Reflections on Reflectors: Should They Be Updated Now That More People Are in the Streets?

Screen shot of Liikenneturva webpage, where you can get a look at how well drivers can see you at night from various distances.
Screen shot of the Liikenneturva webpage, where you can get a look at how well drivers can see you at night from various distances.

Although the shortest day of the year has come and gone (FINALLY), we’ve only gained an extra six and a half minutes of daylight since the solstice.

Which means it still gets dark too darn early and will continue to do so for a while yet.

I am not afraid of riding my bike in the dark. I do, however, dread the winter rush-hour commutes which are made more stressful by the unhappy combination of more intense visual noise and less overall visibility.

Over the past few winters, I’ve been finding that hard-to-see bicyclists have been adding to that stress.

On more than one occasion, I’ve been riding a busy street like Main or Central (in South L.A.) and found myself narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with another cyclist coming directly at me out of the dark.

Because they are almost never wearing light-colored clothing, sporting any kind of reflective gear, or using lights, I sometimes don’t see them until we are almost on top of each other. And, as most are on cruisers or shoddy mountain bikes and are not particularly nimble riders (save a few fast-moving kids on fixies), I tend to be the one that has to make the last-minute panicked maneuver into traffic or in between parked cars to give them space to pass.

While bicycle traffic is kind of a nice problem to have, it puts us both in danger and I could probably do without the added adrenaline rush.

My beef is not with the bicyclists, however.

It’s with their crappy reflectors.

Neither I nor pedestrians can see cyclists coming or going until it’s almost too late if they’re only sporting basic reflectors. On dark sidewalks or unlit crosswalks, pedestrians have no way to see them coming. My front light might pick up the amber reflector on their pedals, but that is only if I am behind them. When they’re coming at me, my lights are apparently not aimed at an angle that would allow me to observe the reflection on their front white reflector (if they even have one).

The question of angles is one I wonder about with regard to cars, too.

There is a greater observation angle (size of the angle between the vehicles’ lights and the drivers’ eyes, see here for fun graphics) in trucks, buses, and SUVs, meaning that they don’t see reflectors as brightly as a car might. And, their ability to pick up any of the reflection diminishes the closer they get to the cyclist. Given the popularity of SUVs and pick-up trucks in this town, that seems problematic.

Whether a car driver sees the reflectors easily may also be questionable.

People have such different riding habits — some hug the curb, ride on the sidewalk, take the lane, or ride the wrong way — that if the bike isn’t in the anticipated position, the lights may not hit the reflectors within a reasonable distance or at all. A cyclist with standard reflectors on their spokes that moves into an intersection from a dark sidewalk, for example, won’t be seen until they are directly in front of a car.

The same holds true in cases where you are on curvy or hilly roads (hello, Hyperion “Death Bridge”?), the car’s left light is out or poorly aimed, or conditions are poor (i.e. rain, fog). By the time a car’s lights hit the reflectors, it may be practically on top of the cyclist.

And, apparently, reflectors are most effective if they are on a moving part. Which is why you may see the amber pedal lights before you see the red reflector on the back post. The moving light catches your attention while your brain tunes out the stationary dull red.

Given that over half of cycling fatalities continue to occur between 4 p.m. and midnight and are more prevalent during the winter months, I wondered if anything was being done to improve the standards for basic reflectors.

So, I poked around online and fell down a rabbit hole of discussions on all things wrong with reflectors and advocate John Forester’s lawsuit brought against the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1973, when standards for reflectors were finalized. Forester argued that the CPSC was setting standards based on children’s bikes and untested reflectors. Although he made headway in a couple of areas, he was ultimately unsuccessful in getting them to do what he considered proper testing or budge on upgrading the requirements to headlamps and brighter rear reflectors.

Strangely, not much appears to have changed since those standards were originally set, regardless of the acknowledgment by the CPSC that cyclist deaths are more likely to occur at night or how much the composition of the streets has shifted in recent years. And, while you could never purchase a car without head or tail lights, cyclists are left to their own devices with regard to visibility on the very same roads which we have deemed it too dangerous for motorized vehicles to be lightless.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

And, it endangers those that have the least means and are most dependent upon their bikes for mobility.

When I stop to ask people about why they don’t have lights, I find they are not sans lights because they have a death wish.

On the contrary, most tell me they have been hit before, usually several times and usually in hit-and-runs. The fear of being hit, in fact, is what prompts many to ride against traffic or on sidewalks, where they are still very much at risk for being hit, even if they feel they are a bit safer.

Many have had lights at one time or another. But, the lights they tend to get a hold of from the 99-cent store or the swap meet break easily, get stolen, or drain batteries pretty quickly. And, if you’ve ever had the displeasure of having to buy batteries from a liquor store or market in a less-well-to-do part of town, you are probably aware that the batteries can be both more expensive and half-dead before you open the package.

It’s sometimes a bit harder, in other words, for those on the margins to be safe at night.

And let’s face it, it’s not just a problem for the poor. If you’ve bought yourself a decent light set-up recently, you know it’s not a minor investment — they can run in the hundreds of dollars.

Because of the cost and a host of other reasons, it is probably unrealistic to expect the bicycling industry to issue lights as standard any time soon.

