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Night: the time for bikes and cars alike to shine a light

The Daily Emerald: Night: the time for bikes and cars alike to shine a light

Bike lights represent a crucial, yet often ignored, way to diminish after-dark crashes

By Jenn Hughes | News reporter
Published: Friday, January 15, 2010
Updated: Friday, January 15, 2010

A durable rear bike light that shines a very visible red costs as little as $10. Pair that with a bright, white headlight, and your wallet will be a mere $20 lighter.

An ambulance ride in Eugene costs $1,600, and that doesn’t include the $20 per mile rate — yet, though there are fatal risks that come with riding at night, many commuting cyclists in Eugene don’t use a light or reflective gear when riding during low-visibility hours.

Of the 56 cyclists who rode past East 13th Avenue and University Street between 5:30 and 6 p.m. Thursday, only 23 were using at least one bike light — and only a few were wearing reflective gear. In fact, several people were clad in dark clothes that blended in with the pavement and the nighttime.

“It’s bright out,” Ken Shimamoto said, a University senior who was not using a light at 6 p.m. “Nobody has (a) light. Also, police don’t care, nobody cares. I want to save money.”

According to the most recent Oregon Bicyclist Manual from 2006, Oregon law requires bicyclists to use both a front and rear light when riding in low-visibility conditions. A white light must be visible up to 500 feet in front of the bike, while a red light or a reflector vest must be visible 600 feet from the rear. Failure to adhere to this law can result in a $75 fine, said Portland bicyclist attorney Joe Durkee.

Although most bikes come equipped with a standard reflector kit, they do not comply with the low-visibility lighting requirements, Durkee said.

Durkee, along with two other Oregon bicyclist attorneys, Ray Thomas and Mike Colbach, thinks police officers need to better enforce bike laws.

“Lights enforcement is not a high priority because law enforcement resources are stretched so thin due to funding issues,” Thomas said.

But, he said, handing out warning tickets is one way to increase Oregonians’ bicycle safety and decrease future trips to the emergency room. Thomas suggested that officers hand out free blinking lights with their warnings.

“Many organizations will sponsor such a program by donating lights and money,”
said Thomas.

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, 33 percent of bicyclist fatalities in 2002 occurred between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. A 2006 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that 22 percent of bicyclist fatalities occurred between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. — the highest rate throughout the day.

Riding without a light isn’t only hazardous to cyclists — it’s also dangerous for motor vehicle operators, too, and poses a risk of placing a heavy burden on drivers’ shoulders if they hit a cyclist.

“I get really pissed about (bicyclists not using lights) because you can’t see them, and I don’t want to hit somebody,” said Shane Connor, a 2009 University graduate who now works for University Event Services. “It’s not that big of a deal if the person is a responsible cyclist, but most of the responsible cyclists have at least a tail light, if not a headlight.”

In Oregon, whether the cyclist or the motorist is to blame for a bike-car collision depends on the degree of negligence of each party, Thomas said.

“Fault is comparative,” he said. “But it is ‘modified’ comparative negligence, which means that the injured rider must show that the motorist was more at fault than the rider, or the rider has no claim.”

This means it is possible that a cyclist who isn’t using a bike light and is struck by a car for running a stop sign is more at fault than the motorist who ran the stop sign, even though both parties broke the law. For example, according to the Oregon Bicyclist Manual, a bicyclist may be found at fault if they were judged to be going too fast at a street crossing.