During the months of November, December and January, Minnesotans experience roughly 15 hours of darkness every day — not including the periods of twilight leading up to sunset and after sunrise (when it can be deceptively hard to see, and be seen). A bike commuter with a typical work schedule may never ride in full daylight on Monday through Friday during the winter months.
Clearly, those of us who want to engage in outdoor activities that are on or adjacent to streets and roads during this time of year need to make ourselves as visible as possible to drivers who may be distracted, erratic or simply having trouble seeing in the dark.
And that’s got me thinking about reflective gear.
As I thought about the challenge of riding a bike in Minnesota during the winter months, I reflected upon (pun intended) the different attitudes among cyclists regarding the look of their bikes. I have often noted the way different cyclists that I ride with set up their bikes, and how, when we see a biker, we often check out their gear and apparel and perhaps draw conclusions about the type of rider we are seeing.
When we were children, some of us added streamers to our handlebar grips — and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only kid who clothes-pinned playing cards to my spokes so the bike sounded like a motorcycle. We are more sophisticated as adults, but a lot of us do care how our bike looks and what kinds of accessories should be added. (There is, by the way, a huge and growing market for bicycle accessories.)
In a nod to other word nerds, I’m excited to use the word conspicuity in an article. (Conspicuity, def: the quality of being noticeable or easy to see; conspicuous.) In fact, several words in this piece require definition!
Statistics on Risk
The data are clear: Over half of all bicycle fatalities happen between 6 and 9 p.m., “in dawn, dusk, or night-time conditions,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Cyclists recognize the danger. In its 2012 National Survey of Bicyclist and Pedestrian Attitudes and Behavior (an updated survey is in development now), the NHTSA found that, nationally, over 70% of riders do not ride at night, though riding in the dusk may be more common among hardy Minnesotans accustomed to dealing with cold and short daylight.
Our government has developed various regulations intended to make cycling safer. Minnesota, like most states, requires bikes to have lights (white in front, red in back) (MS 169.222) when cyclists are riding in the dark — defined as “any time when there is not sufficient light to render persons and vehicles on the highway clearly discernible at a distance of 500 feet ahead.” Further, the Consumer Product Safety Commission requires all bikes sold in the U.S. to be equipped with reflectors mounted on the frame, pedals and spokes. (More on these in a bit.)
But do these equipment laws and regulations actually work? An Italian study noted by NHTSA found “no evidence of a relationship between legislation and a change in numbers of crashes.” NHTSA suggests that truly effective ways to decrease car/bike crashes “should include improving the ambient roadway lighting and creating safe and predictable places and spaces for bicyclists to ride, where drivers expect to see them.” As anyone knows who has observed discussions, negotiations and planning in the Twin Cities, development of that kind of infrastructure is complicated, expensive and slow.
Reflectivity (and Some Thoughts on Style)
Given that bicyclists will probably always be sharing roads with cars, and sometimes in periods of low light, why wouldn’t we do as much as possible to make ourselves visible to motorists? As I pondered this question, I thought about my own behaviors and attitudes as a biker. Although I am a relatively high-mileage biker in the warm, sunny months (between 2,000 and 3,000 miles a year) on a lightweight carbon-fiber road bike (Felt Z4) and on a heavier steel touring cycle (Trek 520), I put my bikes away when it starts getting cold, dark and icy. I do not like being cold, nor do I feel safe riding when it is slippery.
While I want to avoid stereotyping, I am aware of the various subcultures within our diverse biking community across the state and the ways we establish identities as bikers. There are racers who obsess over the weight and efficiency of their bikes, bike commuters and others who see cycling as a form of daily transportation, mountain bikers who like jumping over logs in the woods, touring bikers (like my wife and I) who take multi-day trips, casual weekend riders who just want to get outside on their bike, and others. Each of these types has its own bike — as well as its own attitude about how the bike (and rider) should look.
A tongue-in-cheek example of biker identity is captured in the “Rules” from the website Velominati. The site was started by a couple of fellows who wanted to both document and poke fun at cycling traditions, etiquette and gear. The “Rules,” which currently number almost 100, are a list of practices that should be followed if you want to be a “serious” cyclist.:
- Make your bike photogenic.
- No frame-mounted pumps.
- Spare tubes, multi-tools and repair kits should be stored in jersey pockets.
- Quick-release levers are to be carefully positioned (parallel to the fork).
- No stickers or RAGBRAI tags.
I add this not to endorse any kind of exclusionary “rules” for the way things should look, but to make the point that bikers have attitudes (perhaps unspoken) about the proper way to do things. While these “rules” may feel extreme to most cyclists (that is why they are funny), we bikers tend to identify ourselves in some way. We take our bikes seriously, and some of us are vain about looks.
