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Road Rights- See and Be Seen

Light and reflector laws—and why you may want to do more than the law requires

With night falling earlier and the sun rising later, many of us will do at least some riding in the dark.

In California, “darkness” is defined as the period between one-half hour after sunset and one-half hour before sunrise. However, the term also includes “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.” So, for example, fog or a strong storm could meet the legal definition of darkness even if it occurs during daylight hours. Although other states don’t use the legal term “darkness,” the limited visibility conditions specified in the Uniform Vehicle Code are virtually identical. And pretty much everywhere in the United States, darkness triggers a requirement for cyclists to use lights and reflectors.

Reflectors are standard on every new bicycle sold in the United States, in accordance with federal and state laws, though the law doesn’t specify that you need to keep them on your bike. It’s perfectly legal to remove the reflectors from your bike, but in order to ride in darkness, guess what? We’re required to have them. (State laws vary, but a common requirement is a clear front reflector, a red rear one, amber pedal reflectors and clear side reflectors). While you don’t often hear of cyclists being cited for not having reflectors, those who ride without them should take note: If you are in an accident and you have removed them, you may be exposing yourself to claims that your own negligence prevented a motorist from seeing you.

When it comes to illumination, the law requires you to have a front light on your bike during darkness. Originally, in the 1890s, this was for the benefit of pedestrians, who couldn’t see (or hear) cyclists approaching in the dark. Today, the reasoning is different: Lights protect cyclists—who still can be difficult to see in the dark—from motorists.

Together, lights and reflectors act as a system of active and passive lighting. The light is far more effective at increasing your visibility, and a good light can help you see the road, an important consideration. So if active lighting works so well, why require reflectors at all? Because bicycle lights can malfunction. Batteries drain, bulbs break, wires fray. Reflectors continue functioning as a backup system when lights fail.

When it comes to conspicuity in the dark, each state allows you to do more than the minimum, but not less. State laws typically allow additional lights—for example, a red light to the rear, which will greatly increase your chances of being seen, particularly by cars approaching from behind. Laws vary slightly from here. Some states allow you to choose your reflective material; for example, the reflective sidewalls of your tires may meet your state’s lighting requirements. In Oregon, you may use a red rear light in place of your rear reflector.

Regardless of the law, it’s worth going beyond what’s required. In the event of an accident, your extra lights and reflective material would serve as persuasive evidence to a judge, jury or the driver’s insurance company that you were doing everything possible to meet your duty to be seen. Not to mention that being brightly lit will help you avoid accidents in the first place.

Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D. 

 

This article, See and Be Seen, originally published on Bicycling on October 20, 2009.

Now read the fine print:
Bicycle and the Law, Bob MionskeBob Mionske is a former competitive cyclist who represented the U.S. at the 1988 Olympic games (where he finished fourth in the road race), the 1992 Olympics, as well as winning the 1990 national championship road race.
After retiring from racing in 1993, he coached the Saturn Professional Cycling team for one year before heading off to law school. Mionske's practice is now split between personal-injury work, representing professional athletes as an agent and other legal issues facing endurance athletes (traffic violations, contract, criminal charges, intellectual property, etc).
Mionske is also the author of Bicycling and the Law, designed to be the primary resource for cyclists to consult when faced with a legal question. It provides readers with the knowledge to avoid many legal problems in the first place, and informs them of their rights, their responsibilities, and what steps they can take if they do encounter a legal problem.
 
If you have a cycling-related legal question, please send it to mionskelaw@hotmail.com Bob will answer as many of these questions privately as he can. He will also select a few questions each week to answer in this column. General bicycle-accident advice can be found at www.bicyclelaw.com.
Important notice:
The information provided in the "Road Rights" column is not legal advice. The information provided on this public web site is provided solely for the general interest of the visitors to this web site. The information contained in the column applies to general principles of American jurisprudence and may not reflect current legal developments or statutory changes in the various jurisdictions and therefore should not be relied upon or interpreted as legal advice. Understand that reading the information contained in this column does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Bob Mionske. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained in the web site without first seeking the advice of legal counsel.

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