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How does the picture of smiling bicyclists
incur liability risks?

Here are my answers. If you have other answers, or comments, please feel free to e-mail me about them.

First: why are these people smiling?

Smiles are contagious. Advertisers know this, and would like to have us shed our cares, buy their products and and feel like one big, happy family. Above all, remember that the smiling people in ads are smiling because they are being paid! Anyone who showed up to pose for this ad and didn't feel like smiling would quickly have been replaced.

Some product promotions certainly do deserve to make you smile, but others might not. Now, on to the more substantial questions.

Does the promotion put the public at risk?

If you think that the problem is that the bicyclists are in a left turn lane, then I disagree. Their position on the road is perfectly legal, and is reasonably safe too, if they are properly equipped. You may read my Bicycling Street Smarts pamphlet for further explanations.

My main concern is that the promotion implies by example that bicyclists can safely ride at night when using garments made of reflective fabric as their only protection. The photo omits equipment which is required by law and for which the reflective fabric can not substitute. Leaving out the other equipment concentrates readers' attention on the reflective fabric product and gives a misleading impression of the product's capabilities.

Neither of the bicycles has a headlight. For night riding, a headlight is required by law, to alert people to the approach of the bicycle -- even when not necessary to light the bicyclist's way. Bicyclists who do not use a headlight are more likely to have collisions. When one occurs, these bicyclists increase their risk of being sued and reduce their chance of collecting on anyone else's insurance. None of the usual reflectors are to be seen on the bicycles, either. Have another look.

Cyclists wearing reflective garments, at night (35695 bytes)

Cyclists wearing reflective garments, by day (4983 bytes)

Reflective material works only for the driver of a vehicle whose headlights are pointed at it. The photo was taken from the direction of a motorist preparing to cross in front of the bicyclists. The motorist's headlights would point straight ahead rather than diagonally to the right toward the bicyclists. Reflectors also are of no use whatever in alerting pedestrians to the approach of a bicycle. Only a bicyclist's headlight is effective in these situations.

On-camera flash, apparently used in taking this photo, guarantees that the reflective fabric will shine, even though the photo was taken from a direction in which the reflective fabric would be of little practical use. (There is a more extended discussion of the characteristics of reflectors elsewhere on this Web site.)

In text on the catalog pages, claims are made that the fabric makes bicyclists visible to car drivers, e.g., "illumiNITE® ensures that car drivers see your full silhouette..." These statements are not accompanied by any warning about the equipment required by law or the limitations of reflectors.

The problems with the promotion apparently originated with Performance. Peter Smith, President of Reflective Technologies, manufacturer of illumiNITE, was kind enough to return my telephone call. When I described the promotion, he replied "it gives the consumer the wrong impression...I will pass that along."

Does the product meet appropriate standards?

State laws have specific requirements for reflectors, which the reflective fabric items do not meet because of their unusual shapes, sizes, color and locations. If the reflective fabric items perform well, a case can nonetheless be made that they constitute an adequate substitute for the required reflectors -- though not for lights.

How well do the reflective fabric items perform? In the photo, and despite the contrived lighting conditions, only the man's jacket is significantly brighter than unreflectorized items in the background. The reflective tape on the woman's helmet -- the one visible reflective item on either bicyclist other than the clothing -- is many times brighter and completely saturates the photographer's film to white.

I purchased a pair of illumiNITE reflective gloves for testing and found that they were not markedly brighter than a plain sheet of white paper, even under the most ideal lighting conditions. One obvious reason was that only a gridlike pattern of lines covering about 15% of the gloves' surface area had the reflective treatment. In my testing, I also found that the fabric partially loses its reflective properties when wet.

The American National Standards Institute has standards for reflectivity, and I seriously doubt that this product meets them. Tests are pending.

On the other hand, I have also examined a jacket made of illumiNITE reflective fabric. It is much brighter, and it retains its reflectivity when wet. Much more of the jacket's surface area has the reflective treatment, and the jacket has a transparent coating which isolates the reflective elements from water. This jacket is yellow. I consider it a reasonable supplement to the lights and reflectors required by law.

There appears to be a tradeoff between reflectivity and comfort. The owner of the jacket told me that she found that it did not "breathe" adequately. I have seen a similar complaint in a posting by another bicyclist to an Internet newsgroup. Perhaps some illumiNITE garments, including the gloves I purchased, have been designed for greater comfort at the expense of decreased reflectivity.

In our telephone call, Smith made the point that the human brain is attracted to brightness, but also to shape, and that the goal of the reflective fabric is to combine brightness with shape. I could add that a very large reflective area compensates somewhat for low reflectivity.

However, there is another problem: 8 of the 11 items displayed the two-page spread of reflective fabric items in the Performance Bicycle catalog (below) are black or dark-colored. In any direction except that from which headlights are shining, these items appear dark. Only one item (the man's jacket) is in high-visibility yellow, though it is also available in dark blue. The man's vest is also available in yellow, as shown in the photo of the bicyclists.

