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Pedestrian safety

OPINION: Could Pedestrian Reflectors Reduce Fatal Crashes in the United States?

Over a dozen European countries require pedestrians wear reflectors at night. Should American municipalities follow suit?

12:01 AM EST on January 16, 2024

Photo via Bike Portland

Editor's note: This is a repost from Bike Portland. You can access the original here. Opinion submissions do not necessarily reflect the views of Streetsblog.

Over a dozen European countries require pedestrians to wear reflectors at night. implemented, statistics universally show a 30 to 50 percent reduction in pedestrian fatalities.

There are certain statistical constants in human behavior. Worldwide, pretty much 75 percent of pedestrian traffic deaths occur at night, for obvious reasons — people are difficult to see at night. Of course, that 75 percent rate will vary depending on how many pedestrians are typically out at night, how many streetlights are installed, speed limits, area of sampling, etc. In Portland, a notoriously early town with low speed limits, around 50 percent of pedestrian fatalities happen at night or low-light conditions (and every Portlander knows “low light conditions” can mean high noon).

The go-to solution to improving pedestrian visibility is to add more streetlights. In Portland’s case, there’s a mind-boggling lack of streetlights. The city has been in violation of its own rules for decades which require “two sided lighting” on any street wider than 48-feet. By the city’s own estimates, only 61% of high-crash streets citywide have lights, and on the east side, a mere 22% of high-crash streets have adequate lighting. This neglect happened for decades and it will take a long time to remedy at extraordinary cost.

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Specific costs to install a streetlight vary depending on a number of factors (light style, dedicated or shared pole, wiring underground or overhead, etc.) but generally speaking, in the U.S., each new streetlight installed in an urban area costs $3,000 — $5,000. Portland currently has 50,000 streetlights, yet it’s pretty obviously underlit. Let’s make a general estimate and say we need to add 25% more streetlights citywide (12,500). That would cost roughly $37 million — $62 million and take many years to complete.

But there is one very simple, practically instant and essentially free solution to improving pedestrian visibility at night that many European nations have used for decades with excellent results — pedestrian safety reflectors.

In the dark, pedestrians can only be seen by car headlights about 50 meters (164 feet) away, but with a reflector it’s 350 meters (1,150 feet). It takes almost 100 feet to stop a vehicle traveling 30 mph and 140 feet at 40 mph (in dry conditions). That means a jaywalker starting across the street from over 1,000 feet away and not wearing a reflector will likely be hit, because they’re literally invisible until the car is within 200 feet. But with a reflector, the pedestrian can be seen almost 10x farther away and the driver can brake accordingly with awareness.

The graphic below from the Finnish Road Safety Council illustrates it quite well.

And best of all is this video from Texas A&M University demonstrating the stark difference between reflectors and non-reflectors in a variety of road situations.

It’s a matter of physics. No matter how careful and aware a driver is — pedestrians will be rendered invisible by the glare of oncoming headlights. Pedestrians will blend in with the dark environment until a car is right on top of them. Portland has spent over $1 million every year since 2018 to add new pedestrian flashing crosswalks — but as the Texas A&M video demonstrates — at a flashing crosswalk, a driver can barely discern which side of the street a person is on without a reflector.

Pedestrian Reflectors in Europe

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The invention of the personal reflector is credited to Finnish farmer Arvi Lehti in 1955. They were quickly adopted and are now a basic part of culture, with hundreds of designs available, although there’s a great preference for the “snowflake” pattern, which was created in 1973 by product designer Kalervo Suomela. Even though no Finn would think of leaving home without their reflector, the Finnish Road Traffic Code imposes a 20 Euro ($22 USD) fine if a pedestrian is walking at night without one. They also observe “National Reflector Day” on October first every year as a reminder and an opportunity for the government to distribute hundreds of thousands of free reflectors.

The concept of pedestrian reflectors spread quickly to the other Nordic countries, where every child grows up with a reflector attached to them before they’re even old enough to walk. Regardless, many nations still remind their citizens about reflector use. Sweden has declared the third Thursday in October as “National Reflector Day,” roughly coinciding with the end of Daylight Savings Time. Other countries that celebrate their own National Reflector Day include Norway, Denmark, Poland, Lithuania and Estonia.

The reflectors are yet another fashion statement, available in every shape and color to express the wearer’s personality and style, or to boost their favorite activities, sports teams or cartoon characters.

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Modern 3M technology allows reflectors to be any color but still reflect bright white light. You might say it’s a great time in the world of pedestrian reflectors, as the one complaint that people used to have has been solved by the newest soft vinyl materials — no more annoying click-clack while walking.

Of course, medallion-style reflectors aren’t the only legal option. Many garments — hats, sweaters, pants — have reflective threads woven into them making it even easier to stay safe, visible and law-abiding.

However, studies show that medallion-style reflectors are among the most effective options because they’re typically worn at belt-level, in line with headlights, and they swing back and forth to catch attention. It’s been observed that if the reflector stays more static without obvious motion, there’s a chance that drivers will mistake it for a stationary road reflector and not a human.

The other most effective visual is extremities in motion; think reflective bands on ankles and cuffs.

