Road Rights-Bike Lights: When Do You Need Them?
By Bob Mionske
As dedicated cyclists have long known, cycling is not just a fair-weather activity. Day or night, rain or shine, cyclists ride. Now that winter has arrived, you may find yourself spending at least some time biking in the dark. That means you’re going to have to run cycling lights and reflectors.
Usually, we think of “darkness” as being equivalent to “nighttime.” In fact, darkness includes much more than nighttime. The Uniform Vehicle Code, which serves as a suggested set of traffic laws for the states to adopt, defines darkness to include “any other time when visibility is not sufficient to render clearly discernible any person or vehicle on the highway at a distance of 1,000 feet.” This means that if there’s fog, a blizzard, or heavy rain, it may be a “period of darkness” under the law.
What kind of lighting does the law require? The specific requirements depend upon the state you are riding in (and if you are crossing a state line, you will need to meet the requirements of both states), but generally speaking, you’ll need to be equipped with both passive and active lighting.
Passive lighting, such as reflectors, doesn’t require you to do anything to make it work. By federal regulation, every new bike intended for use on the road comes equipped with reflectors. Once you’ve bought the bike, it’s perfectly legal for you to remove the reflectors, if that’s your thing. But while it’s legal to ride that bike without reflectors, what’s not legal is riding your bike during “periods of darkness” without the required reflectors. So if you’ve removed the reflectors from your bike, or if you bought a used bike that is missing reflectors, you will need to put reflectors back on the bike to make it legal for riding in the dark.
Now, in at least one state (Oregon, where I live) it’s legal to ride with reflective material on your clothing in lieu of reflectors on your bike. But many states require a clear front reflector, a red rear reflector, amber pedal reflectors, and clear side reflectors. If you don’t equip your bike as the law requires, and you’re involved in a collision, you are the one who will likely be blamed. That might seem an unlikely outcome to you, but there isn’t a cyclist out there who went for a ride planning to get hit. That unintentional nature of most collisions is why they’re called “accidents.”
Of course, as almost any experienced cyclist will tell you, a reflector by itself is not sufficient lighting. You need something much brighter, and much more conspicuous, to let drivers know you’re there so they can avoid hitting you. When it comes to active lighting, the brighter, the better: the more noticeable the lights, the sooner an approaching motorist will react to your presence on the road. A good set of lights will also help you avoid potholes, gravel, and other road hazards.
So what’s required for active lighting? Generally, you are only required to have a white front light. You are generally not required to have a rear light, but many cyclists prefer to add one. Some rear lights even combine a light and a reflector into one removable unit, so you don’t have to ride with a separate light and reflector. If you do run a rear light, the law requires it to be red. Often cyclists get the law backwards and ride with a rear light, but no front light. If you do that, you can be ticketed, and if you are involved in a collision, it is likely that you are the one who will be blamed.
For your own safety, make sure that you meet the minimum requirement for passive and active lighting in your state. But if you really want to protect yourself, remember that the law only establishes the minimum lighting equipment required. To increase your likelihood of being seen in the dark—and reduce your risk of being involved in a collision—you should seriously consider going beyond the minimum that the law requires.
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.
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This article, Bike Lights: When Do You Need Them?, was originally published on Bicycling on January 9, 2012.
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