Conspicuity Is Key!

Aids to visibility for after-dark cyclists.

While the law and some cyclists claim that a small rear reflector and a headlight provide adequate visibility, a quick look at the evening news shows clueless motorists who fail to see well-lit motorcycles, cars, even large trucks. In that environment, I prefer to add as much visibility to myself and my bike as possible without undue weight, bulk, and expense.

At a bare minimum, every bicycle ridden after dark should have a headlight, a tail light, and an rear reflector that is not obscured by bags or clothing. Headlights and tail lights for bicycles are not as bright as automotive lights, but they provide light that is visible to people who do not have lights of their own shining on the bicycle. Reflectors work without batteries or generators, but work only when illuminated by a driver's headlights. Do not rely on either lights or reflectors alone.

The following are all readily-available and inexpensive additions to the average commuting bike that make it much more conspicuous in traffic.

Disclaimer: Check your local laws before using any unusual lights, reflectors, or other devices. And keep the little dysfunctional CPSC-approved rear reflector for legal compliance, even if you've installed a rear reflector that actually works.


A good auto parts store will have a wide range of plastic reflectors for cars, trucks, and driveways.

The standard rear reflector on a bicycle is red, just like the tail lights of a car. But the rest of your reflectors don't need to be red -- amber reflectors, like those used for outlining trucks, are much brighter than red for the same size, while still being a color commonly used in traffic.

All automotive reflectors have one thing in common, they are designed to face a single direction. This is different from CPSC-standard rear reflectors whose faces are faceted to make sure most of the reflector isn't facing traffic. This means that a properly mounted automotive reflector will appear much brighter to following traffic than a CPSC-style reflector of the same size. (The CPSC rule is designed on the premise that bicycles are toys which children ride in circles in the middle of the street. It doesn't address the safety of competent cyclists riding with traffic.)

Adhesive Reflective Tape

Many bike shops have a small selection of adhesive reflective tape, but in my experience this is usually an inferior grade of tape, with poor adhesive and a thick base that tries to peel itself off of curved surfaces. Instead, look for “diamone grade” or “safety of life at sea” grade reflective tape. This is stocked at better auto parts stores, marine stores, and industrial suppliers. It is more expensive than the cheap bike-grade stuff, but it is designed for prolonged outdoor use and will stick to curves as tight as a rack stay through many years of wet and salty winter commuting.

Some suggested applications:

In all of these locations, I personally prefer amber reflective tape. It is brighter than red reflective tape, and is a color used for general warnings on vehicles and roadways, from outlining truck trailers to warning of road work. Get a high-quality brand of tape (3M diamond-grade is excellent) and it won't peel or lose its reflectivity despite years of bad-weather use.

Reflective Fabric Tape

Outdoor fabric shops often stock some variety of Scotchlite or Reflexite cloth trim. This is not adhesive tape, but the sort of tape that gets sewn on as trim. I find a 3/4 inch or 1 inch width the most convenient.

Accessory Lights

Most state laws require a headlight; many allow or require a red tail light. But in some conditions, that is not enough.

Testing your visibility

You need two cars and your bike. Find a quiet residential street or an empty parking lot. Park one car and lean your bike on it next to the headlights. Take the other car up the street or across the lot and shine its low-beam headlights at the first car. Does your bike show up clearly next to the glare of the first car's lights? That's where you need to be seen, after all, in dense traffic, surrounded by bright headlights and illuminated by dim headlights.

If I ever get around to scanning it in, you will see the results of my experiment here. My test is a bit more stringent: is my bike clearly visible next to the halogen high beams on my van when lit with just the single yellowish 6-volt headlight of my old Honda Trail 90 motorcycle? With just a stock CPSC reflector set it's hopeless, but with all my additional reflectors it's pretty good.

An added benefit to a wide range of reflective material is that the bike is not only brighter, but appears bigger. I get noticeably wider passing clearance from motorists when fully reflectorized, and when I have the amber strobe on in the fog they slow down to an almost reasonable speed and pass even wider, since until I'm ten feet away they can't tell if I'm a cyclist or perhaps a safety barricade or a stalled tractor with an invisible tiller hanging into traffic.

Finally, putting all those reflectors on the bike clearly isn't "cool," so in my experience, you'll reduce trouble with the whacko minority of drivers who love to harrass cyclists they see as yuppies playing in traffic.

Be Loud, Too!

Like it or not, some motorists pay so little attention to the road that you read about them in the newspaper after they drive into the side of a firetruck parked with its lights on. Besides being visible, you'll be safer if you can be loud. I use a Delta Airzound horn on my commuter. It's a 115 dB air horn that recharges with a bike pump. The horn itself mounts on the handlebars, and the air bottle mounts in a water bottle cage. Even someone texting while tuning the stereo can hear a 115 dB horn when they start to cut you off.

This page written by Josh Putnam. Please feel free to email questions, comments, corrections, suggestions, etc.

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