The Case of the Dark Days and the Development of the Safety Sash

Isn’t it funny that winter comes and we  don black clothes to blend in to the  blandest parts of a cold, wet and dark winter. We leave home in the morning before sunrise for work, and we spend the day in offices, returning home in the dark. I really thank my biking friends for educating me about the danger months for biking.   When  car  commuters drive home at the same time that the sun is  setting, they have  tremendously restricted vision. In fact, the sunset/low visibility danger  dates for   commuting bicyclists are posted on some bicycle maps.

Being visible whether you are a pedestrian or a bicyclist is so important, and can be so challenging. The most dangerous time for pedestrians is in the autumn and winter, with Ontario statistics showing that over 40 per cent of serious injuries and 42 per cent of pedestrian fatalities occur at that time. (2010, Ontario Road Safety Annual Report)

In Finland, every child going to school must wear three pieces of reflective items on their clothes and their backpack.  The safety reflector was developed in Finland in 1960, and it is the law that pedestrians wear reflective clothing and reflectors in the dark.   Indeed, wearing reflectors and reflective clothing is completely accepted as daily wear in Scandinavia. That part of the world also has the lowest incidence of pedestrian accidents.

A similar program in Great Britain reduced pedestrian deaths with children by 51 per cent. Studies show that wearing a reflector increases the visibility of pedestrians from 25-30 meters to 140 meters, increasing the reaction time from two seconds to ten seconds  for a car being driven at posted  municipal speeds of 50 kilometers an hour. That is eight seconds more for a  driver to react, and for a pedestrian to survive.

It always seemed to me so surprising that a universal, easily worn reflective piece of clothing was not invented  for the myriad of   North American walkers so they could stand out in the dark months of the year.

Through my work as the City of Vancouver’s Greenways Planner, I met Peter Robinson who at the time was CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op,  locally known as “MEC”.  I asked Peter whether MEC could design something that was reflective, universal, and could be worn by walkers in the cold damp winters.  Peter arranged for me and two transportation engineers to meet with the MEC design team. Several very creative designers talked with us about what was needed and what we wanted to achieve. We wanted something that was easy to wear, could be worn by people in wheelchairs, walkers or bicycles, was easy to put on and off, and was reflective. The designers took notes, and  in a few weeks invited us to view three prototypes.

The first was a safety belt, the kind of thing that school patrols use when you are guiding children on crosswalks. It was  bulky, and  hard to put on and off. The second item was a reflective poncho. It was a good piece of rain gear, but was not that practical with a lot of wind, and was bulky to carry. The third item was the winner-the  Safety Sash. The sash looked just like the one that would be worn by Miss Canada except it was reflective. It  was easy to put on, could be used by anyone no matter what their mobility or age, and was easy to stow and low cost.  It also had space for a corporate logo to be affixed to it.

We were excited to have found the right product, and we tested the prototypes to ensure that they were easy to use by different users.    MEC has introduced the Safety Sash as part of their Cactus Creek line, and the safety sash has done very well:

Last week I was invited to speak at a seminar regarding Seniors and Transportation. Many attendees mentioned that seniors and children as pedestrians are  the most vunerable road users, and need to be visible.

There is an opportunity for sponsorship of the safety sash so that they can be made available through seniors centres and schools to these two populations.

It is a win/win for safety, visibility, and pedestrian comfort.

I am very grateful  to Peter Robinson for the safety sash product development.  Today Peter is the Chief Executive Officer of the David Suzuki Foundation.