“Retro Reflective Tape” is defined as a thin white or colored film (aka sheeting) that reflects light back to the source of the light using either glass spheres or man made prisms. The film normally adheres to a surface using a self-adhesive peel and stick backing. However, for garments and fabrics, they would have a fabric backing and are sewn on. A large variety of colors are created at the factory by coloring the top coat of the film with a transparent ink. Light goes in white, and returns as the color of the film. (i.e. red, white, blue, green, orange, purple, yellow, gold, black, lime) These colors are used for a variety of applications, with each having their own color. A red stop sign, for example.
Microscopic glass beads in a film act as small parabolas that collect light and direct that light back to where it came from. Man made prisms in a prismatic reflective film use tiny man made mirrors placed at angles to each other to bounce the light back. Glass beads are bright, and the films made with them are inexpensive, but micro prisms are much brighter and can be seen from much further away.
(Note – “retro-reflective tape” is often shortened to “reflective tape”.)
As stated above, reflective tapes come in a variety of colors. They appear as their normal color in daylight, and at night, when reflecting, they are the same basic color, only brighter and lighter. Street signs are one example of an application for colored reflective tape. Stops signs can be seen at night in a red color, and yield signs are yellow at night, and so on. They are also red and yellow in daylight. The ability of reflective tapes to do this is what makes them so useful when it comes to safety on highways around the world. Suffice it to say, the invention of colored retro reflective tapes has been a huge plus for traffic safety.
The ability of reflective tape to be made in so many colors makes it useful for applications like signs. Colors visible day and night also make it perfect for school bus marking tape, dot truck tape, orange work zone tapes, traffic cone colors, rail car tape, gate arm tape, and much more. And as mentioned above, each color has a different purpose in traffic, with many applications mandated by the MUTCD or other regulations. For personal use, you can use any color you would like, for whatever you like, for the most part.
Reflective tapes also come in different types. The term “type” refers mainly to the brightness of the tape, but also references other characteristics. The large number of applications for reflective tape are what create the need for all the different intensities, types and colors. For example, tractor trailer rigs need a bright red and white alternating tape that can be seen from thousands of feet away. We call this DOT Conspicuity tape and it is normally a Type V film. Life boats and life vests need an ultra bright white tape that can be seen from over a mile away in marine environments. SOLAS tapes meet this need and use the same base film as the Type V material used for DOT trucks. Some SOLAS tapes self adhere, and some, like what you find on life vests, are sewn on. Stop signs in neighborhoods often use basic affordable reflective tape that uses glass beads for reflectivity. This film is referred to as a Type 1 glass bead reflective. However, on interstates, a much brighter and more expensive Type 8 or better prismatic film is required. Generally, required sign distance is what dictates the type of tape used.
Our “Tape Types” category goes into more detail about the different types of tapes.
Steven Cole (Economics, MBA – University of West Florida , Business & Innovation – Stanford University) 25 years of experience in the reflective safety business. Specializing in vehicle accident and rear end collision reduction through increased visibility.