Conspicuity Gear Helps Trailers Stand Out When Grime, Darkness Threaten Visibility

Orafol Americas

This story appears in the June 22 print edition of Transport Topics.

Dirt and road grime that end up on tractor-trailers as they travel can obscure conspicuity equipment, diminishing the role these lights, reflectors and decals are designed to play. But products emerging in the more than 20 years since federal guidelines on trailer conspicuity took effect can potentially improve the visibility of some conspicuity treatments and the trailers to which they are affixed, industry and manufacturing experts said.

“A carrier may send their trucks out for three to four weeks at a time, during which the outside of the truck and trailer may never get washed,” said Joe Fahrendorf, vice president of operations at SAFE Transportation Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based brokerage firm that works with hundreds of carriers.

Fahrendorf noted that reflective tape common to many trailers “really sticks out” when a trailer is clean but becomes less noticeable as griminess increases.

“Dirt decreases the effectiveness of the tape, and that’s an issue, because the insides of trailers usually get washed more often than the outsides,” he said.

Scott DeRosier, vice president of Wisconsin Nationwide Inc., a carrier based in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, thinks use of additional reflective tape could enhance trailer conspicuity, particularly during bad weather.

“Ninety percent of trailers are white, and in wintertime, they blend in with their surroundings,” he said. “Maybe they’re white so they can stay cooler, but during days when it’s snowing or foggy, that doesn’t help much.”

What might help are more aggressive federal trailer conspicuity re­quirements, said Steve Plomin, spokesman for Orafol Americas’ Reflective Solutions unit in Avon, Connecticut, a manufacturer of reflective products for trucks and trailers.

“I don’t think federal conspicuity requirements for heavy-duty trailers are enough anymore,” he said, suggesting that rules such as those in effect in the European Union are needed here.

“If you look at trailers in Europe, you’ll see that reflective tape is required on the full outline of the trailer, and in different colors,” he said. “This makes the trailer much easier to see when it’s turning and in low-light conditions. It’s very hard to see the whole back of a trailer in lowlight conditions, and that’s when most accidents occur.”

Current U.S. Department of Transportation conspicuity regulations for heavy-duty trailers were enacted in 1993, and trailer manufacturers and carriers were given until 2003 to comply. The rules mandated continuous red-and-white reflective strips along the bottom of each side of a trailer. Alternatively, red strips can be evenly spaced over the trailer’s length on each side. Typically, reflective tape can be purchased in rolls of 12.5 meters or 50 meters in length, and a standard width of 50 millimeters, or about 2 inches.

Two sets of 12-inch white reflective strips, each pair arranged to form a 90-degree angle, also must be placed at the top of a trailer on each end, both facing inward. Continuous red-and-white reflective strips 50 millimeters wide also must appear on the full rear width of the trailer or truck bed, over the taillights.

Tanks hauled on trailers are required to have two pairs of 12-inch white reflective strips on the rear upper corners, each pair forming an inward-facing right angle. Continuous red-and-white reflective strips also must be placed on the full width of the rear of the trailer below the license plate. Reflectivity must meet or exceed a minimum coefficient of retroreflection that changes with the observation angle and rotation angles of 0 degrees and 90 degrees.

The regulations further stipulate the presence of rear, side and front marker lights and reflectors of specific sizes and colors, mounted on the trailer top, corners and sides.

But in the dozen years that have passed since the rules took effect, equipment makers have introduced products that some trailer manufacturers and carriers already are using.

Vanguard National Trailer Corp., in Monon, Indiana, began installing Optronics International’s GloLight LED lights on its trailers soon after the products were introduced in late 2012.

“Lighting is one of the most visibly predominant features on any vehicle, and this is a completely different looking, yet highly effective light,” Vanguard President Charlie Mudd said.

GloLight lamps feature an “illuminated outer band surrounding a central LED array that remains unlit during standard taillight operation,” said Nancy Eaton, spokeswoman for Muskogee, Oklahoma-based Optronics Inc., which specializes in LED and incandescent lighting for the heavy-duty market. “The dual-function outer ring brightens and the central LED array lights up only during stop and turn functions,” she said.

