Looking at my own visibility platform, as many times as I've wondered "is this overkill?", I invariably hear unfortunate news of a cyclist, bicycle-rider (yes, there's a difference), runner, or pedestrian killed or injured while out on the roads after sundown, or before sunrise... or even during the middle of the day.
This time of year the days are noticably beginning to shorten - but our work schedules do not change. We still have to be to work at x:xx, and we leave at x:xx, the same as any day. The weekend riding is still really good. We rise at the same time as always for the group ride... but the sun is lower, or not up at all. The extended shadows and reduced sun angle during the day also warrant some kind of "be seen" equipment, in my opinion. What you ideally want to do is invoke a natural reaction from motorists. How?
Reflective triangle: a lot of companies still have these products mislabeled as a "yield symbol", which confuses and frustrates me: An orange or yellow triangle affixed to the rear of anything moving on the roadway in the correct lane of traffic is the symbol for a SMV (slow moving vehicle). Out in rural areas, where these triangles are attached to the back of any farm implement that ventures onto the road by law, it's simply second nature - and it's respected. There is an instinctive motorist reaction to that particular symbol, and THAT is what you want to invoke. A motorist reaction that keeps you safer. Attach a clip with zip ties and fasten to the edge of your jersey's center back pocket, or use the taillight loop on your seat pack. Weighs nothing. Cheap.
Reflective ankle bands: one of the most immediate and effective driver-response reactions (from the small poll I performed here at work) that there is a human on a bicycle is the up-down motion of those old-school, amber-colored pedal reflectors we all had on bikes as kids. Nothing gets attention faster, and nothing else on the road has this pattern or look to it. It simply LEAPS out of the background on a dark roadway. Unfortunately, most cyclists use some kind of clipless pedal system where these reflectors are absent and simply can't be retro-fitted without difficulty. Reflective ankle bands or straps are cheap, stow easily, can be multi-tasked as pump straps or garmet bundlers on rear racks or backpacks during the day - and if you run NOTHING ELSE, they will at least give approaching drivers the reaction you want: you're a human on a bicycle. Weighs nothing. Cheap.
Reflective vest: a requirement as emergency equipment in your trunk in some European countries because of issues with accidents involving roadside automotive repairs. Invoking a motorists response or reaction? Police wear them while directing traffic. Road crew workers wear them while wresting re-bar only inches from highway traffic. Dock workers, warehouse workers... are you seeing a pattern here? You should consider yourself no-less-at-risk while riding in traffic than any of these hard-working professionals that put their bodies in the way of large and/or fast-moving equipment every day. It's not a personal shield - no - but thanks to strict government regulations regarding high-visibility safety equipment in the field, the same motorist reactions that immediately attach recognition to pedal reflectors moving up and down is beginning to form with reflective vests. Take advantage of that! Yes, vests weigh something... but not much - Tip: shop for a multi-tasker vest. While I try to advocate vests are needed ANY time of year, the time of year when you really need a vest is also when it is generally cooler outside... and you need a windvest anyways, right? They can be cheap - but there are deluxe models.
Federal vs. consumer reflective gear? Unlike the DOT or SAE certifications for cars, or the ANSI or EU regs for safety gear, the CPSC regulations for bicycle reflectors and "sport garments" are ONLY a good start. Now, that statement might matter if I saw any reflectors on any bikes at all, which I can't say that I normally do. They're usually the first thing in the trash after arriving home from the bike store. Common responses to all this include, "my jacket has reflective trim". Sure... perhaps it does... but unless it's the minimum 1" to the ideal 2"-wide 3M reflective material you see on ANSI vests, it's simply not big enough to be effective at a distance. You have to consider WHEN you want a motorist to see you, how fast they are approaching you, and how much time that affords them to make a decision about you. Watch the video embedded in this post. It's showing runners, but the message should be apparent. From several hundred feet away that thin reflective piping or edging on your jersey pockets, or the laughable reflective logos under the jersey collar (where your body angle on a bicycle make them invisible anyways) are not enough. Not even close.
"But I have a good taillight..." Again, it's a good start. You need one, period. Brand, price and model are completely un-important here. No matter what you buy, and if you do NOTHING else this post suggests, check to ensure your taillight is properly aimed. Modern LED taillights have been redesigned and tailored to have a good battery run-time, be small, and put out a lot of light. Unfortunately, the technology that goes into some of these LEDs in order to get more light output is not electrical, it's optical. Simply put, the LED itself is like a lens - or it's diffused or focused through a lens. When you do this, the resulting light is very bright indeed, but it's FOCUSED into a narrow beam. You want this beam to point at approaching motorists. Try this test: tonight, lean your bike against a parked car, neighborhood tree, fence, utility pole, whatever... turn on the taillight and walk away from and behind your bike out to about 1/8 mile. Make sure you have a good, straight, clear view of your bike - and that you're on level ground with the bike. If you can't do this at home, go to a big parking lot. The brightest "lobe" of light from your taillight should be clearly visible and directly in your face. This should continue, ideally, back to 1/4 mile, and 1/2 mile (assuming you can still see the bike and have the space to back up that far, of course). Now, walk to one side, then the other until the light fades in intensity. Some good taillights DON'T fade off-axis like this -- but others do, dramatically. The same is true top-to-bottom. If your taillight is aimed even a scant few degrees to one side or another, or aimed too high or too low, the light is not intense enough where you want it. In some cases, it diminishes so much it might as well be switched off. Take extra time to make sure your taillight is well secured, centered side-to-side along the long axis of the bike, and that the brightest beam of light is parallel to the surface of the road, and level. If you can't do this with your existing mount, improvise or find a mount that WILL allow it. Finally, NONE of this is a replacement for good reflective gear. The taillight simply announces to approaching motorists that there is SOMETHING up ahead. Reflective gear, in the beam of car headlights, is often BRIGHTER than your taillight (except in extreme cases with spendy taillights) when cars are within 500 feet. Blinking vs. steady? There is a lot written about this, so I won't get into it here - except to only say that I prefer "steady" mode for taillights, for many reasons.
ADDENDUM: An important fact was brought up in the comments, so I felt it neccessary to add another paragraph or two to this post to ensure you get the message. I made an audience assumption here on the notion that if you're commuting to work by bicycle or riding before/after sunlight you'd be running a headlight of some kind. In addition to having a good, properly-aimed tail-light, having a good headlight is *essential*. This is another area where brand and model are not as important as having SOMEthing, but there are points to consider:
Be seen vs. see-with:
Be-seen lights are generally too weak or diffuse to effectively see your path - but are very attention-getting if aimed level to the road and pointed ahead, or mounted on a helmet. You need something that motorists can see from any forward approach angle, something that says "HEY! I'm HERE! Don't pull in front of me!" There is a wide array of small blinky LED headlights on the market that easily attach to your handlebars. Better still, attaching them to your helmet allows you to point the light where you need it, to make an after-dark repair, read a map, check the time, read roadsigns - or flash into an approaching driver's field of view to get their attention.
Lights that you can see with, as you might think, put a lot of light on the road surface so you can see your path and avoid obstacles. Price IS a consideration here, as headlights can range from $24.99 up to nearly $1,500.00. At lower price-points, the same optical focusing methods applied to make tail-lights brighter works on headlights to put more light on the road where you need it, which is great - but it is at the expense of "spill light". The same off-axis problem is at play here: as a rider, you end up with a focused beam of light that is lighting your path... but almost disappears if you are a few feet to one side or the other. This is important to note, because as a rider you can get a false sense of "visibility" from these lights: just because you can see the road, does not mean a car approaching from a side street can see you... and since their automobile headlight beams are NOT pointing at your reflective gear from this angle, you are invisible. A "be seen" front light of some kind is still vitally important in this case. If you can't afford a "see the road" light that provides BOTH a good view of your path AND effective "be seen" spill-light, you need to invest in and run both kinds.
Back to reflective vests, and some of the thinking surrounding them; Now, I understand: racers, enthusiasts -- the logo jerseys for your favorite team, favorite beer, favorite country, favorite state, epic ride you finished, almamater... I understand the pride and attraction of a good quality cycling jersey, especially an earned one... covering it up with a reflective vest seems like a waste - but the facts are simple: Watch any video you like, look around when you're driving next weekend. From a motorist's perspective, the busy patterns and muted colors often fade into the background "noise". The post-accident phrases that motorists often mutter should be warning enough:
..."I just didn't see him"...
..."she came out of nowhere"...
Don't even let it be a consideration. No, it's not a guarantee. If a motorist chooses to reply to a text message, in the rain, on a curve, on a blind hill, doing 15-over the posted limit; whether you're in head-to-toe reflective gear, or not, it's still a dice-roll. This stuff isn't a shield... but, if that same motorist gets even the quickest flash of reflective light, even for a split second, it might be enough pause for them to wonder "whats up there?", and maybe they'll pay attention just long enough to miss you. If the worst DOES happen and you're lying there in the ditch WITH a reflective vest on - let the police report show what the jury cannot possibly deny. YOU WERE VISIBLE.
ALL of this assumes that you are riding responsibly: just like with a helmet, it's not a guarantee or a replacement for common sense, safe, smart riding. Wearing a helmet doesn't give you license to ride dangerously because "you'll be okay" if something happens. Reflective gear holds the same value. It's not going to make you suddenly safer if you still decide to ride 15-abreast on a 2-lane highway. Think about it, please.
No excuses. Shop around. For a total investment of less than $15.00 (Amazon, package, w/ shipping), there is simply no excuse I can possibly think of that you wouldn't put on a vest or ankle bands or both - day or night - to protect yourself. Fashion? You already look silly for wearing a helmet and riding a bicycle in the first place, right? - so get over it. Neon yellow is the new black. Wear it. No, it's not a personal shield... but if you are someone's mom, dad, son, sister, cousin, friend, roommate, or arch-enemy.... don't you owe them an additional guarantee that you WILL be home?
And , no - I'm not above begging:
Please. It MATTERS. As the sun sets and the dimmer daylight of fall and winter comes on, please consider it. Spend the $15.00. You're worth it to SOMEONE.
Be safe out there.