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.