The Importance of Bicycle Lighting

Bicycle Assisted SuicideIt’s The Crank again, and today I’m going to talk about bicycle lighting or the lack of it, and the various ways I find it annoying.

When I ride at night or in low-light situations, I like to have at least a rear light to make me more visible to motorists. A front light is also nice, both to be visible to cars and to see potential potholes or other obstructions that could put me in the hospital. I prefer lights that are rechargeable and cheap, so that I can just leave them on the bike and not have to remember to bring them with me or worry about having them stolen.

My favorite lights were the old “vista” lights. These were large, clunky blinking lights that cost about $10-15, used two AA batteries and were compatible with the standard reflector brackets and mounts found on most bikes. In the USA, bicycle manufacturers are required to sell bikes with front and back reflectors and, over the years have settled on a standard reflector mount that features a screw hole and adjacent pin hole. The screw to secure the reflector is inserted in the screw hole and the pinhole accepts a pin on the reflector that keeps it from spinning around. The vista lights had a pin and screw that lined up with these mounts, which made their installation on a bike quick and easy. Their cheapness and the fact that they had to be screwed into place made them more difficult and less desirable to steal. I’ve never had one stolen off any of my bikes and I have at least two that are over fifteen years old. Most back racks also came with this standard reflector mount so putting lights on them was easy.


In the last decade, all standardization has disappeared in the bike industry and bike lights and reflectors are not immune from this. It is now very difficult to buy a screw-on bike light that fits a standard reflector mount. Light manufacturers have decided to use their own latex rubber mounts, which are easy to steal and break quickly. I’ve yet to own one that’s lasted more than one year. For nicer lights they use higher-end, non-standardized brackets that mount on handbars or seat-posts. These invariably break or get lost before the light dies, or, because you have to remove the light wherever you go, the light gets lost or stolen and you’re left with a useless bracket. Also, many back racks now lack reflector mounts. So, if you can still find a vista light, there’s no way to mount it without making a bracket from scratch.

My wife’s bike had a back rack with a flimsy reflector mount that eventually broke off. Because it was pop-riveted in place I had to fashion a new mount from a galvanized steel L-bracket, drilling new holes into it and the rack so I could securely mount a back light. It took me almost an hour and was super annoying. See photos below.

Like many back racks, this one lacked a universal reflector mount so I had to make one from a metal L-bracket

Like many back racks, this one lacked a universal reflector mount so I had to make one from a metal L-bracket.


A better view of the bracket screwed into place and light screwed onto it.

A better view of the bracket screwed into place and light screwed onto it.

As a bicycle advocate who is often out at night, counting bikes or noticing other cyclists, I see a ton of people biking around with no lights, often on dangerous, high-speed streets like University Avenue. This and my recent experience trying to mount a light on my wife’s bike got me thinking about bike lighting more broadly.

Why have lights on bicycles at all?

There’s a surprising amount conflict among bicycle advocates on whether good bicycle lighting can significantly reduce the risk of injury or death at night. Reading one European study and various websites, a major reason for the disagreement is there’s a lack of data about bicycle-miles-traveled or even the number of bicycle trips at night or dusk, versus daytime trips. Only by cross-checking this data with bike crash data, can researchers see how many accidents are occurring per-ride at different times of day. A few countries, like the Netherlands (and cities) collect this data and there seems to be decent statistical evidence in these places that accidents per-trip or per-mile-biked are significantly higher at night. Dutch and Canadian data say that about a third of both bike crashes with motor vehicles and cyclist deaths occur at night or under artificial lighting. This is occurring despite the fact that far fewer people ride at night. Yet, some researchers will say there’s not enough data on how many crashes or what percentage of nighttime or twilight crashes were caused by a bicycle’s lack of decent lighting versus other factors like increased nighttime alcohol consumption by cyclists or motorists or additional nighttime visibility issues.

