When we think of cycling, we don’t often think of much in the way of safety gear besides wearing a helmet and perhaps knee/elbow pads if we think we might be doing some mountain biking or hitting the trails.
Part of this is simply because buying new bikes today means most of the safety gear for the bike is part of the package so we don’t have to think about it. The other part is that bikes occupy a weird space between cars and pedestrians, so it’s easy to think that you don’t need to have all the safety gear of a car in order to ride.
One of the questions that get asked, particularly by people who are purchasing their bike second-hand or riding something a lot older, is whether or not it’s actually illegal to ride without lights and/or reflectors installed.
It may not be safe to ride without these things (in fact, it most definitely is not), but is it illegal as well?
The short answer: Yes. In all the states in America (and really, in many countries internationally), bikes must be equipped with both lights and reflectors in order to be legal to ride. New bikes already come with reflectors and you must buy lights and can choose to buy more reflectors if you wish.
Older bikes may not be equipped with these things, or they may be damaged, which is why it’s important to test your bike before taking it to the street!
The long answer though has some more nuances and detail that are important to dive into, so let’s take a look!
Active and Passive Lighting
Lighting for bikes is classified in two ways: active lighting and passive lighting. Active lighting is lighting which has to be activated, in some way. This usually means that the light has to be turned on and it’s usually powered by electricity. Bikes don’t generally come off the shelf equipped with these lights, so you have to buy your own.
The number of lights and the type of lights you buy is up to you; however, the lights must be visible from at least five to six hundred feet (depending on the state) from the front of the bike. You can also have lighting on the back of your bike, and it must be red. (We have a whole page here on some of our favorite bike lights)
The light should be steady, but depending on the state, you may be able to use flashing lights. This varies depending on whether the bike is considered a vehicle or not and whether vehicles can have flashing lights.
For example, in Washington, flashing lights are prohibited on any vehicle except school buses, tow trucks, and emergency vehicles and bikes are considered vehicles. Therefore, you cannot use flashing or strobe lights on your bike in Washington.
Double check on your state for whether a bike is considered a vehicle or not and then what kinds of vehicles can have flashing lights. You may be surprised to find that you are not allowed to use one, even though most people would think otherwise.
Passive lighting isn’t exactly lighting at all; when we talk about passive lighting, we are talking about reflectors. Reflectors are also bound up in bike laws around America with every state requiring the use of reflectors that are visible from a certain distance (usually six hundred feet on the rear).
There must be some sort of reflector on the rear, but you can also do things like add reflectors to the pedals, side of the bike, and even the front (front reflectors must be white).
The other difference is that legally, a bike doesn’t need to be equipped with a reflectors; however, if you’re going to ride in any low-light conditions, you must have reflectors and since low-light can cover anything from dusk to fog to rain and weather can change quickly, you should probably leave your reflectors alone!
A reflector works by reflecting any lights which fall on them. In this case, we are usually looking at vehicle lights which cross the path of the cyclist and then the reflector ‘kicks in’. Reflectors cannot be used alone because they don’t always work very well.
If you are riding on a dark street with no lights, then you won’t be visible. If the reflector is dirty, it won’t be as effective either. For this reason, reflectors are also considered ‘back-ups’ to the active lighting-there if your lighting goes out without you noticing, but they cannot be relied on for all of your visibility.
In all cases, lighting for bikes are required any time you are riding in low-light conditions and almost always while riding a half hour before dusk and up to half an hour after sunrise.
An example of this can be found right in Washington State Legislature (“Every vehicle upon a highway within this state at any time from a half hour after sunset to a half hour before sunrise and at any other time when, due to insufficient light or unfavorable atmospheric conditions, persons and vehicles on the highway are not clearly discernible at a distance of one thousand feet ahead shall display lighted headlights, other lights, and illuminating devices”-RCW 46.37.020), and every state has something very similar to this.
The long and the short of it? Bikes must be equipped with front lighting that is visible from five hundred feet and is white. Bikes must also be equipped with reflectors, at least one, in the rear that is red and visible from six hundred feet when light falls on it.
Beyond that, it’s up to you (though avoiding the use of high-octane LED lights is considered polite because those are far too blinding on the road!)
Penalties for Riding Without Lights
Penalties vary across states if you are found riding without lights and reflectors in low-light/limited visibility conditions (it’s perfectly legal to ride without these things in broad daylight), but they tend to be traffic tickets with fines of up to a couple of hundred dollars. Some places also say that you can go to traffic school instead of paying the fine.
Another penalty that many people don’t think about when they ride without the proper equipment? If you get into an accident with another driver and you don’t have lights on, you may also be blamed for the accident by the insurance company of the other driver so that the company doesn’t have to pay out.
This means that you can lose out on a settlement, even if the fault was clearly that of the other person. And of course, if you’re not visible, it’s more likely that you will get into an accident and get injured.
Thinking about the lights and reflectors on your bike may not be glamorous, but the law across the United States does require the minimal use of front light and a rear reflector when riding in any low-light conditions, including night time, foul weather, evening, and dawn.
Not only will you avoid getting traffic tickets, but lights also reduce crashes which is important for cyclists! While you can remove the reflectors if you wanted to, it wouldn’t be a good idea since low-light visibility can sneak up on you quite easily and if you are pulled over, stating that you ‘didn’t mean to’ won’t cut it.
Leave your reflectors alone, always put some money into good bike lights and stay safe (and visible) on the roads!