Smith indicated to me that "certain consumers would not buy jackets if they're in a fluorescent color...some cyclists are safety conscious and some are not. There's an education job still out there in terms of communicating to consumers the importance of visibility."  He would rather provide clothing that has visibility in one way (reflectivity) even if it does not in another (bright color).  I consider that there is still a problem with leading consumers into thinking that a dark jacket with reflective properties is as good as or better than a light-colored one without.


p2and3.jpg (36688 bytes)

usacyc.gif (3638 bytes)


Are additional parties dragged into a position of liability exposure?

The logo of the U. S. national bicycle road racing organization (above) appears in the middle of the promotion, lending the product credibility and exposing that organization to a risk of being named as a defendant in a lawsuit. To be fair, I doubt that USA Cycling knew it would be endorsing these products by signing up Performance as a sponsor.

Does the promotion accurately describe the product?

According to promotional materials, the fabric's reflective properties are achieved by means of dish reflectors. A description in the Performance catalog reads, in part, as follows:

The illumiNITE® process embeds millions of microscopic SataLITE™ Dishes™ into the weave of the fabric. These dishes act like smooth mirrors to reflect back to the original light source...

An illustration (below) that accompanies this description conveys the same message, that dish mirrors are used.

satalite2.gif (11745 bytes)

A dish mirror is not capable of acting as a retroreflector unless a beam of light is reflected twice from the mirror's surface. For this to occur, there must be an object at the focus, or else the dish must extend above the focal plane (and so, the surface must be steeper than 45 degrees at its edges). Either of these approaches seriously limits the range of angles over which the reflective properties can work.

The wide-angle properties of illumiNITE material suggest strongly that  dishes are not used, and the illumiNITE patent (U.S. Patent 5650313) indeed describes an entirely different (and venerable) technology, glass beads, as shown in the illustration below from page 3 of the patent. Smith confirmed to me that the illumiNITE fabric does indeed use glass microspheres.

fig4.gif (4503 bytes)

Use of a technology different from the advertised one does not necessarily create a liability risk. After all, in the product lines of many companies, different technologies are used to achieve the same purpose.  For example, advertisements for a company that makes telephone answering machines may describe digital audio recording as a feature, though some models use cassette tapes. As long as the packaging of each model accurately describes its features, there is no problem of truth in advertising. But basing an entire advertising campaign, and labeling, on an apparently fictitious technology does not increase a company's credibility.

The patent claims an improved method for depositing glass beads onto the surface of a fabric, by first adhering them to rollers and then using a screen printing technique to transfer them. Notice that the orientation of the beads in the patent illustration is random, providing an additional explanation for the low reflectivity. (Actually, even the patent drawing is inaccurate. In reality, the orientation would be random in all directions. In the patent drawing, the beads' axes of symmetry are all in the plane of the page).

Some recent promotional materials do indicate that methods have been developed to control the orientation of the reflective elements. Depositing the reflective material from rollers does lend itself to this improvement, if the orientation of the reflective beads can be controlled.

Are appropriate warnings provided?

The back of the product tag for the gloves includes an illustration of dish reflectors, and a product warning which reads as follows:

illumiNITE™ is not meant to be a substitute for normal safety precautions, which should be practiced at all times by the wearer to ensure personal safety.

This warning is especially interesting for what it does not say: that normal safety equipment, not only normal safety precautions, should be used. And in the case of the gloves I purchased, what the safety warning says, or doesn't, was a moot point, because Performance Bicycle had covered the warning with a stick-on bar-code label. With some effort, I managed to peel off the label and read the warning.

Pass your mouse cursor over the image below to see how the tag looks with the stick-on labels peeled off.

Obscured warning on product tag

What lessons can be drawn from all of this?

Choices in product design and promotion can add up to tragic and avoidable accidents, and to liability exposure.

Careful research, and consultation with people experienced in the field, is essential in developing and marketing a product. Technological innovation by itself is not enough.

The way this product has been marketed, and some of the design choices -- in particular, that of the black color for jackets-- also testify to the lack of enforcement of standards for nighttime conspicuity products.

In this particular case, it's not as if resource materials would have been very hard to find. Standards and techniques for measuring the performance of retroreflectors are well-known. The capabilities and limitations of retroreflectors as they apply to bicyclists have been well-documented in the bicycling literature, for example in John Forester's books  Effective Cycling and Bicycle Transportation. And, despite the claim in the illumiNITE promotions of "a whole new approach to safety after dark", and the trademarked slogan "The Revolutionary Reflective Fabric," seen here as it appears on the front of the product tag,

tagfront.gif (4114 bytes)

a remarkably similar product and promotion appeared twenty years earlier, only to be criticized in the pages of Bicycling magazine in terms very much like those I have used here -- see next page.

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Contents © 2001, John S. Allen, except patent drawing: public domain, Performance and illumiNITE illustrations and USA Cycling logo: fair use. illumiNITE, illumiNITE MATRIX, SataLITE Dish, WeatherGARD, "The Revolutionary Reflective Fabric," and the illumiNITE logo are trademarks of Reflective Technologies, Inc. "Performance" is a trademark of Performance Bicycle. USA Cycling is a trademark of USA Cycling.

Last revised March 23, 2001