Reflections on Reflectors

The lowly reflector gets short shrift in the cycling community.  While manufacturers are required to install such reflectors, and are subject to varying rules depending on where a bicycle is shipped, reflectors are routinely removed by bike enthusiasts, “experts”, and new bike consumers. They are deemed ugly, heavy, and useless by riders and mechanics alike. I have often removed reflectors from pedal cages, brake mounts, racks and other locations.  But, why?

As winter approaches, and night time riding becomes the norm here in Portland Oregon, with its 45th parallel latitude, I have come to think about reflectors differently.  On the rare occasions when I am driving home in the dark, and given that I am extra sensitive to the existence of other road users such as cyclists and pedestrians, I have come to think of the lowly reflector as an inexpensive and critical life saving technology, introduced and perfected decades ago.  The above photos show a vintage glass amber reflector made by Wald.  It has numerous angles from which a reflection will appear, unlike the flat plastic reflectors seen today.

This photo shows the vintage glass Wald reflector using a flash.  It is very bright, almost blinding.  Not bad for a reflector.  Better yet, this vintage glass reflector will give light from various angles, thanks to its cut glass design.  While many cyclists, including expert John Shubert at Sheldon Brown’s site, deride the lowly reflector, it certainly can’t hurt to add reflectors to your bicycle if  you are riding at night.  Especially if you can add vintage cut glass reflectors which will illuminate from a variety of angles.

Reflector technology was first developed in 1912 when a patent was awarded to Robert Venner, a British inventor, for a method of increasing the visibility of signs and name plates. The working principle of the invention was to set glass spheres in grooves on the surface of the name plate or sign, so that it would be rendered visible in one or more directions by reflected light.

In the 1920s, the use of glass spheres, also known as cataphotes or “cat’s eyes” became widespread in the U.K.

According to the site the first known invention relating to the concept that pedestrians should also attempt to make themselves better visible, was published in the US magazine “Popular Science” in January of 1943, and depicted a metal shoulder clip with a single cataphote for pedestrians, invented by a US highway patrolman Raymond Trask.

Front and rear lighting is ideal.  But not everyone has the money or the proclivity to purchase a bike with a hub generator.  Battery lights can fail just when you need them.  And that’s when it’s nice to have a few reflectors mounted to help keep you safe on your journey.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Reflectors

  1. A cheap reflective vest might be the best safety feature for riding in the night. Mine folds into my saddlebag and the difference is staggering.

    However, I do agree reflectors are a must, especially in the wheels. The circular movement is unmistakable, and even the most hateful motorists will react with enough time when they see them.

    By the way, am I the only one who likes to include the wheel reflector when balancing the complete wheel?

    • Agreed! Relective clothing such as a reflective vest is very helpful for nighttime visibility. And as you point out, the turning wheels of any bicycle are a logical choice for reflectors. The nice thing about bicycle mounted reflectors is that you don’t have to remember them in your kit, as they are always already there.

      • That’s why I prefer to have reflectors mounted on the bike instead of reflective clothing. They’re always on the bike and I don’t need to wear anything special. I’ve gone beyond just pedal and wheel reflectors; I’ve added retro-reflective tape to the frame, the cranks, the front and rear racks, the handlebars, and the forks. All of that’s in addition to my bright front and rear lights. I use two of each for a backup. I don’t mess around when it comes to visibility.

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