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Legally Speaking: This little light of mine

During the darkness of winter, remember that the law requires you to be visible. Here's what you need to know about bike lights.

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Last month, our smartphones observed a task we humans used to handle — setting clocks ahead one hour as daylight saving time ended. For many, it meant getting back that “lost hour” of sleep from March.

But it also meant that the sun sets at an earlier time than it did the day before. And with the winter solstice still weeks away, our days continue to grow shorter and nights grow longer. For cyclists, this means increasing chances of riding in the dark at some point during the day. Even if you expect to return home before the sun sets, one flat tire, or one “Can you work late?” request from your boss, can result in an unplanned ride home in the dark.

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Are you prepared for a night ride? Specifically, are you equipped with lights and reflectors? If not, let me explain why you should be, and what you will need. Typically, states require you to equip your bike with both passive and active lighting. “Passive lighting” means reflectors. It’s called passive lighting because you don’t have to do anything to the reflector to make it work. When a light shines directly onto the reflector, it reflects the light back toward the source. If that source is a car’s headlights, it means the driver will see the light from the headlights reflected back from your “passive lighting.”

New bikes are typically equipped with a specific set of reflectors: A clear front reflector, a red rear reflector, clear or amber pedal reflectors, and side reflectors or reflective tires or wheels. (If side reflectors are mounted, the front reflector is required to be clear or amber, and the rear reflector is required to be red.)

However, in addition to reflectors, state laws also require “active lighting” — what we mean when we talk about bike lights. Interestingly, federal regulations do not require new bikes to be sold with lights. A typical set-up required by state law would include a white light facing the front, and a red reflector facing the rear. In my state, cyclists have the option of either equipping the bike or themselves with lights and reflectors.

And cyclists in every state have the option of not having lights or reflectors at all. Wait, what? Which is it? Lights are required? Or lights are not required? Well, as lawyers are prone to say, “It depends.” If you are riding during daylight hours only, you are not required to have lights or reflectors. But if you are riding during “periods of darkness” — meaning at night, but also including other periods of limited visibility, such as fog, heavy rain, blizzards, smoke, or any other atmospheric condition which limits visibility — you need at least the minimum lights and reflectors required by your state law.

And yet we’ve all seen (barely) the ninja rider, dressed head to toe in black, no lights, no reflectors, appearing suddenly from night’s shroud, before disappearing again into the night. Death wish? Too cool for school? Just doesn’t realize how hard he is to see? It’s hard to say why some cyclists go full-stealth, but once one crosses your path, you will understand why the law requires lights and reflectors. From a safety perspective, the easier you make it for a driver to see you, the more likely you are to arrive home safe and sound. And from a legal perspective, if you have the misfortune to be injured by a careless driver, you don’t want to compound your misfortune by being the bike ninja the driver couldn’t see. No matter what the driver did, the insurance company will insist that you are at fault, and will fight tooth and nail to deny you compensation for injuries. If you want to protect your legal right to compensation in a careless driving collision, one of the easiest things you can do is ride with lights and reflectors at night.

Of course, the law allows you to do much more than the bare minimum to be seen. You have the freedom to choose how bright your light is, how many lights and reflectors you ride with, whether to wear bright and reflective clothing, and so on. But there’s nothing in the law that requires you to go the extra mile, and you can’t be held liable for your injuries if you choose not to go the extra mile. For example, the law specifies how bright your front light must be; you can have a brighter light, but not a light that is less bright than the law allows. It might be a good idea to have a brighter light, and you might choose to have one, but if you don’t ride with a brighter light and a careless driver collides with you, the driver’s insurance company can’t blame you for causing the collision.

My recommendation? Make a habit of riding with a setup that meets or exceeds the requirements of your state law, even if you think you will return before dark. In particular, make sure that you have a rear light as well as the required front light. Typically, states require a rear reflector but don’t require a rear light. This goes against common sense — a rear light is obviously much more visible to approaching drivers. Still, you are required to have a reflector, so I would recommend a rear light that includes a rear reflector. That way, if your rear light fails, you are still legal because of the rear reflector. By making yourself more visible to drivers, you will significantly improve your own safety and make sure that your legal rights are protected if you should ever need them.

Now read the fine print:

Bob Mionske is a former competitive cyclist who represented the U.S. at the 1988 Olympic Games (where he finished fourth in the road race), the 1992 Olympics, as well as winning the 1990 national championship road race.

After retiring from racing in 1993, he coached the Saturn Professional Cycling team for one year before heading off to law school. Mionske’s practice is now split between personal-injury work, representing professional athletes as an agent and other legal issues facing endurance athletes (traffic violations, contract, criminal charges, intellectual property, etc.).

Mionske is also the author of “Bicycling and the Law,” designed to be the primary resource for cyclists to consult when faced with a legal question. It provides readers with the knowledge to avoid many legal problems in the first place, and informs them of their rights, their responsibilities, and what steps they can take if they do encounter a legal problem. If you have a cycling-related legal question please send it to Bob, and he will answer as many of these questions privately as he can. He will also select a few questions to answer in this column. General bicycle-accident advice can be found at

Important notice:
The information provided in the “Legally Speaking” column is not legal advice. The information provided on this public website is provided solely for the general interest of the visitors to this website. The information contained in the column applies to general principles of American jurisprudence and may not reflect current legal developments or statutory changes in the various jurisdictions and therefore should not be relied upon or interpreted as legal advice. Understand that reading the information contained in this column does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Bob Mionske. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained in the website without first seeking the advice of legal counsel.