Margot McGovern and Iain Treloar investigate the best options to help you be seen in reflective gear.
As summer days darken to invite in the winter weather, riders spend more time pedalling in the dark or low light conditions and need to light up to be seen.
In low light conditions riders are legally required to run a white front and red rear light, visible to a minimum 200 metres. Some also choose to wear high visibility and reflective clothing. But many riders have misconceptions about how effective this clothing is.
There are two key materials that can be used to boost your on road visibility: fluorescent (hi-vis) and reflective. Fluorescent clothing enhances your visibility when the sun’s ultraviolet rays interact with the brightly coloured fabric so that it appears to glow. It can be effective in drizzly conditions and at dusk when other colours are muted. However, it’s of little to no use at night when there is no UV light present.
By contrast, reflective clothing is most effective at night, when reflected light stands out against the surrounding dark. However, it can only enhance visibility when illuminated by a light source, such as car headlights.The most common type of reflective fabric used in cycling apparel has microscopic glass beads attached to each thread, which function as tiny mirrors. When an incidental ray of light hits their surface, they beam this light back in a reflected ray. Because the texture of the fabric is uneven it reflects light in all directions, though most prominently in the direction of the source.
Interestingly, the effectiveness of reflective material varies depending on where on the body it is worn. According to research from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), reflective fabric is most visible to drivers when worn on the rider’s legs, as Dr Philippe Lacherez, lecturer and researcher at QUT’s Faculty of Health, explains: “Cyclists should add reflective strips to their knees and ankles because the pedalling movement makes light from headlights bounce back to the driver making it easier to register they are there.”
He is quick to add that riders should take further precautions to maximise their visibility to other road users: “Cyclists also need to wear a reflective vest and, of course, have lights on their bike to increase their chances of being seen in low light as well as at night.” (bit.ly/17cdq3A)
Every so often there is a call to make high visibility clothing mandatory for cyclists, most recently in 2013 from a New Zealand Coroner, Ian Smith, as part of an inquiry into the death of Police Superintendent Steve Fitzgerald, 57, who was killed while riding his bike in Wellington—despite the fact that Superintendent Fitzgerald was wearing clothing with reflective strips when the incident occurred. Smith’s recommendation was overturned, but such recommendations can promote the idea that visibility aids are a kind of silver bullet, and shift the focus away from the need for better bike infrastructure and traffic calming measures.
In fact, another study from QUT, conducted in 2009, found that road users significantly overestimate the effectiveness of high visibility clothing. As part of the study researchers surveyed more than 1,400 cyclists and motorists and found that both drivers and cyclists considered fluorescent vests to be effective visibility aids at night, and rated a reflective vest as offering more visibility than reflective strips worn on the arms/legs (bit.ly/1NHeNbJ)
A follow-up study, conducted by the same research team in 2010 and published in the Journal of the Australian College of Road Safety, proved these perceptions towards high visibility clothing to be misleading. For this second study riders wearing different visibility aids were positioned on a closed-road driving environment at night. Drivers drove around the course and indicated if and when they identified a cyclist. The basic results found drivers recognised 90% of cyclists who wore a reflective vest and reflective strips, but only 50% who wore only a reflective vest, 15% who wore a fluorescent vest and 2% who wore black clothing. The study didn’t accurately depict cyclists’ actual nighttime visibility, as study participants were not equipped with lights. However, it does contradict the cyclist and driver perceptions recorded in the earlier study.
Interestingly, the 2010 study also found that, while younger drivers recognised 51% of cyclists on the course, older drivers identified only 27%. Researchers further explained that older drivers particularly struggled to identify cyclists clad in non-reflective gear: “Older drivers did not detect any of the cyclists wearing black or fluorescent clothing, and less than half of the cyclists wearing reflective vests. Younger drivers performed much better; however, they detected less than half of the cyclists wearing black or fluorescent clothing.”
If bike riders act under the assumption that they will be seen when wearing visibility aids, they may put themselves at greater risk. QUT researchers explain that this is particularly a problem for cyclists who wear fluorescent clothing at night: “Cyclists and drivers rated the visibility benefits of fluorescent vests to be high even under nighttime conditions; indeed, there was little difference in their ranking of the visibility benefits of the fluorescent clothing for either day or nighttime conditions.” Given fluorescent material is not effective as a visibility aid at night, “Cyclists who habitually wear fluorescent—as opposed to reflective—materials may considerably overestimate their visibility at night.”
Researchers further noted that it’s particularly important for riders to minimise their risk at night: “Nighttime cycling has been shown to be more dangerous than cycling in daylight, with 40% of cyclist fatalities occurring at night, despite much lower exposure rates than daytime.” Reflective material can certainly improve how visible riders are at night; however, the 2009 study revealed that while most riders understand the benefits of wearing reflective clothing only 35% wear it ‘always’ or ‘often’.
In addition to a reliable set of lights, those who regularly ride in the dark should also consider investing in reflective gear, and many technical garments and accessories now feature strategically placed reflective details; we’ve selected our picks of the bunch below.
Canadian clothing brand Sugoi are one of the most prominent manufacturers of reflective riding gear, with their extraordinarily bright Zap range (including shoe covers and jackets). The jacket’s neat trick is that it doesn’t look like a reflective jacket—available in red and black, it becomes completely reflective when light hits it. The range will be available in Australia from late May.
Pricing TBC, monzaimports.com.au
Designed for long days, the Brevet from Rapha is a highly visible two-piece product, comprising a vest and a merino-rich jersey. Both have contrast-heavy designs and large reflective stripes across the chest, with a stripe on the arm of the jersey as well.
$285 for the set, rapha.cc
At the premium end of the spectrum, Capo’s Italian-made Padrone HiVis range features several products with impressive reflectivity. Jerseys, knicks, vests and jackets all get the treatment, ensuring that—if you’ve got deep enough pockets—you’ll be shining like a disco-ball.
Volta reflective vest
Pictured above. Avanti’s house clothing brand, Volta, make a couple of reflective products, but only the vest makes it to Australia. It’s an impressive bit of gear, with a comfortable athletic fit, subtle design and high-quality finish. A lot of cycling clothing crosses our desks at Ride On, but this vest had us cooing like pigeons.
Zero insulated reflective bottle
Also pictured. Something a little more accessibly priced, the Zero insulated reflective bottle features what looks to be the same material as the Volta vest inside a clear outer layer. Not only is the bottle reflective, but it will keep your drinks cool for a little longer as well. Because of the insulation, the bottle’s volume is a little smaller than the size would suggest at 650ml. Priced at a very reasonable $14.99.
Chrome ‘Night’ series bags
Chrome’s backpacks and messenger bags are some of the very best (and most durable) in the business, and the Night-variants of their popular Mini-Metro, Citizen, Buran and Yalta models utilise a stack of 3M reflective material to boost their visibility.
ProViz Reflect360 range
British-based ProViz have a vast range of clothing designed to be seen, but their Reflect360 range is the real stand-out. Rather than reflective panels, the entire product is designed to reflect. Sizing runs a little on the generous side, but if you can work that out, these are highly visible garments at reasonable prices.
Photography Thomas Joynt
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