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Retro-Reflectors Enhance Nighttime Driving Safety Across the EU

Studies of human vision have shown that drivers lose up to 95% of their ability to perceive objects ahead of them after night falls.  A number of safeguards are in place across the EU to compensate for this, including the use of retro-reflectors.

The term “retro-reflectivity” refers to enhancements made to road signs, traffic signals, vehicles, and pedestrian clothing to make them more conspicuous to motorists during evening hours.  This can be accomplished in one of two ways: either by using a material that reflects a great deal of the light from headlamps or by installing artificial lighting to illuminate objects. 

Retro-reflective materials are commonly used on road signs as well as pavement itself.  EU standards mandate that the level of reflectivity must meet established standards.  For example, pavement markings should be visible enough to the average motorist to give them a minimum of 2.5 seconds of reaction time after dark.  Reflectivity concerns also guide the choice of road sign colors.  For example, red and yellow are frequently used, due to studies that show they attract attention sooner than other hues.

One challenge facing traffic safety authorities is the effect that dirt and rain can have on the reflectivity of retro-reflectors.  Transportation boards across the EU mandate that road signs be washed regularly to prevent soil from compromising retro-reflectivity standards.  However, regulations do not currently address the problem of how water reduces reflectivity, although several technologies currently exist to solve this dilemma.

Large transport trucks are necessary for modern commerce.  However, due to their size and weight, they can greatly increase the levels of property damage and personal injury sustained in accidents.  To combat this, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe has established guidelines for the use of retro-reflective materials on these vehicles.  Studies conducted in the UK have shown that there is a significant cost/benefit ratio when such measures are employed.  This is especially true for trucks weighing 12 tons or more.

Motorists occasionally need to park their vehicles along the road and exit from them, due to mechanical troubles or other issues.  This subjects them to great risk of personal injury, especially after dark.  To combat this, recommendations have been made for the use of retro-reflective vests by drivers in such situations.  EN 471 sets the reflectivity standards that such coverings must meet.  Some EU nations are considering mandating the use of these vests by motorists who park on the roadside at night, especially outside of urban settings.

Pedestrians are at particular risk for injury when walking alongside roads.  This is especially true after dark or during weather that reduces visibility.  Studies show that motorists can see them only from a distance of 30 meters during such times.  Due to this, persons on foot are encouraged to wear retro reflective clothing or to affix other retro-reflectors to their apparel.  Studies show that this makes them apparent to motorists up to 150 meters away, or five times the distance when such measures aren’t taken.

Cyclists are also at risk from vehicles during nighttime.  One solution to this is the use of bicycle headlamps, but these have proven unpopular among riders.  Responding to this problem, several EU nations now require cyclists to attach retro-reflective materials to their bikes.  Spain requires this for both pedestrians and bicycle riders after dark. 

Denmark goes further, mandating that lamps be employed in addition to reflectors on the front, rear, and wheels of bikes ridden after sunset.  The Netherlands has similar rules in place.  The UK recommends that cyclists and walkers employ retro reflective elements but does not require them. Due to such initiatives, EU residents enjoy an unparalleled degree of nighttime safety.