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Reflectors to avoid

Some reflectors cause more trouble than they are worth.

Wheel reflectors have serious flaws.

When you're stopped -- unlike when you're moving -- any vehicle on a collision course with you ought to have headlights aimed at you. If you get stuck behind a car that stops in the middle of an intersection -- and especially if you use generator lights which go out when you stop -- all-direction reflectors can be useful. I don't think they are a bad idea in addition to the basic lights and reflectors -- but the U.S Government standard wheel reflectors have some serious design flaws:

1) They only have their "wide angle" properties when at the top or bottom of the wheel. If the bicycle is stopped and the reflector happens to be at the front or rear of the wheel, the reflectors won't work for a motorist who is approaching you from a diagonal direction.

2) A wheel reflector can get hidden behind a pannier bag or your leg. For this reason as well, wheel reflectors are unreliable in the one situation in which they might be useful: when the bicycle is stopped.

3) A wheel reflector unbalances the wheel to a degree that can become quite scary on a fast downhill run. A wheel reflector also can flutter in the wind, and loosen the spoke that holds it, and if the spoke or the reflector mounting breaks, a wheel reflector can turn sideways, jam in the fork and send you over the handlebars.

Ankle bands are a better way to get all-direction reflectivity. Reflective strips on your clothing or baggage, or on the bicycle frame, also are more reliable and less troublesome than wheel reflectors.

The "Safety Stick" and other gimmicks

From time to time, "safety sticks" have been marketed which hold a reflector about 18 inches to the left of the bicycle's rear wheel. The idea behind these is that motorists will give you more clearance, because your bicycle appears to be to the left of where it really is. The "safety stick" has a hinged attachment so that it will fold up if something strikes it.

Aside from the awkwardness of having such a thing always attached to your bicycle, what if a motorist intends to pass you on the right?

The problem with night riding is not motorists' giving bicyclists too little clearance. If anything, I find that motorists give me more clearance at night than during daylight hours. I think that they tend to respect bicyclists who take the trouble to equip themselves properly.

Besides the "safety stick", many other reflector and lighting "gimmicks" have been put forward over the years, and promoted heavily. Though some are harmless and may even be beneficial, do not consider any of them as a substitute for your basic, normal nighttime equipment -- a headlight, bright rear reflector and taillight.

Some types of glass beaded tape lose their reflective properties when wet.

Some types of reflective tape have glass beads at the surface. If they get wet, the coating of water disturbs their optical properties and they no longer work.

Generally, tape with this problem looks dull and feels slightly rough. Other types of glass-beaded tape, and all cube-corner reflectors, have a smooth, shiny surface. The optical elements are inside, where the coating of water does not affect them. These materials keep their reflective properties when coated with water. When in doubt, wet the material and test it.

Additional reflectors and light-colored clothing, fine. Reflective cloth, think twice.

I have no argument with anyone's using a helmet, clothing, baggage or a safety vest with reflective strips in addition to the basic nighttime equipment. But remember that supplementary reflectors do not meet legal requirements and, like all reflectors, work only for motorists whose headlights are pointed at you -- usually only motorists behind you.

Perversely, however, many drivers will actually turn on their high beams when approaching a bicyclist, because they don't identify the bicyclist's small headlight as a vehicle headlight. Bicyclists who ride on rural roads may find a large reflective patch on the front of the helmet or handlebar bag useful to alert drivers to lower their high beams.

Light-colored clothing, too, can sometimes help people to see you, or  to identify you after seeing your headlamp.  Many experts on nighttime safety indicate that there is an advantage in having a visual "signature" -- a pattern that gives people an idea of your shape, size and distance, rather than their just seeing the spot of light from a reflector or taillight. Additional reflectors and light-colored clothing can help give you a "signature".

On the other hand, clothing and baggage made of all-over reflective fabric have been marketed twice, with heavy promotion. Both times, there have been problems with performance and promotion. There is a longer discussion of reflective fabric, and its promotion, elsewhere on this Web site.

Next: Summing up: what to do.

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Contents 2001, John S. Allen
Last revised December 7, 2014