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…