Guidelines on night lighting your bike

Autumn in Bellingham and Whatcom County brings in a kind of inky darkness that makes me extra aware of our extreme northern latitude. When fall makes way to winter on this December's longest night of the year, it will get dark at 4:15 pm and we will have to wait until 8 a.m. for sunrise! This means bike commuters will be coming and going during rush hour in the dark.

Lighting your bike is critical to night time bike riding safety. Washington law requires bicycles to have a white headlight on the front of the bike that is visible from, at minimum, 500 feet. A red reflector must be on the back and visible from at least 600 feet. However, this is the bare minimum and many bike riders simply won’t feel safe enough with that level of lighting. The market answers those fears with a plethora of lighting options, many with extremely bright lights.

Is more light necessarily better? Some, like this rider, think so. His light was so bright he noticed an approaching car pull over, thinking he was a motorcycle or perhaps a landed UFO. Blinding oncoming drivers may not be the best strategy for safety, however.

Super bright lights may be good for trail riding, if you ride wishing it were daylight. But they are not necessary or advisable for sharing the road safely with cars. Here are some thoughts on night time bike lighting solutions.

Curious about the text of the laws themselves? Here it is, below:

RCW 46.61.780 Lamps and other equipment on bicycles: (1) Every bicycle when in use during the hours of darkness as defined in RCW 46.37.020 shall be equipped with a lamp on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least five hundred feet to the front and with a red reflector on the rear of a type approved by the state patrol which shall be visible from all distances up to six hundred 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 feet to the rear may be used in addition to the red reflector. A light-emitting diode flashing taillight visible from a distance of five hundred feet to the rear may also be used in addition to the red reflector.

More at RCW 46.37.280: (3) Flashing lights are prohibited except as required in RCW 46.37.190, 46.37.200, 46.37.210, 46.37.215, and 46.37.300, warning lamps authorized by the state patrol, and light-emitting diode flashing taillights on bicycles. [TAIL LIGHTS OK; the except subsections at (3) are all references to stopping, hazards, etc.]

Notice that the law gets a little confusing around flashing lights. It states that a rider can have a red flashing tail light, and that different types of flashing lights on different types of vehicles are illegal. I gather that the governing authorities want to reserve flashing lights to those on emergency vehicles and have therefore so shaped the laws. It's worth mentioning a European study that found that strobe headlights on bikes do correlate to motorists seeing bikes sooner, but make it harder for drivers to gauge a bicycle’s distance from their car and riding speed.

What’s a biker to do? Here’s a solid rationale from Doug Dahl, manager of Whatcom County’s Target Zero Task Force, “Think about the kind of information you’re giving other road users with your light. If a steady light communicates your location and speed better than a flashing light, I’d say the advantage goes to the steady light.”

We at Bill Coats Law take bike riding safety very seriously. It is extremely important for Bellingham's riders to make themselves as visible as possible, because in a bike vs. motor vehicle crash the bicyclist nearly always loses. Please read up and follow these bike safety tips for every ride you take.

For a pithy summary on local bike rules, check this post from Bellingham's The Hub Community Bike Shop.

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