From the driving seat: bike lights and reflectors

When it comes to cyclist safety, what’s more effective – a light or a reflector? It’s not as easy as you might assume…

Countless British motorists have badly inflated or worn out tyres, faulty lights or dodgy brakes – a massive 40% of vehicles fail their annual MOT inspection at the first attempt.

When the owners of these cars take to the road on two wheels, it should come as small surprise that they don’t all conform to the letter (or spirit!) of the law.

In this post I present four very short videos to use as discussion points. I’ll take each one in turn before attempting to persuade you to draw the conclusion that I always arrive at following a rush hour drive on a dark winter’s night…

Incidentally, if you’re interested in getting a camera yourself, I’m using (and can highly recommend) this compact HD video camera by Contour.

Light or reflectors?

This video features two riders, one of whom has a rear light (but is still not road legal due to a missing mandatory reflector). The other has no rear light at all. All the same, he is in little danger of going over my bonnet, as you’ll see:

While the video doesn’t completely replicate the driving experience, what I hope to get across here is how visible the unlit rider is – his reflective ankle bands were competing with the second rider’s (perfectly bright) flashing light from hundreds of yards away.

  • Not only is the motion of the leg quite compelling, unlike the second rider’s barely visible pedal reflectors you can see ankle bands all the time, even from side-on.
  • As an added bonus versus lights, the pedals are off-centre (closer to traffic) increasing the perceived width of the bike.
  • We all know that reflectors don’t work when headlights aren’t pointing at them. All the same, between 00:17 – 00:21 you can easily see the rider’s ankle bands despite him being over 45 degrees off-axis. Aren’t modern retro-reflectives efficient?

Like many people, I find it difficult to estimate the distance of a flashing light. This isn’t much of a problem in town, where you can see everything in plenty of time regardless, but it should be thought-provoking that the nominally ‘unsafe’ cyclist might even be easier to place – especially if you’re in the habit of riding outside urban areas or off the beaten track.

The human touch

Contrast the riders above with this one (encountered a few seconds further on). He has sparingly fitted just one reflective band, but on the business side where it will best compliment his light:

Compared to an abstract light -flashing or otherwise- the human motion of the rotating ankle certainly discourages a braindead pass (dehumanising the cyclist to a narrow box-like object to be passed with as little care as you’d pass a traffic cone – if that).

Where does it all go wrong?

The real point of this post was not so much to contrast lights and reflectives (interesting though that subject may be).

Let’s look at our next example, a rider who is, at face value, doing everything right. Yet he’s doing something badly wrong… can you tell what it is?

I imagine experienced riders might have been a little uncomfortable there, especially if you imagine I’m just another white van…

The issue? The rider’s road position was completely indefensive. What’s the point being lit up like a Christmas tree if you’re just going to expose yourself to injury by riding in daft places?

You can see this quite acutely at 00:05-00:10 where the cyclist is actually riding on the double yellow lines – so passive (and so almost “not-there-ish”) that I nearly overtook regardless of the junction coming up.

Spend any time on the roads with an open mind and I think it’s easy to argue that a large proportion of collisions (and possibly the explanation of the great gender disparity in injury rates) comes down to the messages that riders give out – voluntarily or otherwise – and the opportunities for error that they present to the drivers they interact with.

Don’t go taking off your lights, but even if you have them on, please don’t assume that they are particularly important. The rider with only a reflective band, riding a sensible distance from the kerb, would have been a safe bet over the “legal” rider in the third video if I was running an insurance company…

3 thoughts on “From the driving seat: bike lights and reflectors”

  1. Nice videos.

    Night-time visibility for cyclists is a vexed subject. But clearly active visibility – lights are an essential part of the mix. As for reflectors, they too are an essential part of the mix, but low-down pedal reflectors / ankle bands offer a valuable biomotion element that make it crystal clear that the vehicle ahead is a pedal-cycle.
    It is important to emphasise that fluorescent colours which are so effective in daylight and even daytime fog are almost completely ineffective at night.

    This is unfortunate because recumbent riders are denied the biomotion effect of pedal reflectors and ankle reflectors offer much reduced forward and rear visibility.

    Clearly reliance upon reflectors alone is unwise, because their effectiveness assumes fully-functioning, properly-adjusted lights that are in-use on the driver’s vehicle. I am extremely conscious of vehicles being driven after lighting-up time without any lights, or without fully-operational lights. As an aside: Years ago, I was emerging in a car from our drive, it was dark and I made my observations, I saw a dim, rather yellow light approaching, close to the kerb, but it appeared to be approaching slowly and I mistook it for the front light of a bicycle (this was in pre-LED days for bicycle lights). Having judged that the light was distant enough and it was safe to emerge, I drove out, only for the inside of my car to be blindingly illuminated by two fully-operational main beam headlights. The idiot-driver had been driving (illegally) on his one-functional nearside side-light! This incident tells us a number of things:
    a) Anyone can make an error of judgement.
    b) It is most unwise to rely upon others to act properly, especially where your safety is concerned. Remember ~500 vehicles are seized each day for no insurance, no MoT certificate or no driving licence. If they’re illegal, they have already demonstrated their concern about obeying the rules.
    c) It is very difficult to judge closing speed and distance from a single point light-source.
    d) Some drivers do drive on sidelights, the ‘beam’ cast by a single ageing incandescent sidelight is very dim, and most unlikely to emit sufficient light for normal reflectors to stand-out from all the other visual distractions. I also see some drivers driving with no lights whatsoever.
    e) This happened at a time when Traffic Police were commonplace. Nowadays, Traffic Police are an endangered species and the chances of bad drivers being caught is much smaller.

    Judging speed and distance from a single point light-source.
    It is notable that a number of light manufacturers have been attempting to address distance (and therefore closing speed) perception.

    It is for this reason that I have a minimum of two steady light sources on my bicycles. A flashing light source (RVLR compliant) is also useful. My regular bicycles all have hub dynamo powered BS-approved or equivalent StVZO lights.
    Very-few light manufacturers offer BS-approved (marked) lights, Busch & Muller is one of the few. Legally, the German StVZO, K-rated lights are just as good as BS-approved, (probably better).

    Obviously there are no guarantees, but one can at least take precautions that give no excuses.

  2. If the cyclists in your vids had a few quid spare, they could do so much more to make themselves visible.

    Dave, as you rightly point out, the movement of a reflective ankle band helps attract attention, but the much larger reflective surface area (perhaps 100 times larger) of a “hi vis” vest makes a cyclist really stand out, not only down dark country lanes but also against a veritable sea of other lights in town. A “hi vis” also helps the motorist to judge their distance from the cyclist more effectively and there may well be some “calming” effect going on if the motorist interprets you as a “normal” (maybe inexperienced) cyclist, as opposed to an “urban”, or “lycra” cyclist who “deserves” a punishment pass. When it comes to survival, any psychological “trick of the light” is worth cultivating.

    You need both reflective and flourescent material because reflective surfaces don’t work when the viewing angle is too obtuse to have the required effect. Indeed, the reflective areas often become duller than standard flourescent material, particularly when viewed under sodium street lighting. In these circumstances, flourescent material stays very visible, and I’m guessing that the average “hi vis” has perhaps 1000 times the surface area of an ankle band.

    There are always exceptions, but I generally find I’m given more passing room, I’m passed more cautiously (especially on country lanes) and, as an added bonus, motorists seem to be more keen to dip their headlights too.

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