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HomeECN - Bike Commuting: Reflecting on Reflection

EC Notebook #34: Bike Commuting: Reflecting on Reflection

by Edward K. Payne, ECI #272

Fall and winter turn bicycle commuters’ thoughts to visibility. As daylight savings time and shorter sunlight hours take their toll, we face heightened challenges to safe cycling.

Will we be seen during our commute? Can that commute be as relaxed in darkness as it was in daylight?

Head and tail lights are important, and are required by law in many areas. Complementing these active lights, careful selection and use of reflective materials will greatly help others see a cyclist riding in the dark.

Reflective Adhesive Tape

You can find reflective adhesive tape at your local hardware store. Tape with the alternating red and white strips or any reflective tape in solid white, yellow, or red will do nicely. Apply the tape to the stays on your rear rack and to the leading edges of your fork blades. A strip applied to both sides of the down tube helps to announce your presence to the sides. Consider adorning your helmet with shapes of reflective material. Your local shop should have available a reflective card with various shapes–dots, triangles, strips–punched in it. Place these small reflectors in such a way that car headlights will hit them dead-on when you are in a normal riding position.

Pedals and Other Reflectors

Pedal reflectors and leg bands attract lots of attention because of the motion of the pedals. Just about all traditional “platform” pedals already have built-in reflectors. Make sure yours are clean and not cracked. Replacements are available at any bike shop. “Clipless” pedals, on the other hand, do not generally have built-in reflectors and must be retrofitted. Shimano makes an attachment that fits SPD pedals nicely and accommodates both cleated and non-cleated shoes. Look has a different approach; they use a set-screw attached reflector that clings to the bottom of a Look pedal. These reflectors are prone to fall off, and must be checked frequently. Look’s P-26 clipless pedal with built-in reflectors has been discontinued, though some bike shops may still have them in stock.

Reflective Vests

Reflective vests come in a variety of styles, ranging from the inexpensive, minimalist SeeBack vest that many bike shops feature to the big, bulky, full-sized vest worn by law enforcement officers and road construction crews. A minimalist vest can cost less than $15, while fancier construction crew and law enforcement vests cost two or three times as much.

The more reflective material in the vest, the better the visibility. Make sure the vest is made of breathable material. You will cook in a non-vented vest. ECI John Donoughe of New Cumberland, Penn. recommends a “Special Safety Vest”, available for $23.27 from the Pennsylvania Institute for the Blind and Handicapped, (800) 447-8860. Remember that you are not after fashion here, but rather something that will get you noticed! (One EC Commuting student remarked that the author looked “like a giant bumble bee approaching through the gloom of the night”)

Road Testing

Now that you have put together your ensemble, it’s time to test how you will look to automobile drivers. Find a dark (ideally no street lights at all) parking lot, and have a friend don all your reflective gear and mount your reflective material-equipped bicycle.

Next, have your friend slowly ride away from you while you alternate the low beam and high beam headlights of your car, continuing until the rider is out about 500 feet. You will quickly be able to evaluate what an automobile driver views when looking at you. Next have the bike rider turn and slowly approach your car, swerving from side to side to simulate making turns. Once again, alternate your high and low beam headlights. You will be astounded at the performance differences among various materials and approaches.

Reprinted here by permission of Bicycle USA Magazine. Bicycle USA is a member benefit of the League of American Bicyclists. For further information on the League go to