But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about enhancing the basic reflector set-up with reflective materials or paint in the meanwhile. Or, doing something as simple as issuing reflective slap bands with every bike. I used to carry extra bands that I had scored at CicLAvia to hand out to riders I would come across at night in South L.A. Even just as a cuff around an ankle, they increased a wearer’s visibility from all sides by tenfold and they didn’t require batteries.

One little kid I met at Gage and Vermont was so pleased with his band that he wrapped his skinny arms around me in the biggest bear hug he could offer.

“You don’t want me to die!” he exclaimed.

“No,” I agreed, as I watched him pedal off. “I do not want you to die.”

  • I recently bought 20ft of 3M reflective tape ($10 on ebay) and covered half of my bike with it. It reflects at a lot of angles, and so far I think it’s effective. It also looks neat – my frame is a steel one from the 70s, holding strong but not looking slick. I don’t have it on many moving parts, though. I’d like to figure out a good way to put in on the wheels and spokes (I know there are companies that sell kits for this with their custom-cut reflective tape)

    So, in addition to slap bands, strips of tape could be cool to hand out. People might get into decorating their bikes with it.

    I also have an extra headlight that I point straight down. This results in a little orb of light around me. I saw a cyclist with this once and I was blown away by how visible he was.

    Anyway, I know that multiple lights and yards of reflective tape isn’t the solution for everyone. But I agree that the current minimum-reflector requirements is not adequate, as far as safety is concerned. So I thought i’d share my experience with these alternative techniques.

  • Harv

    Major problems with bicycle rear reflectors concern their color and size. As supplied, bike reflectors are too small. Yellow or amber colored reflectors have several times the reflectivity of red reflectors. Both of these problems can be corrected by fitting a large amber reflector that can be purchased at an auto parts supplier. These are intended for trucks or trailers and have the required approvals. In the John Forester article that you reference, he suggests using a three-inch amber rear reflector instead of the small red reflector currently required.

    Your reference to pedal reflectors being more visible than the “dull red” rear reflector is more a matter of the color than the fact that they are moving (actually flashing) although the motion helps.

    California Vehicle Code 21200 is vague and incomplete when referring to rear bicycle reflector color, stating that a red reflector is required, but no other colors are specifically prohibited. This is inconsistent with requiring a rear-facing yellow reflector on the pedals. So, running a rear red reflector AND a yellow rear reflector should make everyone happy.

    My night-rider bike is equipped with: red rear reflector, amber rear reflector, red flashing rear light, amber flashing rear light, two white front lights (one blinking, one steady), front and rear wheel lights. “Christmas Tree” is inadequate a term this setup.

  • Jake Wegmann

    “Because of the cost and a host of other reasons, it is probably
    unrealistic to expect the bicycling industry to issue lights as standard
    any time soon.”

    I actually think we really need to start having that conversation. Cars are much more expensive than bikes, but no one questions the fact that proper lights are legally-mandated equipment for them.

    From what I understand, in the Netherlands and other similar northern European countries, bikes aren’t street legal without built-in lights. (And much brighter ones than the typical cheapo blinkies that people tend to use here.) Plenty of low-income people there use bikes to get around, because it’s the cheapest form of transportation other than walking.

    To me, the surest indication that we are still a long way, in this country, from viewing cycling as transportation rather than a sport or a child’s pastime is that so many people are riding around in the dark with inadequate lights or none at all.

    Thanks for raising this issue. I think it’s super important.

  • sahra

    I know… I was listening to a radio story about a technology conference this morning and thinking, ‘Here we are on the cusp of having self-driving cars and bicycle safety tech standards are stuck in the 70s.’ It makes no sense. But I think what you said is probably the crux of it — so much of the questioning of the value of bicycle infrastructure has to do with people viewing it as a choice or something done for fun. Until that wider perception changes, the standards will likely remain as they are.

  • DMalcolmCarson

    Yes, it’s amazing to me how invisible a lot of bicyclists are at night. When I ride at night, I do ride with lights front and back, but I also just assume that I can’t be seen, and act accordingly. It does seem like with all of the advances in light technology, (LED, etc.), there should be some new solutions available. I just put in new lighting in my home, and supposedly, my new LED lights are twice as bright, use 10% of the electricity, and will last for 20 years. If that’s even half true, you’d think there’d be something that could be make standard on bikes that would greatly improve the situation.


The Invisible People on Bikes Right in Front of Our Eyes

Today from Streetsblog Network member Honking in Traffic, an important reality check about a mostly overlooked segment of the bicycling population — people who ride bikes out of economic necessity and not necessarily by choice. These aren’t the oft-lauded "bike commuters" who ride for a sense of freedom and with at least some intention to […]

Why I Ride: Connecting with My City

I looked at the two scruffy ticket scalpers crossing Figueroa near the Staples Center and wondered if my eyes deceived me. As I slowed down to get a closer look, I heard one say, “There she goes…” Holy sh*t, I thought, he’s back from the dead! “You remember me?” Big Mike asked, grabbing me in a […]

LA Streetsblog Chat with Author and Cyclist Erik Knutzen

Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne write the blog Homegrown Evolution, chronicling their adventures as urban gardeners and farmers. Kelly and Erik recently released their first book The Urban Homestead from Process Media.  Last Friday, Erik, who is also a board member of the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition, sat down with me in their garden […]