Because of this disagreement, it’s been hard for cycling advocates and the bicycle industry to agree on a basic standard for bicycle lighting. Different countries have very different standards. At one extreme, you have Germany that not only requires new bikes be sold with lights but, until recently, mandated that those lights had to be powered by a hub generator. At the other extreme, you have the United States that only requires bikes be sold with reflectors and leaves it to states and cities to decide whether to impose more lighting requirements and decide whether or not to enforce those requirements.

Reading all the various websites and reports, I think bike advocates and the bicycle industry use statistical uncertainty to justify inaction on coming up with a few basic common-sense standards. This is stupid. It puts people’s lives at risk and is one of many factors that slows the growth of cycling as an everyday mode of transportation.

A Common Sense Lighting Standard for Bicycles

There may be a lack of lighting-related crash data for bicycles but there is a ton of data for cars– enough that, by 1949, even the color of head lights and tail lights was internationally codified in the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic.  It was determined that the most important aspect of vehicle lighting was being seen by and communicating with other motorists and non-motorists. White lights indicated the front of a vehicle or an oncoming vehicle. Red lights indicated the back of a vehicle and/or a braking vehicle. To this day, we require that cars be sold with working head and tail lights, plus brake and directional lights, and by law they must be maintained and working. By contrast, there is no requirement that any bicycles be sold with lights. This is absurd. Can you imagine if automobiles didn’t come with front or back lights and people had to buy after-market, clip-on lights for them? You would have a scenario similar to bicycles where (depending on where you lived in the world) 35–75% of drivers would be driving around at night with no lights of any kind!

Based on more abundant statistical information and common sense, I think we can all agree that someone who is driving a car at night without their lights is a moron who is endangering themselves and others. Why can’t we agree that someone who is operating a bicycle at night with no lights is also, at the very least, endangering themselves?!?

Some cyclists (often helmet-haters) will make the libertarian argument that people have a right to endanger themselves and we shouldn’t mandate bicycle lighting. Ok, but if we care about other cyclists and cycling safety, why not make it as easy as possible for cyclists who want lighting to have lighting? Also, this libertarian position ignores the fact that many cities and states already have laws on the books that require bicyclists to have at least a front light and sometimes both front and back lights. Because these laws are rarely enforced and require cyclists purchase and carry often poorly designed, clip-on lights, a huge percentage of people don’t bother.

Also, most cyclists start off with absolutely no training or experience riding in traffic. They are often high school or college students who know how to ride a bike from childhood but don’t know much about how bikes work or basic skills for riding in traffic, including how to signal, where to ride, how to avoid getting “doored,” or how to be visible to motorists at night. Many of these first-time users are getting their bikes from parents, siblings, friends and secondary/used markets and not in bike shops. Thus, many are unaware of bike lights and how to install them. Why not make it easier for these folks to have lights?

Mandating that bicycle manufacturers or dealers sell bikes with lights (instead of just reflectors) makes it easier for people who want lighting to get it. It would also lower the price of lights and encourage standardization and innovation. Would it save lives and injuries? Due to the lack of data on bike crashes, we can’t say definitively how many would be saved but certainly some. Looking at car crash data (with and without lights), common sense would say bicycle manufacturer or dealer-required lights could significantly reduce injuries and fatalities. And, after all, car data and common sense are the source of our current bicycle lighting and reflector laws.

Based on the angle of car headlights and the speed at which they travel, by the time a car’s headlights catch your reflector, the car won’t have enough time to stop and you will be dead or badly injured. Reflectors are useless. By contrast LED lights greatly increase your visibility to motorists and rapidly flashing red or white LED lights also communicate that the light is coming from a bicycle and not some other urban light source. If we already mandate bicycles be sold with reflectors based on the idea that it’s important to be seen, let’s mandate basic LED lights—something that is much more effective.

While we’re at it, how about a universal light/reflector mount so I don’t have to spend an hour creating one from scratch?!?

Andy Singer

About Andy Singer

Andy Singer served as volunteer co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition off and on for 13 years. He works as a professional cartoonist and illustrator and has authored four books including his last, "Why We Drive," which examines environmental, land use and political issues in transportation. You can see more of his cartoons at