Newer European Adopters and Statistics

While it’s impossible to extract before-and-after metrics in the Nordic countries due to so many generations using pedestrian reflectors as a way of life beginning at birth, there are some nations that more recently adopted the practice and can provide data. Among the latest countries to mandate pedestrian reflectors are Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, and Estonia.

Spoiler Alert: reflectors universally reduce pedestrian accidents 30–50%.

Poland

Poland mandated pedestrian reflectors in 2009. Before that, 60% of pedestrian deaths occurred in low-light conditions. Since implementation, they’ve experienced a 21% reduction in overall accidents in street-lighted areas and a 40% reduction in non-lighted areas. Fatalities specifically went down 33% in lighted areas and 37% in rural areas. Poland imposes a $25 fine if any pedestrian crosses a street without wearing a reflector. (There’s also a $76 fine if a pedestrian crosses a street while talking on the phone.)

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic made pedestrian reflectors mandatory in 2015. They have since experienced a 33% reduction in pedestrian fatalities, while at the same time, deaths in the other categories (drivers, passengers, motorcycles) stayed about the same — giving clear evidence that the reflectors were the variable responsible for the change. There’s a 2,000 Koruna fine ($90 USD) for not wearing a reflector at night.

Estonia

In 1992, Estonia first made it mandatory for everyone in a rural area to wear a reflector. After nearly 20 years of data proving effectiveness, in 2011 the country expanded the law to include cities as well. In the city, as in the country, pedestrian fatalities dropped 75%. There is a 40 Euro ($44) fine for not wearing one.

Lithuania

As the newest adopter aiming to modify public behavior, Lithuania currently imposes a heavy 140 Euro fine ($154 USD) for not wearing a reflector at night. The country celebrates “National Reflector Day” on the last Thursday of October. For 2018’s National Reflector Day, the police launched a PR stunt of handing out candles instead of fines to pedestrians caught not wearing reflectors — a grim symbol of their potential death.

A key component of Lithuania’s Vision Zero plan is educating citizens on the proper use of reflectors and reminding them to only use EU-approved reflectors, rather than rely on backpack charms or other objects that seem “shiny” but are inadequate for safety.

European Union pedestrian reflector standards require a surface area of at least 15 cm2 and a reflective capacity of CE EN 13356.

Back to Portland

Okay, you’re saying — so even though half of pedestrian fatalities happen at night and low-light conditions in Portland, you can’t compare us to those “dark winter places” so we wouldn’t have the same results.

Well, here’s some astronomical reality. In Portland, on Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year, sunrise is officially at 7:48am and sunset at 4:30pm. Compare that with Warsaw: 7:44am and 3:24pm sunset. Or Prague where the sun rises at 8:00am and sets at 4:04pm on Solstice.

Portland winters are just as dark as Poland and the Czech Republic — where they each cut their pedestrian deaths by over one-third after mandating reflectors.

But, But, But, Civil Liberties and Freeeedom!

It’s weird and invasive to make Portland pedestrians wear a reflector at night, you might say.

Oh, come now.

There are numerous safety devices and behaviors that society requires of people in the name of public health and safety — all of them argued against as infringements of freedom. Seatbelt laws, motorcycle helmets, bicycle helmets, bike reflectors and lights, gun safes and trigger locks in private homes, cell phone bans while driving. And of course, most recently, Covid masks and 6-foot social distance requirements.

As for penalties, were fines ever truly assessed in Portland during Covid masking time? Social pressure is strong in Portland. There were no citations needed and even anti-maskers begrudgingly wore them while complaining.

Covid masks are a great example of how quickly, in real-life, habits can change. Masking became second-nature very fast, as it would with pedestrian reflectors. This has been the same with all new safety requirements, in every culture.

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Besides, “infringement on liberty” is practically a cornerstone of what we call “public health policy.” There were years of battles, legal challenges, mass protests and angry death threats when U.S. states first started forcing motorcyclists to wear helmets. There was the same inevitable resistance to every other required safety policy we all take for granted now, like banning passengers from the back of pickup trucks and laws requiring seatbelts and bike helmets.

California passed its mandatory motorcycle helmet law in 1992, and it was preceded by endless roiling, divisive media coverage and angry protests. Surveys leading up to the measure’s passage showed only 46% of riders wore helmets, but within just one month of the law’s implementation, that had risen to 99%. Today, I doubt even a Gypsy Joker would get on the streets without a brain bucket.

Pedestrian Reflectors Open a Whole New Avenue for Entrepreneurs

Remember how many people launched a business manufacturing or importing all manner of Covid masks? Pedestrian reflectors offer the same potential. And naturally, prime use as a bit of corporate swag. Small business owners can jump on a wild new retail opportunity, with a potential 650,000 units sold (Portland’s population). Think medallion style reflectors in the shape of Oregon or a Doug Fir tree or the Cascadia Flag. Clothing retailers could add knit beanies and other garments with reflective threads to their inventory.

Reflector laws can open a whole new retail channel and contribute millions to the economy. I’d totally love to have a pair of trousers with reflective pinstripes.

Here’s the bottom line: if Portland wants to reduce its pedestrian deaths by a substantial amount, if they are truly dedicated to Vision Zero and trying all options in an effort to reduce traffic fatalities — then evidence proves personal reflectors are an excellent way to do it.

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