Explainer: Why do I need to wear a reflector during winter in Estonia?

Reflecfors in Tallinn's Falgi Park.
Reflecfors in Tallinn's Falgi Park. Source: ERR / Helen Wright

During the Estonian winter, it is mandatory to wear a reflector both inside and outside cities when it gets dark. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the rule and ERR News looks at its impact.

It's a surprise to many new arrivals in Estonia that wearing a reflector is obligatory throughout the long winter months. In deepest winter, the sun rises at 10 a.m. and sets by 4 p.m., so drivers can need a little extra help seeing pedestrians.

The small, reflective disks should be hung from a pocket, coat or bag and must be clearly visible. Other forms of reflective clothing are also permitted.

But the history of reflectors doesn't start in Estonia.

Modern pedestrian reflectors were first invented in Finland in 1965, Eve-Mai Valdna, a safety and prevention expert at the Transport Administration, told ERR News. They are also worn in other Scandinavian countries as well Latvia and Lithuania.

The first Estonian local producer, Salvo, started making the items in the 1980s but wearing one was only recommended, not required by law.

An infographic shows that a car can see a reflector from 300 meters away. Source: Transport Authority.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Estonia introduced the rule in the 1992 Traffic Act which applied to places outside of settlements.  

"It was made mandatory because there were lots of accidents with pedestrians in the dark," Valdna said.

Asked how it's possible to measure the reflectors' impact, she said there has been "a large reduction in pedestrian fatalities on non-residential roads after dark compared to 1992".

Data from the agency shows the number of fatal vehicle/pedestrian accidents in the dark in areas without settlements — outside of cities, towns, villages and roads without streetlights — has significantly fallen from nine in 2011 to three last year.

The number of deaths in settlements has also fallen and two were recorded last year.

In 2020, eight pedestrians were killed in accidents that occurred in the dark and five were not wearing a reflector or using another source of light, such as a torch.

The law was expanded in 2011 to include all settlements.

Asked why pedestrians need to wear reflectors even when there are street lights, she said: "Even in cities are places where there is insufficient street lighting. The lights are on and off at times in different places. Additionally, not all local governments use new lighting."

Another concern this year is that, due to rising energy costs, some municipalities are choosing to reduce their street lights to save money. "Lighting may be absent in usual places," Valdna said.

Polling shows wearing a reflector is increasingly popular amongst adults and is almost universal for children.

Data from 2020, shows 95 percent of children wore a reflector and 84 percent of adults, an almost 40 percent increase from 2003.

To encourage their use, government agencies carry out awareness-raising activities every year in and outside or schools. These are influenced by the current traffic safety statistics, Valdna said.

Additionally, the PPA, local authorities, public bodies and private companies also produce and freely distribute their own reflectors. One example is the Patent Office in Tallinn which hangs them on its Christmas tree every year for people to take.

Reflectors hanging on the Patent Office's Christmas tree in 2021. Source: Patent Office

A reflector can save your life

Not wearing a reflector can lead to a €40 fine, while wearing one can save your life, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) told ERR News.

Officers carry out daily spot checks to make sure pedestrians wear reflectors properly, Getter Sondberg, prevention specialist at the Lääne-Harju police station said.

"The police would like to remind you that a reflector, although small and light, can save lives," the officer said.

"We can do a lot to help our loved ones reach their destination safely by wearing a reflector ourselves and making sure they have one too. By giving a reflector as a present, we can show that we care."

Drivers are also grateful when they spot a pedestrian walking on the road from a distance, he added.

Data from the Transport Administration shows pedestrian/ traffic accidents in the dark have fallen since the requirement came into effect.

There were more than 110 a year on average between 2011 and 2015 outside of settlement areas but the number has fallen to below 90 over the past several years.

In settlements, the number of accidents has halved since 2010, from 24 to 12, and has mostly been below 20 since 2015.

A PPA spokeswoman told ERR News there is no data available related to the number of fines issued for not wearing a reflector.

How to wear a reflector

A study by the police found that a reflector could be seen by drivers over 140 meters away. Dark clothing could barely be seen from 30 meters away. Source: PPA

Eve-Mai Valdna said proper reflectors must meet the CE EN 13356 reflectivity standard and be at least 15 square centimeters.

They should be hung from a coat, pocket or bag between 50-80 centimeters from the ground.

The reflector must be visible to others from all sides.

They can be purchased from supermarkets, clothing stores and online.

The Transport Authority launched the "I'm Visible" campaign in 2016 and the video below shows several more ways to make yourself safe in the dark.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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