A humble but powerful Finnish invention: Pedestrian safety reflectors save lives

Invented by a Finnish farmer in 1963, the pedestrian reflector is still helping people stay safe all over the world.

The best ideas are often the simplest. In 1955, Arvi Lehti, a farmer in Pertteli, near the town of Salo in southwestern Finland, bought an injection moulding machine for making plastic objects. He was also interested in the reflective properties of prisms. He started making reflectors out of clear plastic for trailers and horse wagons.

In 1963, he hit upon the idea of creating two small reflectors and gluing them together back-to-back. You could attach them to your coat using string and a safety pin. That’s how the life-saving pedestrian reflector originated in a Finnish village.

Pedestrians are difficult to see at night. The Finnish Road Safety Council says a person is visible only 50 metres (54 yards) away in a car’s low-beam headlights.

With a reflector, they can be seen 350 metres (380 yards) away, giving drivers much more time to react. In 2017, Finns chose pedestrian reflectors as the best traffic safety invention, judging them even more important than seatbelts or antilock brakes.

Snow crystals and Moomins

Two hands are holding a pink and blue snowflake-shaped plastic piece, with other shapes and colours lying on a table in the background.

Reflectors come in all shapes and colours, including numerous versions of the ever-popular Snowflake.Photo: Kirsi-Marja Savola

Arvi’s son, Taisto Lehti, gradually took the reins of the business. He was in his mid-20s when he became director in 1972, after Arvi died. Taisto adopted new plastic moulding technology, enlisted the help of traffic safety authorities and worked with a young designer, Kalervo Suomela, to create an array of appealing designs.

Suomela had come onboard as a product developer in 1968. In 1973, he famously jumped into a snowbank with a magnifying glass to study snow crystals. That led his supervisor to think he had lost his mind, but it also resulted in the iconic Snowflake reflector, which is still one of the best-selling models.

“The Snowflake, heart shapes and animals are popular designs,” says Jutta Vainio, managing director of Safety Reflector Finland. “People love cats! We have also had branded reflectors with characters like Angry Birds, Hello Kitty and the Moomins. We want the reflectors to be fun and attractive so people are happy to wear them.” (Angry Birds and the Moomin characters are also Finnish creations, of course.)

[Full disclosure: In the mid-2010s, after ThisisFINLAND introduced Finland’s national emojis and they became a viral hit, the website partnered with Safety Reflector Finland to create pedestrian reflectors with Finland emoji illustrations. They were distributed non-commercially.]

Sustainable family business

Small plastic discs bear illustrations of a leafy branch, a reindeer head and a cluster of blueberries.

Finland’s enormously popular national emojis, which ThisisFINLAND first released in the mid-2010s, have also appeared on pedestrian reflectors. Seen here are the sauna whisk, reindeer and superfood emojis.Photo: Kirsi-Marja Savola

The company Lehti founded, Talmu, now focuses on the automotive market. Its pedestrian reflector business moved to Safety Reflector Finland, run by Vainio and her son Tommi Behm. The reflectors are manufactured in the southwestern Finnish town of Laitila at Coreplast, a modern factory with its own solar farm.

“Sustainability is important,” says Vainio. “We make these reflectors strong and durable so you can use them for decades. They don’t need batteries, and they can be recycled.”

Visible all over the world

A person is walking a dog on a dark street, with a reflector hanging from the person’s jacket.

Many pet owners are conscientious about reflector use.Photo: Safety Reflector Finland

It’s common to see reflectors on pedestrians, cyclists and even pets in the Nordic and Baltic regions. According to Finnish law, pedestrians are required to wear a reflector when it’s dark outside, although people are not punished for failing to do so.

“Most of our business is international,” says Behm. “Germany, Austria and Switzerland are important markets. In America, traffic safety is handled by individual states. We have talked to Alaska, California and states in New England.”

People can buy reflectors online or in stores, and they are often distributed by schools, charities, businesses and government agencies as a public safety measure.

Saving lives

On a dark road, a cyclist’s snowflake-shaped plastic reflector shines bright as a car approaches.

Safety reflectors save lives by making pedestrians, cyclists and pets more noticeable in urban and rural settings when it’s dark outside.Photo: Safety Reflector Finland

“Pedestrian reflectors are the world’s cheapest insurance,” Behm says. “You might think a reflector is important in a rural area, but more accidents happen in urban settings, such as crosswalks. Accidents involving pedestrians are down almost 80 percent in Finland since pedestrian reflectors were invented.”

Other safety improvements have also contributed to the decline in pedestrian accidents, but experts have verified the value of reflectors. Finnish road accident investigators have determined that lives can be saved if pedestrians wear reflectors.

Many forms

Five small bear-shaped pieces of plastic of various colours are standing in a pile of snow.

Sometimes bears also need ski goggles.Photo: Kirsi-Marja Savola

Today there are many different methods to increase pedestrian visibility. They include high-visibility vests, soft reflectors, coats with reflective textiles, LED lights and slap wraps, which are springy, flexible strips that can be wrapped around your wrist to make a reflective bracelet. Yet Vainio and Behm still prefer the original: hard-plastic reflectors that dangle from your coat.

“I prefer to wear mine at about knee-height, one on each side,” says Behm. “If they hang from a string they will twist and swing, which is important because movement will catch drivers’ attention.”

Original Finnish invention

A man holds an open box full of snowflake-shaped plastic pieces, with stacks of similar boxes in the background.

Tommi Behm of Safety Reflector Finland shows off a box full of classic Snowflake reflectors.Photo: Kirsi-Marja Savola

Behm is in the process of taking over the family business. At the age of 28, he is about the same age as Taisto Lehti and Kalervo Suomela were when they made what turned out to be radical innovations in pedestrian safety.

“I enjoy business, but I like it even more because we are doing something that has a real value to people and society,” says Behm.

By David J. Cord, January 2024