Nearly all of us, at one time or another, ride our bicycles at night, either deliberately, or due to unexpected events that occur during a ride, such as flat tires or mechanical issue. In the winter, many bicycle commuters get a double-dose of dark riding, heading off to work in the pre-dawn hours, and returning home after sunset.
Riding your bicycle at night can be great fun. There is often less traffic than in daylight, and in the summer, nights are usually cooler. Nighttime rides can also be quite safe, but a certain amount of equipment is necessary, both by law and by common sense.
When we ride at night, we need proper lighting, both to see by, and to be seen by others. But what exactly does the law require?
Here is the relevant portion of the Kansas law related to bicycling at night, from the Kansas Legislature web site
8-1592. Lamps, brakes and other equipment on bicycles.
(a) Every bicycle when in use at nighttime shall be equipped with a lamp on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least five hundred (500) feet to the front and with a red reflector on the rear of a type approved by the secretary of transportation which shall be visible from all distances from one hundred (100) feet to six hundred (600) feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of head lamps on a motor vehicle. A lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of five hundred (500) feet to the rear may be used in addition to the red reflector.
(b) Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake which will enable the operator to make the braked wheels skid on dry, level, clean pavement.
(c) No person shall sell a pedal for use on a bicycle, unless such pedal is equipped with a reflector of a type approved by the secretary of transportation which is visible from the front and rear of the bicycle to which it is attached during darkness from a distance of two hundred (200) feet, and no person shall sell a new bicycle, unless it is equipped with pedals meeting the requirements of this subsection.
For the front, here are the requirements:
- The bicycle must be equipped with a lamp on the front.
- The lamp must emit a white light.
- The light must be visible from at least 500 feet to the front.
Note that the light must be equipped on the bicycle itself. The law does not specify where on the front of the bicycle to mount the light, so handlebar, fork, and axle mounts should all be acceptable. A rack mount may or may not meet the language of the statute.
A headlamp or helmet-mounted light does not meet these requirements, and as such, must only be used as a supplement to a bike-mounted light, and not as the only light.
The law does not specify whether the front light must be operated in steady mode, or flashing mode, only that it be visible. (Of possible relevance, 8-1729c states that “Flashing lights are prohibited except as authorized or required in [various statutes related to police and emergency vehicles]; does this statute apply to bicycles? On the other hand, 8-1717 requires “vehicular hazard warning lights” for “slow-moving vehicles”, which the bicycle may or may not be classified as.)
For the rear, here are the requirements:
- A red reflector, visible from 100 to 600 feet when viewed by a driver using low-beam headlights.
- The red reflector must be equipped on the bicycle.
- The red reflector must be “of a type approved by the secretary of transportation”.
- A red lamp is optional, but if used, it must be visible from 500 feet to the rear.
A red reflector is mandatory, whether you have a tail light or not. Presumably, a reflector that is visible from less than 100 feet is also allowed (as long as it’s visible from 100-600), and a reflector that is visible from more than 600 feet is also allowed. (Because finding a reflector that is visible from 100 feet but not 99 feet might be a challenge…)
Note that the red reflector must be equipped on the bicycle itself. A fender-mount, rack-mount, or seat bag-mount reflector may or may not meet the language of the statute. A reflector mounted to the back of the rider (on the helmet, for example) or on panniers or a trunk bag, is probably not adequate.
If you use a tail light, it must be red, and it must be sufficiently bright to be seen from 500 feet away. The law does not specify whether the tail light may be solid or flashing (though again, KSA 8-1729c may apply).
Even if you use a tail light, the red reflector must still be used.
How do you know if your reflector is “of a type approved by the secretary of transportation”? Is far as I’m aware, the state publishes no master list of approved devices. I expect that we must presume that any reflector offered for sale (or provided with a new bike) has been “approved”…
The law specifies that a new bicycle (or replacement pedals) be equipped with reflector facing both front and rear. However, the law does not require that reflective pedals actually be used (though they are, of course, a good idea).
When Must Lights Be Used?
The Kansas statutes do not specify the conditions under which bicycle lighting is required (other than “at nighttime”), but for vehicles, lighted lamps are required from sunset to sunrise, and “when due to insufficient light or unfavorable atmospheric conditions”. (8-1703).
It’s also interesting to note that statute 8-1703b says that “Motorcycles, motor-driven cycles and motorized bicycles manufactured after January 1, 1978, shall display lighted head and tail lights at all times that such vehicles are operated on any highway.” (And, for purposes of the statutes, “highway” means “every way publicly maintained” — basically every street and road.)
Why Should Your Lighting Comply With The Law?
Other than the obvious safety issues — you want to see and be seen — there’s another important reason that you want to be in compliance with the law.
If you’re in a collision, you don’t want to give the other party (or police, or insurance) any reason to minimize their responsibility. If you are operating your bicycle without the important safety equipment mandated by law, then you may lose some of your rights to damages or compensation, since they’ll be able to state that you were breaking the law at the time of the collision, and were thus not doing everything in your power to avoid the incident.
This may seem an unlikely outcome, but why take that chance when compliance is relatively simple and inexpensive?
Additional Lighting or Reflectors
The law does not specify, either to require or disallow, additional lighting or reflectivity.
