Light Up Your (Bike) Life

This week, we're starting a series on accessories, mostly focused on safety.

In my opinion, the most important pieces of safety equipment that do not automatically come with the bike are lights, if you plan on riding at night. Lights are legally required for riding at night in all states, the only accessory that I'm aware of that is.

Or you could just not ride at night. Some bicycle manuals actually recommend that! To me, that seems like a real lazy way out, not to mention disempowering. I'm sure they say that mostly because their lawyers told them to. But with a good set of lights, night can be one of the most relaxing times to ride! Traffic is down on most roads, and you may even have it to yourself much of the time. Also, it's easier to see cars coming, and from farther away, because of their headlights. Having lights yourself will give you confidence that you will be seen by others, and if they are strong enough, enable you to see the road well enough to avoid potholes and other hazards.

Legal Requirements

To my knowledge, all states require a white headlight when biking at night. Many states also require a red rear light, although some (including Maine) will let you get by with either a light or a reflector in the back, red or amber (orange). Finally, some states (also including Maine) additionally require either pedal reflectors, or some kind of reflectivity on the cyclist's heels or ankles. This is to help motorists coming up behind you to identify you as a cyclist, because they can see your feet going up and down!

Why use a headlight?

It's clear why you would need a headlight if you are mountain biking or riding on a rural road at night, but many in-town casual cyclists tend to not bother with lights. If they can see where they are going well enough, it's easy to assume that's all you need. The fear of being hit from behind may prompt them to have a taillight, but even then, often there's no headlight. Why should you use one anyway?

To begin with, think about times that you may have been driving a car and suddenly noticed a pedestrian or even a cyclist that you hadn't seen before. People without lights are really not that noticeable at night if they are not right under a streetlight. Even reflective material needs at least some light shining on it to be effective.

From behind, sure, cars will have their headlights shining on you. But what about when people need to see you from other directions? The motorist pulling out of a side street that you approaching does not have their headlights shining on you. Riding at 10 MPH, you can cover 30 feet in 2 seconds. That motorist will look to their left for traffic, not seeing you 30 feet away from the streetlight, without  a headlight, then pull out two seconds later thinking everything is clear.

Notice in the picture below that this is also the case for motorists coming towards you, who may be planning to turn left across your path. You are outside the main beam of their headlights too. Both of these motorists may easily miss seeing you without a headlight of your own.

Without a bicycle headlight, these motorists would have a hard time seeing the bicyclist soon enough. Reflectors won't help.

Also consider situations where no car is involved: A pedestrian crosses the street in front of you, or you are riding on a path and neither you nor the cyclist coming towards you has a headlight! I do frequently encounter that situation on a sidepath at night, and I always think to myself "I'm certainly glad one of us had a headlight!"

 Choosing a light

For a headlight, it is useful to first consider if you need a light to see by, or just to be seen. A "be seen" light does not have to be as strong as a "see by" light. Many states specify a minimum distance from which the light needs to be visible, for example, 200 feet according to Maine statute. Most front and rear lights sold by bike shops should meet this requirement. And we do recommend dedicated bike lights, as opposed to just lashing a flashlight to your handlebars, or relying on pedestrian lights that attach to clothing. Bike lights will stay attached and aligned better than improvised lights.

There is a wide array of choices with bike lights, more than we have space to go into here. For purposes of this article, I'll group them into 3 general categories.
  1. The most convenient lights run on regular alkaline batteries such as AA, AAA, or flat circular batteries of the type used in watches and hearing aids. They tend not to be the strongest, but if all you need are lights to be seen by, they will do. The batteries can last for a month or two of regular night riding. These lights can sometimes be had for as little as $15.
  2. The next step up in brightness, and price, are lights with their own rechargeable batteries, charged by plugging them into an electrical outlet or, increasingly these days, by a USB charging cable. They tend to have pretty short run times, as little as 90 minutes on the brightest setting, or a few hours on the dimmest. You pretty much have to recharge them after each use. They typically start at $15 and can go up over $100 for really bright ones, suitable for night mountain biking..
  3. Most convenient of all are battery-less generator lights. These days, many of these systems operate from inside the wheel hub, instead of the old "bottle" style generators that rubbed against the tire. These can be expensive, and require more installation than battery-powered lights, but at least you don't have to worry about the battery running down!

When to turn on your lights

At night, obviously, including dusk and dawn. Beyond that, I use them whenever I would turn on car headlights: in the rain, fog, or other low light conditions. They may also be useful during low sun, when motorists may have trouble seeing you if the sun is in their eyes. (However, a better strategy in low sun conditions is to try to find a route that doesn't have you riding directly into it!)

Some cyclists swear by using their lights all the time, even in bright daylight. Other than low sun, I personally don't feel a need for that, but it certainly can't hurt, especially riding in and out of shadows on a shady steeet.

Blinking or steady?

Most front and rear lights have at least a steady and blinking mode; some have more complicated patterns. Many cyclists prefer blinking lights, as they more readily command attention. In pitch black, however, you should definitely consider a steady beam. In the front, of course a steady beam it makes it easier for you to see (and is way less annoying, IMO). In the back, some research shows that certain frequencies of blinking lights can induce seizures in people with epilepsy, and at least can be distracting. Blinking lights are also harder to track the movement of than steady lights.

My personal preference is to run both my lights on steady mode at night, and use flashing mode for daytime low light conditions. If you want the best of both worlds, you can always use multiple lights in a combination of steady and blinking.

Lights vs. Reflectors

Some states let you get away with just a reflector in the back. What are the tradeoffs?

Benefits of lights:

  • Do not require other light shining on them to be effective
  • Can be brighter under certain condition, like fog
  • Reflectors that are misaligned or dirty are practically useless

Benefits of reflectors:

  • They never run out of battery!
While all bikes are required to be sold with reflectors as a last resort, the bottom line is that there are plenty of reasons that lights are also essential and legally required at night. In some cases, it can be the difference between life and death. But even short of that, they are also the difference between being confident and comfortable at night, or darting around trying to stay out of the way because people can barely see you. So please, buy and use lights, especially if you intend to ride at night, but even if you think you won't. Because someday, you might.

Ride Safe and Have Fun!


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