange was 7.7 times more likely to be shot by another hunter in the regular firearms season in New York between 1989 and 1993.
• Differences in fatality rates for small game hunting are not statistically significant (P>0.05), due to the extremely small number of fatal incidents.

The figures above were part of a more general 1994 report entitled “Hunting Accidents in New York: Their Causes and Prevention.” The report did not suggest that the victim of an HRSI is responsible for being shot. The figures were reported to demonstrate the effectiveness of hunter orange as a tool to help avoid being a victim of another’s mistake.

Similar results for 1989-1995 data were published in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” of October 18, 1996, but without injury rates. The report can be downloaded from