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Michael Phelan
Michael Phelan
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Retroreflective tape: How Visible are Heavy Trailers at Night?

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The term "heavy trailers" means trailers that are at least 80 inches wide and have Gross Vehicle Weight Rating over 10,000 pounds. I once handled a case in which a tractor trailer driver attempted a U-turn on a dark, country road, and stalled out while the empty trailer was across both lanes of travel. At night, the flat bed was virtually invisible, and, sure enough, my client ran right into the side of the trailer. Heavy trailers manufactured after December 1,1993 must be equipped with red-and-white retroreflective tape, sheeting and/or reflex reflectors around the sides and rear to make them more conspicuous. The tape is also called "conspicuity tape." The purpose of retroreflective tape is to increase the visibility of heavy trailers to other motorists, especially in the dark. At those times, the tape brightly reflects other motorists’ headlights and warns them that they are closing on a heavy trailer. In the dark, without the tape, many trailers do not become visible to other road users until they are dangerously close. The alternating red-and-white pattern flags its bearer as a heavy trailer and at the same time helps other road users gauge their distance and rate of approach.

In 2001, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) evaluated the effectiveness of retroreflective tape in reducing side and rear crashes into heavy trailers. NHTSA recognized that in dark conditions, even a vigilant motorist might not see a trailer that has not been treated with conspicuity enhancements. NHTSA found that retroreflective tape is very effective in reducing side and rear crashes into heavy trailers in the dark. NHTSA predicted that, if all heavy trailers were retrofitted with conspicuity tape, 7,800 crashes per year would be prevented, 191 to 350 lives per year would be saved, and 3,100 to 5,000 injuries per year would be prevented.

What does this mean for investigating tractor trailer accidents? Importantly, retroreflective tape is not very effective if it is dirty. Thus, it is important to know whether the tape was clean and reflective or dirty and inconspicuous. Secondly, figure out the age of the trailer and whether it had retroreflective tape when first sold. If so, how old is the tape? Is it the original, old, peeling tape, or has it been replaced as it wore out? If the trailer was manufactured prior to December 1, 1993, check to see if it was retrofitted with retroreflective tape, sheets, or reflectors down each side and on the back of the trailer. These trailers should light up like a Christmas tree at night. If they do not, they are not in compliance with industry standards.

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