Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2001   by Auto Service World

Heavy Duty: The Tale of the Tape

The safety impact of reflective tape is a matter of life and death.

A recent study by the U.S. National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration has put new teeth in the argument for improved heavy truck and trailer visibility through use of reflective tape and better lighting. But many fleet managers didn’t have to wait for the study to understand its benefits. Other trailer users may not be so well informed.

“I think it’s a good safety feature. We’ve been retrofitting our trailers for the past five or six years,” says Ed Roeder, fleet maintenance manager, Muir’s Cartage, Concord, Ont. Rather than being a grudge purchase just to ensure compliance with marking regulations, he sees it as a valuable addition to the safety of his drivers and others on the road, though he does think it can be overdone.

“I don’t think doing the whole trailer makes that much of a difference. I think if you (use short strips) it has more impact. The contrast tends to brighten things up a tad.

“I can’t see anybody who wouldn’t agree with it as being a good thing.

“It is expensive but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not so much.”

An estimate of the benefits of full implementation of U.S. marking regulations–which effectively parallel those in Canada–was made significantly clearer with the release of the U.S. study.

Made public at the end of April, the NHTSA study used information from two police forces and imposed a statistical analysis. The result was the agency’s assertion that full implementation of the federal marking standards would save lives and reduce injuries.

It is based on a statistical analysis of 10,959 crash cases investigated by the Florida Highway Patrol and the Pennsylvania State Police from 1997 to1999.

“The tape is quite effective,” states the preamble to the 55-page report. “It reduced side and rear impacts into trailers, in dark conditions (including ‘dark-not-lighted,’ ‘dark-lighted,’ ‘dawn,’ and ‘dusk’) by 29%. In ‘dark-not-lighted’ conditions, the tape reduced side and rear impact crashes by 41%. Tape is especially effective in reducing injury crashes. In dark conditions, it reduced side and rear impacts that resulted in fatalities or injuries to drivers of any vehicle by 44%.”

For two years the aforementioned police forces made it a point to file an “Investigator’s Supplementary Truck-Tractor Trailer Accident Report” each time an officer investigated a crash involving a tractor trailer.

The Florida Highway Patrol collected data on 6,095 crash cases from June 1, 1997, through May 31, 1999. The Pennsylvania State Police collected data on 4,864 crash cases from December 1, 1997 through November 30, 1999.

The findings of the study are detailed, detailing estimated crash numbers by age group of the driver, and weather conditions, but some of the most startling results are that the tape is especially effective on flatbed trailers (55%)–which were particularly difficult to see in the dark before they were treated with tape–and that the cleanliness and condition of the tape is particularly important. Dirt on the tape significantly diminished its effectiveness in rear impacts. Clean tape reduced rear impacts by 53%, said the study, but dirty tape by only 27%.

The final analysis of this report says that the full implementation of tape marking across the entire U.S. fleet would prevent 7,800 crashes annually. The study also estimates that 191 to 350 fatalities per year would be prevented, along with 3,100 to 5,000 injuries, once all heavy trailers in the U.S. fleet have been equipped with highly reflective tape.

“Better visibility means fewer crashes, and fewer crashes translate into injuries prevented and lives saved,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.

Ken Irwin, national sales manager, Grote Industries, says that the study’s results don’t come as a surprise to him.

“I can’t comment on how they arrived at their estimates, but anybody I have ever talked to, from the guys installing it to the drivers, all like having it because they can see it themselves. I have never heard a negative comment. I have heard them go as far as suggest that the trains that go through level crossings (particularly the flatbed cars) should have the tape.

“I think it’s a very important issue. It’s important that they get as much visibility as possible.”

Essentially, what the data shows is that truck trailers marked with reflective tape are no more likely to be hit in the nighttime than they are in the day, in stark contrast to unmarked trailers.

Of course, there is more to visibility than just reflective tape. Lighting and reflectors are also a big part of ensuring that other drivers can see trailers in time to avoid a crash. LED technology has been shown to dramatically improve the visibility of a braking trailer, for example, due to faster “on time” than the traditional incandescent lamp. This data was not included in the study, however.

Data included in the study states that between 60% and 75% of the trailers observed on Florida and Pennsylvania highways had some form of conspicuity tape, the vast majority (more than 90%) meeting the new trailer marking rules. Of pre-1993 trailers, however, less than half had any tape use whatsoever.

Accordingly, jobbers may find that the transportation fleets and truck owner-operators are a willing market, but somewhat limited as far as expansion opportunities. This is due to both the fact that it is largely exploited already and the fact that much of the purchasing of these products by fleets is done through dedicated heavy-duty channels. One of the largely untapped markets is the non-transportation truck and trailer owner.

“The problem areas are the small utility vehicles and the small construction companies,” offers Jay Gillam, heavy-duty sales manager, Peterson Manufacturing. “They might not be well versed in the marking regulations,” he offers, and because they don’t necessarily use their equipment trailers often, may not have kept any visibility markings up to date with changing requirements.

“I believe that the fleet and transportation companies that use vehicles as their source of income are generally good at keeping up to date on the requirements and at retrofitting their trailers to new requirements. What is left are people whose primary business is not transportation,” continues Gillam.

Companies involved in everything from construction to lawn care and other activities–race car trailers and horse trailers come to mind–may not be thinking about the requirements for lighting and reflective tape. They may not realize that visibility regulations cover everything from small utility trailers on up.

“If you’re in the construction industry, you’re probably not aware that the trailer you use five times a year needs to be retrofitted,” says Gillam.

Jobbers who serve these customers’ other needs can rectify this situation to the mutual benefit of themselves and the customer.

“Those people who are not aware of the requirements represent the perfect opportunity for the jobber, because that’s where they’re already shopping.

“I know lawsuits aren’t as much of a problem in Canada as in the U.S., but if you have an accident and add a lawyer, that roll of tape gets paid for pretty fast.”

The 55-page NHSTA reflect tape study is available at

Individuals looking for information on trailer marking and lighting regulations can contact the local ministry of transportation authority or your lighting and reflective tape supplier, which may have a supply of descriptive posters on hand.

Making the Connection

When speaking with fleet or owner-operator clients about the importance of maintaining the visibility of their trucks and trailers, don’t forget about the basics of wiring.

Much of the wiring on today’s trucks is exposed at some point to the elements and its failure is often the cause of lighting malfunction.

“The area most susceptible to weakness is the connector or splice,” says Frank Dunnigan, president of Techspan Automotive, which supplies wiring and connectors. He says that, in contrast to much of the wiring which has an “indefinite” life
span, connectors can fail as a result of corrosion and mechanical fatigue. Keeping the elements out and securing the connection is the goal of heat-shrinkable connectors that will improve the life of the connection.

“Nine times out of 10, when there’s a problem with the lighting, it’s at the connection.”

While truck lighting and supply companies like Dunnigan’s certainly benefit from the need to keep all the lighting working properly, truckers benefit too. If they’re pulled over in the latest “safety blitz” by transportation authorities, they won’t have to worry about the proper functioning of their lighting systems and the fines that can be handed out when lighting systems are in disrepair. And, since inspectors tend to target visibly deficient vehicles (how else do you think they get 50% inspection failure rates?) having a properly marked and lit truck dramatically reduces the chances of being pulled into an inspection in the first place.

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