Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Great Reflector Shoot-Out

Scott and I had an argument a few weeks ago that almost came to blows. I suggested that the best place for reflector was about 700cm above the ground, while Scott countered that I was off my nut. We decided to settle it like gentlemen and have a duel. Our wives presided over the event with cameras in hand, and my Subaru wagon provided headlights.

First, some background. In order for your bicycle to be "fully reflectorized", you need 10 reflectors: four white ones on each side of both wheels, four amber ones on each side of both pedals, a red one in the back, and a white one in the front. People "in the know" will also mount a red or amber SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) reflector at about headlight level on the back of the bike, since SAE reflectors do a better job than the ones bike stores are allowed to sell (bikes are legally considered toys, and toy stores aren't allowed to sell auto parts).

Both Scott and my bike have these 11 reflectors. Scott and I also have retroreflective yellow ankle cuffs, which keep our pant cuffs out of the chain. We have day-glo chartreuse jackets with a narrow retroreflective band in various places, and gloves with retroreflective patches on them. For lighting, we both have red LED tail lights, and a white bar-mounted front light. Scott's got an LED front light, I've got an incandescent one. Scott, in his effort to mimic a Christmas tree, has also placed reflective stickers on his helmet, and some retroreflective tape with a red LED on his backpack. I don't have a backpack, I use a pannier, which has a retroreflective band on it.

Clearly nobody can accuse us of not making an effort to be seen.

Scott's neighbor showed up early into the shootout, with no reflectors other than his crazy retroreflective jacket, and only a rear tail light. You'll see him on the left in the photos.

So now, without further ado, here are the pictures:

60 feet, from the back, no lights. All of Scott's (on the right) reflectors show up pretty well, but what really struck everyone involved was how vivid our ankle cuffs and my pedals were. They're so bright they overexposed the shot, but trust me when I say they were by far the brightest reflectors. I think my amber reflector is a little more visible than Scott's red one. My puny "meeting the letter of the law" red reflector is practically invisible. Our fancy-pants jackets hardly show up at all, and my pannier didn't reflect a thing. Scott's backpack tape does well.

60 feet, from the back, with lights. Look at that jacket! My (middle) light shows up really well, but I might have had an advantage because I was directly in front of the car. I think the height was also in my favor, though. Scott's (right) light could be better placed, I think. Moving onto the left (traffic) side would be a good start. Once you get past the jacket, Scott's neighbor (left) doesn't have much going for him.

60 feet, from the front, no lights. Scott's (right) helmet stickers are showing up really well but I can't tell where his front reflector is. Mine (middle) is just over the wheel and really shows up well as a result. But once again, they were all dwarfed by the ankle cuffs and my pedal reflectors. Scott's neighbor (left) shows up really well with his crazy jacket but you can't see his bike at all. Let's hope he never brings the wrong jacket to work or gets hot.

60 feet, from the front, with lights. Scott's (right) headlight looks brighter in the photo but the photographers said they were about the same to the eye. I (center) only had one of my two lights turned on, but that's how I ride. From my perspective on the bike, I thought Scott's LED lit up the road better than my incandescent. And again we have Scott's neighbor (left) with his jacket giving our headlights a run for their money. Notice that you can still see the ankle and pedal reflectors, though!



  1. Scott's neighbor's entire unlit, unreflectored bike

  2. My pannier

  3. Scott's rear light (maybe)


  1. Both headlights

  2. Ankle and pedal reflectors

  3. Scott's neighbor's jacket

  4. Scott's helmet and backpack tape

  5. My front reflector

I want to caution people not to be overly swayed by that white jacket. If a headlight is turned off or burned out, Scott's neighbor will be the same color as the road: pitch black. It would be a great addition to a full set of reflectors and lights, though.

In the end I'm going to have to claim victory for my assertion that reflectors closer to the headlights will be more visible, while at the same time conceding that Scott's helmet did manage to show up pretty well.

I think the big winners here are the ankle and pedal reflectors, along retroreflective tape, which clearly has very different reflective properties than standard reflectors, even SAE reflectors.

So go get you some reflective ankle cuffs!

More information on the properties of reflectors can be found in Why Bicycle Reflectors Don't Work at Sheldon Brown's amazing web site.


Khal Spencer said...

Not only Sheldon Brown but others including John Forester have bitterly criticized the all-reflector lighting system. Basically, reflectors are worthless unless headlights are pointed at them. Also, since they require two-way light travel, they are susceptible to fog or dust. Nothing replaces a good set of lights. --Khal Spencer, LAB instructor 1173.

Neale said...

Another way to say it is that reflectors only work if the other guy remembered to turn his lights on!

Anonymous said...

This blog is going to die a slow death - soon, if you don't blog. Here's an idea -how about a list of bad cyclists in town. The ones that make it dangerous for all the rest of us. We could even have photos of them.

Anonymous said...

I just saw an obviously accomplished road rider go through a red light. It's a totally stupid maneuver: turn right, then go behind the car going the other way, crossing the road not at the intersection but farther back -- thus not having to stop at the red light and creating a potentially bad situation.

A friend of mine rides 1,000s of miles a year and I've since this friend run red lights all the time on a bike.

Scott Doebling said...

March 7, 2007 9:45 PM:

Yeah, good call on the blog death. I have a couple of posts ready to go up. I'm going to try to make sure that we make at least 2 new posts a week between us.

Scott Doebling said...

March 8, 2007 5:37 PM :

Yeah, looks like the disobedience of road rules is an area where we cyclists have to apply some peer pressure to each other. I am preparing a blog post on just this topic.

Scott Doebling said...

"Not only Sheldon Brown but others including John Forester have bitterly criticized the all-reflector lighting system."

Khal - can you provide an example of someone who has advocated an "all reflector lighting system." This strikes me as a straw-man argument.

Scott Doebling said...


Great article - I think you overstated the violence of our disagreement, but I'll let that go in the name of poetic license and dramatic effect. :)

Are you sure that NM law requires so many reflectors? The only rules I am aware of require only a rear red reflector plus a light in front if riding at night. I'd like to see a citation of the statue that requires the 10 reflectors.

Scott Doebling said...

Reflective ankle bands rule!!

Cheap, lightweight, aero, visible 360 degrees, and eye-catching by their motion. Also, they connect to the rider, not the bike. The ones I use are "Jog-a-lite" brand, available at REI:


Scott Doebling said...

I can recommend the DOT-rated reflective tape, such as that available from


Ralph said...

Thanks for the research. It's scientific enough, just not a large study.

I've gone one step farther: reflective ankle bands with an internal light for those rare times that I get caught out in the dark.

Anonymous said...

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (which is chartered to regulate toy safety) requires reflectors on bikes when they're sold new in stores. Many purchasers think that's all you need.

jeep-suv-and-parts said...

Online store offers verity of Jeep parts and accessories including new replacement auto parts, aftermarket parts, original/OEM parts, refurbished/remanufactured/rebuilt auto parts and used part locating services. Our site offers online access to multiple automotive part stores.
You also find body shops and repair centers that specialize in Jeep mechanical and body repair. Additionally you can utilize our forum to post any Jeep related troubleshooting and installation questions. We are constantly adding additional Jeep automotive services and products.

Jeep auto parts


SiouxGeonz said...

Pictures? Pictures?