Road bikers (“roadies”), for example, may look down on mirrors, fenders and racks —thinking that not only do they slow the bike down, they just aren’t “cool.” I once heard a bike shop mechanic tell a customer that the “cool kids” don’t use kickstands, and then he explained how to prop up a bike without needing a stand. I would submit that even a complete rejection of any sense of cool is itself a look.
And then there are reflectors.
I talked with several bikers about reflectors and how they look. I asked them if they still had the government-required spoke reflectors that were on their bikes when they purchased them. (That reflector is the same whether you are buying a $10,000 racing bike or a kid’s bike from Target.) I also consulted a Reddit thread on this question. The most common answer I got is that people removed the reflectors — because they were cheap, noisy, perhaps destabilizing, and they don’t look good. (I found several sites explaining how to remove them, and I’m guessing the majority end up in landfills.)
“The first thing I do when I get a new bike is remove the spoke reflectors,” one friend told me. Cyclists often also remove the “dork disc,” that plastic disc between the rear cassette and the spokes, for the same reason. The point is, we have ideas about how a bike should look.
I don’t think this means that bikers don’t take visibility seriously. Most of the people I talked to use multiple lights and reflective clothing to increase their visibility, both day and night. Some apply reflective tape to their bike. One uses rechargeable battery-operated lighted pedals from Redshift — which, while expensive, are impressive.
Which brings me to a new product from a new company, Minnesota’s Reflaero. The founders decided it was time to update the standard bike reflector technology (called “cube corner,” like the one that many of us remove) that has remained mostly unchanged since the 1950s. The company is woman-owned and managed and entirely Minnesota based, including the manufacturing.
Reflaero was founded by a team with connections to 3M, which developed technologies in retroreflectivity and fluorescence.
- Retroreflectivity refers to the way light is reflected — the traditional cube corner technology reflects light back at a much narrower angle than the wide angle reflection from a retroreflective product.
- Fluorescence enhances the way light is converted from the invisible spectrum to the visible and makes it possible for more light to be reflected back than actually comes in. A fluorescent color is strikingly vivid and seems to glow even when no light is directed at it, making it very visible day and night. These technologies are being used on highway signs and emergency vehicles and other applications where visibility is essential, including apparel. As a driver and a biker, I have been impressed with the incredible reflectivity of road signs and, being 70 years old, I have noted how it has improved in the past decade. (Note: While Reflaero uses 3M technology it is not a subsidiary; they are a customer of 3M.)
Currently, the company is ready to ship two initial products: the Ringlet ($75), a reflective tape that is applied to the rim of the wheel (for bikes with disc brakes only), and the Winglet ($50 for eight), a lightweight and aerodynamic reflector mounted on spokes. The company claims that the material is twice as reflective as standard plastic cube corner reflectors. (Find more background on the products at their Kickstarter site.) Both are the familiar “yellow green” fluorescent color — one of a limited number of colors that fall into the fluorescent category.
Reflaero President Anne Walli, a cyclist and runner herself, told me that it is hard to capture these reflective qualities with a camera. (The website has a mostly black background, emphasizing the brightness of the product.)
Anne has done research on bicycle safety and accidents, including a close look at the work of Dr. Rick Tyrrell at Clemson University who is studying human factors in bike accidents. How quickly a motorist recognizes that they are seeing a bike is crucial in accident avoidance, Clemson researchers have found. Certainly, conspicuity and the retroreflective and fluorescent qualities of this product should improve that split-second recognition.
Anne and I talked about the marketing challenge in promoting a product that some cyclists might view as “not cool.” She said that attitudes and aesthetics have been a central focus of their strategy and have helped identify which of the many kinds of cyclists might be earliest to adopt it. “We want to provide a safety product that people actually want to add to their bike,” she said, recognizing that bikers are fussy about how their bikes look. The company is initially aiming at a couple of groups that they think will be early adopters: mothers (and their children) and commuter cyclists.
I asked about another issue cyclists have raised — that bikers are more concerned about front/back collisions than being hit from the side, since side collisions are more rare. (NHTSA confirms this.) Her product is designed to provide protection mostly from side crashes, which she agrees are less frequent, but more severe.
One biker I spoke with about these products summed up his thoughts with “different courses, different horses.” Like many of us who think of ourselves as serious cyclists, he has more than one bike. He is likely use this product on his “ride around town” bike, but probably not on his higher-end, lightweight bikes.
We cyclists can increase our visibility in many ways when we are sharing roads with vehicles, and this product impresses me as a lightweight, powerfully reflective and giant improvement on the cheap reflector that came on all of our bikes.
It is also just one factor in enhancing bike safety, including reflective apparel, high-quality lights and the larger and obviously more complex solutions like improved separation between vehicles and bikes, better street lighting and more considerate, cautious drivers. And, perhaps, reflecting on our own attitudes about how we, and our bikes, should look.