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The Unseen Human Being: Reflective Gear Saves Lives

Wearing reflective gear anytime you're outside after dark can save your life.

Route 55/Shutterstock
Source: Route 55/Shutterstock

Last night, I drove home from a movie along a stretch of deserted highway, that is usually completely desolate at night. I was paying full attention to the open road in front of me, when all of the sudden, out-of-nowhere in the blackness of night, a guy in a maroon sweatshirt and dark jeans instantly appeared. He was walking with his back to me along the white line of the road barely 20 feet ahead of me. I almost ran him over. Needless to say, it was a harrowing experience.

Within milliseconds of spotting him, I had already zoomed past him at 50 mph. It all happened so quickly. It wasn't really a "close call" per say, but I was probably within two feet of hitting his body. If either of us had moved a few inches in either direction simultaneously, I would have run him over. My knees started shaking in the moments after the incident when I realized that I had unwittingly almost created a terrible life-changing experience for both of us and our families.

The winter solstice and shortest days of the year are rapidly approaching. Where I live, the sun is setting before 4pm. It's especially important this time of year for all of us to remember to wear high-visibility reflective gear anytime you are walking, jogging, or cycling on public streets after dark. As parents, it's imperative to make reflective gear and blinking lights an everyday habit and safety measure for our children.

I’m always amazed how invisible people are on the side of the road whenever I'm driving on the dark, rural roads near my house at night. How many times have you been driving in the pitch black when someone in the passenger seat says, "You see that person, don't you?" It's a welcome habit amongst my friends—half the time, I hadn't yet seen the person, who is oftentimes dressed all in black. The roadways where I live on Cape Cod are typically unlit and often filled with random pedestrians from dusk to dawn.

I decided to write this Psychology Today blog post, after my incident last night. This post is a reminder to motorists and anyone who walks, bikes, or jogs on roads that are open to traffic to use common sense and always wear high-visibility reflective gear after sunset.

I always recommend following motorist rules on a bicycle (it's the law) and biking in the direction of traffic. Conversely, I recommend walking or jogging against traffic so you can see vehicles coming towards you and move a few feet onto the shoulder to leave extra room between yourself and any oncoming vehicles.

"Ghost Bikes" Are a Somber Reminder of Deadly Traffic Accidents

In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that there were 4,735 pedestrians killed and an estimated 66,000 people injured in traffic accidents in the United States. On average, a pedestrian was killed every 2 hours and injured every 8 minutes in traffic accidents across the U.S. That same year, 743 bicyclists were killed and 48,000 cyclists were injured after being struck by a moving vehicle.

Photo by Christopher Bergland
A "Ghost BIke" in memoriam to a cyclist on Rt. 6.
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

As a triathlete, just about everyone I know who ever trained for Ironman triathlons has had some type of traffic incident on their bike. As a native New Yorker, I also spent most of my life bicycling everywhere I needed to go around Manhattan. I never took the subway and didn't own a car. I've definitely had my fair share of scrapes and bruises from run-ins with automobiles and opening taxi doors on well-lit city streets.

The "Ghost Bike" project began in New York City as a way to remember those who lost their lives on bicycles by leaving a white spray painted bicycle by the roadside wherever someone died. The ghost bike project has grown into a global reminder of the dangers of cycling and the importance of safety precautions.

There's a ghost bike on Rt. 6 close to where I live. It was put there in memoriam to someone named "Matt" who lost his life on that stretch of road. I pass the ghost bike almost every day. It's especially heartbreaking, because the accident probably could have been avoided. I took a snapshot of his ghost bike on my way home this afternoon to illustrate the importance of motorists and cyclists sharing the road and for all parties involved to take as many safety precautions as possible at all times.

Reflective Gear and Blinking Lights Saves Lives

My family hails from Norway, which is sometimes referred to as "the land of the midnight sun and the noontime moon.” In the wintertime, the sun barely rises above the horizon in my homeland. It's customary for the majority of the Norwegian population to be covered in various types of reflective gear 24/7 during the winter months. I wish that more people in the United States were obsessed with reflective gear like the Scandinavians are.

Photo by Christopher Bergland
High-visibility garments are life savers.
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

At my family's rural farm house in New England, my mom keeps a wicker basket by the front door filled with reflective gear in all shapes, sizes, and varieties as a constant reminder to wear something reflective after dusk.

Personally, I like to wear a fluorescent orange industrial jacket with OSHA Class 3 high-visibility reflective bands. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of my utilitarian reflective gear over the years. I have no doubt the jacket in this snapshot has saved my life once or twice.

Earlier today, I saw a post on Facebook for a new product called “Life Paint” that Volvo has created to illuminate bicycles and cyclists after dark. I don't think it's a coincidence that a Swedish automobile manufacturer is spearheading this campaign.

Scandinavians are forced to deal with so much darkness in the winter that illumination of all sorts is a top priority. In North America, the vigilance about nighttime safety is more lax. Hopefully, this will change in years to come. Especially as more of us make efforts to reduce our carbon footprint by walking or cycling as a fossil-fuel free form of transportation.

I don’t endorse any specific reflective products, but I do appreciate the public service announcement (PSA) aspect of the "Life Paint" campaign to remind both motorists and people walking, cycling, or jogging along the side of a road how invisible you are to vehicular traffic.

Life Paint is part of Volvo's "2020 Vision Initiative," a safety campaign aimed at creating awareness and safety features that ensure that no person will be seriously injured or killed by a new Volvo vehicle by 2020. As part of this initiative, the company gave away free cans of the paint at some bike stores in England. Life Paint isn't for sale, but if the product is well received, Volvo plans to eventually make it available internationally.

Conclusion: "Light Yourself Up Like a Christmas Tree"

Of all the lessons I learned as an ultra-endurance athlete, the most valuable probably came from Chris Kostman who is the race director of the Badwater Ultramarathon. During Badwater, competitors run 135 miles through Death Valley, most of which is done in the pitch black. Chris Kostman is obsessed with safety. Kostman makes "lighting yourself up like a Christmas tree" mandatory for all race participants and support crew members.

The official rules for Badwater reflective gear offer very concise guidelines on high-visibility gear that can be applied to the daily activities of people from all walks of life.

The Badwater rules state that: ALL racers and pacers must wear 360 degree reflectivity and front and rear blinky lights at night. All support crew members for the Badwater 135 must wear a minimum of OSHA Class 2 (or higher) high-visibility clothing during daylight hours, and OSHA Class 3 high-visibility clothing during nighttime hours. For more on OSHA guidelines, here's the link to a fact sheet.

This holiday season, why not give the gift of high-visibility illumination and possibly save someone's life? A simple Google search for "Reflective Gear" offers a wide range of high-visibility reflective options. All the pets in our family wear reflective gear. If you are a dog owner, don't forget to keep your beloved canine visible after dark, too. Here's a link to reflective gear for pets.

​Obviously, when you're walking along a dark road, your pupils are adjusted to the environment, you see vehicles coming towards you and you hear them—but odds are, the driver doesn't see you. Even if you are wearing something reflective or a blinking light, it's always safest to assume that you are unseen and steer clear of moving vehicles.

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