Don’t Get Caught In The Dark: Parsing The Legal Requirements Of Lights and Reflectors While Cycling

It is important to consider safety during night riding because motorists that fail to see them injure many bicycle riders. Not only should you have at least one bright light on your bike for safety reasons, but you also need them for legal reasons as well.

People are finding many ways to improve their health, which includes bicycle commuting. Consequently, we are seeing more and more people commuting by bicycle in the dark. It is important to consider safety during night riding because motorists that fail to see them injure many bicycle riders.

Under California Vehicle Code §21201, “darkness” is defined as half an hour before dark, or half an hour before sunrise, or when visibility is less than 100 feet (i.e. fog). During winter in San Diego, sunrise is at about 6:34 am and sunset is at about 4:42 pm, which means it is dark for motorists on their way home from work. Not only should you have at least one bright light on your bike for safety reasons, but you also need them for legal reasons as well.

If you are a bicyclist and you comply with the law regarding night time riding and you are involved in an accident you will avoid an insurance industry claim that you’re partially at fault or are contributory negligent. The insurance company will try to reduce the value of your case by claiming that you are partially at fault, so complying with the law is even most important in the case of collisions with motorists.

California Vehicle Code §21201 essentially lays out several rules that the nighttime bicyclist must follow. They are as follows:

In terms of the front end, the front light of the bicycle must be seen from 200 feet away and from the front side.

I suggest that you securely mount the light on your bicycle handlebars pointed out ahead of you so that oncoming cars can actually see you and you can see ahead when riding at a normal speed. You can also “back up” your front light with the light on your helmet, thereby illuminating what oncoming motorist directly in front of you can see. An issue that I see with a light on the helmet is that if your head is turned, then so is your light, faced away from oncoming traffic. For that reason, I would suggest a helmet light only as a back up to a front mounted light for night riding.

Rear lighting requires a red reflector that is visible from 500 feet away.

You might check an auto parts store or any bicycle shop to find one. Make sure that your backpack, any other clothes, or your seat does not obscure any rear lighting. The problem that I have seen in this area is that the bicyclist still unintentionally covers their light and an approaching motorist cannot see them.

Your pedals must have white reflectors.

People often change pedals. If you’re one of them, then I suggest that you wear day glow white ankle reflector straps so that you can be seen at 200 feet. You can also attach a light to your leg. Those ankle band reflectors should be used on both legs, if you are not going to be using pedals with reflectors.

In terms of wheels, the focus is the front of center and the rear of center. You must have white or red reflectors in those areas.

Some people will illuminate their sidewall tires. Alternatively, put reflective tape on your forks or tubing. You might want to consider a spoke reflector system or reflectors in your spokes. If you don’t have a reflector in your spokes, make sure that you have a reasonable alternative.

Your clothes should illuminate as well.

Wear reflective clothes that light up and illuminate at night.

In terms of the type of lights you want to use, there is a variety. A HID light is bluer in color, whereas an LED light is whiter and may last longer. You might consider the LED light because it throws off a lot of light and there is some side spill to it. Also consider looking at the Night Rider TriNewt Lithium Light.

Keep in mind the story of the triathlete mother and the dangers of riding at night, or what I call the David and Goliath situation, in which a woman hit a 4×4 wood beam negligently left in a bicycle lane while riding her bicycle near a construction site at night. 

Anything Can Happen

The triathlete and mother of two went out for a training ride on her bicycle after work, but crashed into large wood timbers left straddling the marked bicycle lane. She flew over the handlebars and fractured her elbow (the radius head). Her expensive halogen headlamp did not illuminate the road in time as the wood beams blended into the road that night.

The wood nuisance was primarily caused by Carlsbad Developers who ran about the sloppy construction site. They failed to supervise, inspect and secure wood beams used on the job site. Investigation determined that even a local resident complained about the sloppy job site debris that blocked the bike lane, and the sidewalk – forcing the resident and his dog to walk out into the street for fear of tripping.

The brave triathlete/mother, refused to give up when the defendant developer ignored reasonable settlement demands. Ultimately this forced a flurry of legal action and finger pointing between the sub-contractors. Instead of taking responsibility and prorating the settlement funds, the defendants stonewalled. When the dust settled the bicyclist recovered a modest five-figure settlement. 

Takeaways for the Road and Trail:

  • Reduce your speed when riding at night so that you have time to react when your  lights illuminate a danger.
  • Document any falls. Take photos of the debris and connect it the culprit. i.e. use your smart phone to get pictures on the spot!
  • File complaints via e-mail or letter with the City if you see a dangerous condition.

Avoid costly legal experiences and stay safe on your next ride! See the Law Offices of Richard Duquette for more legal tips and advice. 

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