Should Reflective Vests be Recommended for Safer Travel?
Gene Bourquin, COMS
Do reflective vests, the ones used by road workers and construction crews, help keep pedestrians safer? We might ask these questions:
Do drivers behave more cautiously and yield when a pedestrian wears a vest?
At night, is visibility enhanced by wearing a vest?
The answers, according to some research, might give us pause, because indications are mixed or worse.
Reflective vests may provide a false sense of safety and cause a faulty risk assessment for people who wear them.
In O&M we have at least one solid study about the vests, which measured the effects of various treatments on drivers approaching a pedestrian crossing at uncontrolled crosswalks.
The authors stated that although using a cane made a distinct difference in the rate of yielding, "wearing a vest or waving a red flag created no difference in yielding than did using nothing at all" (Bourquin, Wall Emerson, & Sauerburger, 2011).
The orange reflective vest made no statistically significant difference and had nearly no practical effect.
The fact that the pedestrian might have been more salient did not appear to impact the drivers, maybe because the vest does not impart the proper meaning.
Drivers may see a vest but expect that the person wearing it is a professional and would not step into their pathway.
What about at night? A study in the traffic engineering field found unexpected results. A reflective vest appeared to not work any better than white clothing and sometimes worse! The authors wrote: ". . . interesting is the fact that recognition of the pedestrians wearing white clothing was equal to or better than recognition of the pedestrian wearing the retroreflective vest . . . Merely adding a retroreflective vest on top of the black clothing did not enhance visibility as much as might be anticipated.
Indeed, it was only when the same amount of retroreflective material was distributed in the form of 'biomotion,' where the material was attached to the moveable joints, that the effects of retroreflective material exceeded that of wearing white cotton clothing."
What did work was the addition of retroreflective straps (1 inch) around the wrists, elbows, shoulders, waist, knees and ankles. "In the present study, when the pedestrian wore the biomotion configuration in the absence of glare, they were seen on 100% of the trials for both the young and the older drivers."
No research addresses the broad range of situations and environments in which O&M specialists and blind and deafblind travelers find themselves.
But we do have evidence that wearing a vest does not increase safety.
Suggesting a strategy such as wearing a reflective vest can give consumers the wrong impression that that it will make them safer.
When this happens, the consumers' assessment of their own risks is not valid.
Bourquin, E., Emerson, R. W., & Sauerburger, D. (2011). Conditions that influence drivers' yielding behavior for uncontrolled intersections. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 105(11).
Wood, J. M., Tyrrell, R. A., & Carberry1, T. P. (2003). Pedestrian visibility at night: Effects of pedestrian clothing, driver age, and headlamp beam setting. Paper presented at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, Washington, DC.