“Incandescent lighting is de­clining on trailers as more companies transition to LED lights,” said Mitchell Wilston, spokesman for Truck-Lite Co., a Falconer, New York-based manufacturer of visibility systems for the heavy-duty market. “As costs come down for LED, we’re seeing more rapid adoption by customers ranging from major fleets to owner-operators.”

LED trailer-light kits cost $35 to $55 on multiple retail websites. Individual taillights and turn lights cost about $20 each.

Wilston said reduced costs for LED lights also are creating an increase in auxiliary lighting on trailers.

“I’ve seen [owner-operators] with hundreds of LED marker lights on their trailers so that the whole thing is lit up,” he said. “Supplemental lighting is a great way to customize trucks and increase trailer visibility.”

Amber-colored LED turn lights also are growing in popularity, he said.

“You’re starting to see more of these because DOT research has shown that amber turn lights are more effective than red ones,” Wilston said. “Red turn signals can confuse other drivers, who may think the truck driver is tapping his brakes.”

Rick Ashley, president of Octane VTM, an Indianapolis-based consulting company for transportation firms, said surface-mounted LED lights are an emerging innovation.

“Most LED lights have ‘through-hole’ technology, where the diode is mounted on a circuit board,” he said. “With surface-mounted-design lights, there’s no space between the diode and the circuit board, making the lights more durable.”

Ashley said surface-mount and solid-state technology combine to protect the lights against moisture, shock and vibration. “You can submerge one of these lamps in water and it will still function,” he said.

Beyond being sturdy, Eaton believes the brightness of LED lights improves road safety. “Early one morning, I got behind a tractor-trailer [and] when it hit the brakes, I was amazed,” she said, noting that the truck was equipped with her company’s product. “They were so bright you couldn’t miss them.”

Although marker lights, drive lights and reflective tape are required for conspicuity on heavy-duty commercial trailers, reflective graphics are not. But companies have begun outfitting their trailers with reflective graphics that are promotional as well as attention-grabbing.

“We’re seeing more companies turning to reflective vinyl for safety and nighttime branding,” said Darren Keller, vice president of sales and marketing for Lowen Color Graphics, in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Dan Rozzo, corporate specification manager at Avery Dennison, a manufacturer of reflective tape and vinyl and adhesive based in Glendale, California, said reflective vinyl can increase views by 40% a year for fleets that run at night. He noted, however, that the films can cost 2½ times more than standard reflective film.

“It is a more expensive product, but it will pay for itself if your fleet runs [at night],” he said.

SAFE’s Fahrendorf believes investment in reflective, wraparound graphics can cut two ways. “When I see these graphics, they really catch my attention,” he said. “But they take my eyes off the road, and I’m driving behind or next to a truck that weighs 80,000 pounds. If I owned trailers covered with graphics, I’d be concerned that the second someone crashes, they might say they got distracted by my truck.”

For now, federal trailer conspicuity regulations don’t address reflective wraparound treatments. Nor do they require anything reflective on box trucks or other medium-duty vehicles except side and rear reflectors. But some in the industry think that should change.

“I think it’s crazy that 45-foot-long box trucks in the U.S. aren’t required to have reflective tape,” said Orafol’s Plomin. “Countries like Brazil have strict conspicuity requirements for all commercial vehicles.”

Some manufacturers think the U.S. government will require reflective tape on smaller trucks.

Morgan Corp., a Morgantown, Pennsylvania-based truck-body manufacturer, is one. In July 2014, the company began including reflective tape as a standard feature on most of its products.

“Our tech tape feature is based on federal regulations for trailers,” said Paul Jarossy, Morgan’s director of business development. “Although the tape is not yet a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard requirement for truck bodies, Morgan believes it will be — and wants to remain in the forefront of truck body innovation, especially as it relates to safety.”