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Reflective History: 1930s Road Safety to Todays Running Safety

Reflective History: 1930s Road Safety to Todays Running Safety

Reflective material is exactly as it sounds. It’s a unique textile that has millions of microscopic beads embedded in its surface. Each bead holds within it a rounded mirror that bounces – or reflects – light directly back to its source. Your grandfather likely saw an early example of it in the 1930’s. 3M manufactured a reflective tape to bond to road surfaces to help drivers see along what were most certainly unlit roads. The early road and highway system lacked adequate lighting and when cars went off the road, it was often because drivers were unable to see the center and edges of roads.

Like many bright ideas, this one was ahead of its time. Unsolvable durability issues prevented the idea from full roll-out but all was not lost. In the 1940’s, an improved version of material was affixed to vertical road and highway signs to that drivers were able to better see them. This application became the industry standard internationally for the next 25 years.

The first use of reflective material in sportswear was to snazz up sneakers. Soon it was seen in high-end jackets and other running gear. But it was always a skinny line of silver reflective piping. Which was better than nothing. It was a decorative application with a minor WOW factor.

Today’s reflective material is technically a far cry from its humble beginnings. We’re light years ahead of silver piping. Large patches of reflective are used in the making of uniforms for people who work outside in potentially dangerous situations to increase their visibility to oncoming drivers. These include employees of federal, state and local highway and road departments, utilities, and even your local school’s 5th grade crossing guards. Additionally, the U.S. Military issues reflective clothing to personnel for exercise and recreation, for the same reasons.

Consumer sportswear designers and manufacturers fall into two camps: those who integrate significant amounts of reflective material in their products and those who offer less or none. The more high-quality reflective material a product has, the better it will be seen by oncoming drivers. However, the more reflectivity a garment has, the more expensive it will be in the marketplace. Good news for consumers: there are inexpensive, do-it-yourself ways to increase their reflectivity. Because the statistics are pretty grim:

Chances of being struck and killed as a pedestrian increase 1100% after dark. - National Safety Council

It’s not enough to venture outdoors in low-light visibility with a patch of reflective on a hat or 10” of reflective piping on a jacket. Distracted drivers, light pollution, and imperfect roads have created an alarming uptick in the number of injuries to runners, pedestrians and cyclists who are outside in dusky light or dark. Any seasoned runner or cyclist has had a close call or knows someone with a story to tell about narrowly escaping injury.

Outer garments and accessories you wear and use most outdoors should have plenty of reflective for maximum visibility. Jackets, shoes, shirts, pants, hats and helmets, back packs, pet collars, bikes, strollers, water bottles….and so on. Remember, with reflective material, more is always better. Go to for D-I-Y solutions.

The good news is that ongoing research and development has given us a material that is nearly 100% reflective. That is, nearly all the light that hits those microscopic beads comes straight back at the source – at the speed of light. That’s how, generations later, reflective material can keep you and your family safe on the roads.

Be like your grandfather and use reflective material to stay safe outside. He’d be proud of you.


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