Many bicyclists believe that “more is better” when it comes to being seen, and will take some of the following measures to make themselves more visible:
- Helmet light: A helmet light may be used as a supplement to your main head light. The advantage of a helmet light is that it shines where you are looking, which can help you “see around” curves, get motorist’s attention at intersections, or provide light to read a map or repair a flat tire. Some cyclists also use a red light mounted on the rear of their helmet as a supplemental tail light.
- Ankle bands: Some cyclists wear a reflective band around each ankle. This not only adds 360° reflectivity (better than pedal reflectors), but can help keep your pant leg from getting snagged by, or dirtied by, the chain.
- Reflective vest: Many cyclists wear a reflective vest or sash during night rides. This can provide a large area of reflectivity, and since the vests are often neon orange or yellow, they can also improve your conspicuity during low-light conditions.
- Reflective tape: You can purchase reflective tape at auto parts stores, usually in red and white, and use a scissors to cut it into many shapes, for affixing to your bicycle frame or helmet. This is a very inexpensive way to add reflectivity. Remember that white is to be used for the front, and red for the rear. There is also cyclist-specific reflective tape and stickers that is precut into useful shapes and sizes.
- Safety triangle: You can purchase a reflective safety triangle and mount it to your seat bag, rear rack, backpack, or the back of your jersey. Like a reflective vest, it improves your visibility both in low light and in darkness.
- Reflective sidewalls: You can purchase many tires with optional reflective sidewalls, which provide great visibility when a motorist approaches from the side. Spoke-mounted reflectors, which are installed on most news bikes, provide a similar function.
- Light-colored clothing: Though most clothing does not emit or reflect light, light-colored clothing is usually more readily visible during low-light conditions than dark clothing.
What you use is, of course, up to you. At a minimum you must have a white front light and a rear red reflector, both mounted to the bicycle itself.
Additional lighting or additional reflectors may improve your ability to see, or may improve your visibility to other road users.
It may be instructive to note what RUSA (Randonneurs USA) requires for all riders participating in their ultra-distance, self-supported events:
For night riding, vehicles must be equipped with front and rear lights attached firmly to the vehicle. Lights must be turned on at all times during hours of darkness or other low-light conditions (rain, fog, etc.). At least one of the rear lights must be in a steady (rather than flashing) mode. A rider is not permitted to cycle at night or in other low-light conditions without working front and rear lights attached to the vehicle; therefore backup lighting systems and/or spare bulbs are strongly recommended in case the primary system fails and cannot be repaired on the roadside.
During hours of darkness or other low-light conditions, all riders must wear a reflective vest, sash, Sam Browne belt, or some other device that clearly places reflective material on the front and back of the rider. During these times all riders will also wear a reflective ankle band around each ankle.Other reflective devices on clothing, shoes, helmets, and machines are encouraged for increased safety – but they are extra and may not take the place of the minimum items listed above.
Randonneurs are serious about their safety, because many of their events take place at all hours of the day and night, in all types of weather, and in remote locales.
Here’s a tip: Use a camera and turn on the flash (on my camera this is labeled “Forced Flash On”), then take pictures of your bike and your gear from various angles, in the dark.
The reflective bits should “jump out” at you when you review the photos. Try this at various distances.
Then turn the flash off, and turn your bike lights on, and try the same thing. Again, the bike lighting should be readily apparent.
If you want to do one final test, set up your bike and a car in a deserted parking lot, and check out the lighting and reflectivity from the front, back, and sides. This is how drivers will see you.
Even better, have a friend or family member ride the bike while you drive, and observe how well you can see them from various perspectives and distances — from the front, from the rear, from each side. Is that bicycle and rider as visible as possible? Also make sure that the bicycle headlight is aimed so that the beam (which may be extremely bright and focused) does not blind oncoming traffic.
- Headlight: Lezyne Power Drive, a bicycle light that is mounted to the handlebar, and provides for up to 5.5 hours runtime, at up to 300 lumens. (Read my review)
- I also usually carry either a spare battery and/or an LED flashlight as a headlight backup.
- White reflector, mounted above the front wheel.
- Red reflector, mounted to the left seat stay.
- Reflective safety triangle, mounted to my seat bag.
- SPD pedals with ankle straps. My SPD shoes also have reflective heels.
- An XLC tail light, mounted to my seat post. If I were selecting the device today, I’d likely choose something like the Radbot 1000, which integrates both a tail light and a reflector in one device.
- A red light mounted to the rear of my helmet, plus additional reflective tape on the front, back, and sides of the helmet.
- White spoke-mounted reflectors in each wheel.
- I’ll often ride with a vest or jacket with reflective accents built in.
As you can see, I definitely do subscribe to the “more is better” idea!
One area I haven’t accounted for is my hands. I’m considering adding a light or reflector on each hand or wrist, to make hand signals visible to traffic at night.
This all may seem like overkill, but with this setup, I usually feel at least as safe riding at night as I do during the day, and judging by the traffic I interact with, I am seen in plenty of time to avoid danger.
(Confession: Before writing this article, I did not realize that a red reflector was a requirement. I thought my reflective safety triangle was adequate. Mea cupla. Lesson learned.)
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and I am not a law enforcement officer. The information in this article does not constitute legal advice or recommendations. If in doubt, check with your local police, and they’ll be happy to give you an assessment of your equipment.
Note: The illustration at the top of the article is courtesy of Yale Street Smarts, a fine safety tutorial from Yale University.
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