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Reflectors can be very effective under certain conditions. Under other conditions, they are unreliable or don't work at all.
Bright, rear-facing reflectors are usually effective to alert motorists who are approaching a bicyclist from behind.
A motorist approaching a bicyclist from behind has headlamps aimed at the bicycle. Reflectors usually appear very bright to the motorist in this situation, though not always (see next page).
Most states allow bicyclists to use a rear reflector without a taillight. My best advice is to use both. Your taillight could go out without your noticing. The reflector, too, could fail occasionally. Using both reduces the chances of failure greatly.
Reflectors don't work for motorists about to cross in front of a bicyclist.
The image below gives an idea what a driver in the cross street sees. The car in the photo is passing a bicyclist Can you see the bicyclist? Only a headlight can protect the bicyclist in this situation. No reflector will.
As you ride your bicycle, the headlights of a car backing out of a driveway ahead of you are aimed completely away from you. The headlights of a car waiting at a stop sign in a side street are aimed across the road in front of you. The headlights of a car approaching from ahead to make a left turn in front of you are aimed toward the other side of the road.
Pass your mouse cursor over the image to give the bicyclist a headlight.
That looks better, doesn't it?
Reflectors don't work for pedestrians ...
Reflectors never work for pedestrians stepping off the curb in front of you, or for other bicyclists who don't have headlights, or for motorists who have forgotten to turn on their lights. Only lights will alert these people to your presence. No reflector will.
Next: additional limitations of reflectors