Bicycles have been on the road for many decades now, and the laws surrounding them are ever-changing. These laws usually take a back seat when compared to other motor laws, especially the ones regarding biking at night.
Staying safe doesn’t only mean covering yourself with protective gear, but also staying on the right side of the law. To help keep yourself there we will be discussing some of these laws and also some major talking points surrounding them.
The General Overview
The laws regarding biking at night are pretty self-explanatory. Most of them are similar, if not the same, across all of the states. Barring a few where “visibility” comes into play due to weather.
Active and Passive Lighting
All states in the US require you to have sources of “Active Lighting” and “Passive Lighting” on your bike while riding at night.
Active lighting basically means the bicycle lights. These lights have a power source, like batteries, solar or electromotive. They need to be turned on to get them to start working. Thus the term ‘active’ comes into play.
Some states may forgo the requirements for active lighting, but states like Oregon with “limited visibility conditions” does require you to have them. [ORS 815.280]
Passive lighting, on the other hand, is the source of light that does not require a power source. In other words, reflectors. It is a lawful requirement in all of the states to have reflectors on your bicycle. This is a failsafe measure to provide light in case your active source runs out of power or breaks down.
By law, all new bikes sold must be equipped with reflectors. [16 C.F.R. 1512.16]
It is illegal to ride with only reflectors at night. But it is legal to remove reflectors from your own bike.
The Legal Blueprint of Lighting on Your Bike
- White Light (for headlights)
- Reflectors (white/yellow)
- Visible from at least 500 feet from the front of the bicycle
- Red Reflector
- Red lights (optional)
- Visible to up to 600 feet from the rear of the bicycle (varies from state to state)
[RCW 46.61.780] [CVC 21201] [ORS 815.280] [551.104(b)]
Pedals and Wheels:
- White or yellow reflectors visible from the front and back (pedals)
- White or yellow reflectors visible from the sides (wheels)
The Burning Questions
The general laws of the night may seem mundane, but that doesn’t stop some burning questions to be formed regarding your night rides on your bicycle, in legal terms of course.
Will a very bright headlight get me a ticket?
Currently, no laws are stating or limiting the lumens (a measure of light intensity) of your bicycle headlights. So we have to make an assumption over here.
Federal law does state that the headlights of a motor vehicle should not exceed 1200 lumens each, so it is safe to assume that for bike headlights the intensity should be around 50% of that.
The angle of your light also comes into play. Following motorist laws: “none of the high-intensity portions of the light shall, at a distance of 25 feet ahead of the vehicle, project higher than five inches below the level of the center of the lamp from which it comes, or higher than 42 inches above the level on which the vehicle stands at a distance of 75 feet ahead of the vehicle.” [ORS 816.050]
Anything above those points you might risk blinding the driver or rider coming in opposition to you, which may lead to accidents.
Are strobe lights illegal?
Strobe lights or blinking lights on bikes are not really illegal. What we mean by that is, in many states blinking rear red lights are fully accepted. A study even shows that people notice blinking lights faster than a steady one.
But the subject becomes convoluted when we talk about blinking headlights. People may notice strobe headlights faster but it is also very distracting, leading to accidents. As such, the law has declared that using flashing or blinking headlights is strictly prohibited. [RCW 46.37.280] [WAC 204-21-230]
That said, you can have an extra, small, low lumen, strobe light in the front, it’s just that your main headlight can’t be blinking.
When should I be turning on the lights on my bike?
By law, you are required to have your bike illuminated from 30 minutes after the sun sets until around 30 minutes before the sun rises. [RCW 46.37.020]
Many cyclists are also convinced that keeping your lights turned on during daylight is safer. This theory is proven to be correct by a study conducted by the Danish. It states that keeping the light turned on during the day has reduced the rate of crashes by over a whopping 30%! The fact remains that it is still optional.
What other steps can I take to make myself more visible at night?
Extra visibility never hurts when riding down the road, especially when it comes to biking as your visible surface area is smaller compared to other vehicles. These are our calculated opinions and are not stated by the law.
- For starters, you can get some reflective strips for your helmet to make your head visible. Some helmets come with their own.
- Another option for helmets is LEDs. Many commuting helmets offer this option out of the box.
- You can wear clothing with reflective strips or clothing made of “fluoro” materials. We often neglect body visibility. Reflective strips on your clothing or costume will increase your visible surface area on the road in low visibility conditions and not only at night (fog, rain, etc.).
Nowadays you can even find yourself a smart bike helmet. These helmets feature warning and indicator lights on its back. Some even come with sophisticated features like an SOS alert system in case of a crash.
What if I don’t have the required lights or reflectors?
In most states, if law enforcement stops you for not having lighting on “limited visibility conditions”, you are likely to be slapped with a fine of anywhere between $60 to a maximum of $250 (ouch!) under the premise of “violation of bicycle equipment requirements”. Of course, excuses like “my battery stopped working”, “I didn’t plan to be out riding in the dark” or “my battery stopped working” will most likely not fly.
Most cyclists tend to overlook bicycle safety at night. Thus we have laws in place to remedy this and even encourage cyclists to focus on their own safety during night rides.
Unlike other vehicles on the road, a bicycle doesn’t have many safety measures to protect the rider. Understanding that is the first step to protecting yourself and others on the road. And following the laws dictated by your state, on top of that, will save you and a lot of others from a massive headache.
This article stands to provide you with a clearer picture of laws so that you can freely enjoy the roads at night the way you want to and do so safely.
Some nice tips if you are looking to go cycling at night: