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Are Lights or Reflectors Required?

From the Mailbag:

Are there any laws regarding riding a bike at night? i.e.- are lights or reflectors mandatory? Is there any data that supports the idea accidents are more likely to occur at night verses other times of day (early morning or peak traffic times)?

Good question! I’m going to answer this in two parts.  In this post, I’ll talk about lights and reflectors.  In the next post, I’ll briefly discuss some statistics about when crashes are occurring.

Most states have laws requiring bicyclists to use lights and/or reflectors during nighttime hours. The laws will differ from state to state about how bright the lights need to be, how many lights are needed, and where the lights should be located.   Here in MN, bicyclists are required to follow MN Statute 169.222, which requires bicyclists to use the following:

  • A front-facing white light visible from 500 feet (may be attached to the bike or the rider)
  • A rear-facing red reflector visible from 600 feet
  • Reflectors on each side of both pedals visible from 600 feet
  • 20 square inches of reflectors on each side of the bicycle visible from 600 feet (may be attached to the bike or the rider)
  • (OPTIONAL) a red-flashing rear lamp

The law gets a little technical about exactly how reflective the reflectors need to be, and how bright the headlamp needs to be (the full text is at the end of this post).  In practice, I’ve never heard of anyone being ticketed for not having the pedal or side reflectors, nor have I ever heard of someone receiving a ticket for using a rear red flashing light instead of a reflector.  While riding in the dark, it is very important to be well lit.  The front headlamp and rear reflector or red blinky are the most important elements.

Most LED headlamps these days come with a constant beam and flashing settings.  The constant beam should be used when you need to see (e.g. when you’re on a poorly lit bike path); the flashing setting should be used when you need to be seen (e.g. when you’re in an urban setting and want the flashing motion to help draw attention to you).

[Update:11/11/2010 – Commenter hokan pointed out that 169.42 prohibits the use of a flashing headlamp by cyclists. This is interesting since most headlamps manufactured for use by cyclists include a flashing mode.]

Here’s the full text governing bike lights and reflectors in MN:

Subd. 6. Bicycle equipment.
(a) No person shall operate a bicycle at nighttime unless the bicycle or its operator is equipped with a lamp which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front and with a red reflector of a type approved by the Department of Public Safety which is visible from all distances from 100 feet to 600 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of headlamps on a motor vehicle. No person may operate a bicycle at any time when there is not sufficient light to render persons and vehicles on the highway clearly discernible at a distance of 500 feet ahead unless the bicycle or its operator is equipped with reflective surfaces that shall be visible during the hours of darkness from 600 feet when viewed in front of lawful lower beams of headlamps on a motor vehicle. The reflective surfaces shall include reflective materials on each side of each pedal to indicate their presence from the front or the rear and with a minimum of 20 square inches of reflective material on each side of the bicycle or its operator. Any bicycle equipped with side reflectors as required by regulations for new bicycles prescribed by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission shall be considered to meet the requirements for side reflectorization contained in this subdivision. A bicycle may be equipped with a rear lamp that emits a red flashing signal.

3 comments to Are Lights or Reflectors Required?

  • steve

    When biking at night have your lights obviously, have your helmet (this should be obvious but a lot of people don’t wear them) and spend the money for a reflective vest ( I know they look dorky but they compress well and you only need to wear it while biking. You are the biggest and most important part of the bike; therefore you should be the easiest for drivers to see.

    A helmet may save your life in a crash.
    A vest may save you from ever getting hit.

  • hokan

    169.222 is not the whole word on bike lighting. 169.64, for example disallows blinking headlights. That sections also disallows blinking taillights on all vehicles except bicycles.

  • @hokan – You’re right. Thanks for the heads up about 169.64. This is particularly interesting since most bicycle headlamps are equipped with a flashing mode. In fact, many cyclists prefer the flashing mode when cycling in urban areas because they feel like the flashing lights make them more visible to motorists. Have you ever heard of a cyclists receiving a ticket for using a flashing headlamp? I wonder if the statute should be revised to allow flashing headlamps…

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