First and foremost, this article is not legal advice. If you are concerned about the legality of anything you are doing to your vehicle, consult your local law enforcement office and any other agencies that you deem necessary. The information below is what I know to the best of my knowledge.
This question of is reflective tape legal on a vehicle is asked quite often and in general the answer is no, it is not fundamentally illegal to put reflective tape on your vehicle. The fact is that it would not be logical for a state or municipality to make it illegal to try to improve the visibility of a vehicle or towed trailer, when the goal is to reduce accidents and collisions. And if a proposed law was brought before a legislative branch or council, this is what would be discussed. With that being said, applications of reflective tape or anything else, that would increase danger, could possibly be the subject of a regulation, ordinance, or law. So outlined below are three exceptions to this answer that you should be aware of.
First, it is illegal in virtually all states and municipalities to apply so much tape to a window (front, back, or side) to where visibility is impeded. This should be an obvious issue to avoid, but people can get carried away to the point where they actually increase their chances of getting in an accident. So it is possible that in your area, reflective tape on your glass may be considered illegal.
Second, placing red reflective tape right up against your tail lights can cause confusion to a driver behind you in that they may believe that you are engaging your brakes when you are not. DOT regulations talk about avoiding red reflective tape around brake lights. Whether or not your local law enforcement agencies would see this and ticket you depends on that office. But suffice it to say, avoiding putting bright reflective tape right up against your tail lights is advisable. The object of reflective tape on a vehicle is to call attention to other drivers of your presence, not create confusion.
Third, and probably the most serious, is the impersonation of a law enforcement officer. This is rare, but there are individuals who attempt to apply graphics, reflective and otherwise, that make their vehicle look like they are law enforcement officers. You can see how this would be a problem, and many municipalities have laws that prohibit this. How to avoid this issue should be self explanatory.
So when applying reflective tape or graphics to your vehicle, do it to improve both your safety, and the safety of other drivers. Think about how the tape is going to make you more visible, and also how other drivers will perceive it. Commercial vehicles often apply visibility enhancement films, and to the best of my knowledge, this is almost always a good thing. ATT vehicles use the Orange and Lime block reflective panels. Many DOT vehicles use a chevron pattern like fire departments use. A standard passenger vehicle normally uses a simple reflective stripe across the lower back, or lower sides of the car to lower the chance or rear and side collisions. Cities and counties often use a chevron or Battenberg reflective panel, but in a different color combination so that they are not mistaken for fire trucks or ambulances.
In any event, whether you are trying to make a personal or commercial vehicle more visible day and night, simply use common sense and make sure you are lowering the possibility of an accident, not increasing it. For more information, take a look at our other articles on this site.
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.