by Ray Thomas and Charley Gee
Updated June 2011
It has been exciting over the last several years to see so many recreational riders transforming themselves into bicycle commuters. This transformation has been the result of hard work by planners and bicycle advocacy organizations like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) to make the roads a more friendly place for bicycling commuters. Oregon’s mild winters allow recreational riders to make the transition with little difficulty; for most commutes a little rain gear goes a long way toward transforming short aggravating car trips into healthful bicycle rides. There is a deep sense of satisfaction that accompanies a ride at dawn across a Willamette River bridge packed bumper to bumper with cars while on a bicycle in an uncrowded bicycle lane. However, adequate bicycle lighting is a necessary accessory for those dawn and dusk commuting rides.
Most recreational riders do not choose to ride at night. Putting together a lighting package is frequently left out of the transition to bicycle commuting because many city streets are well lit and most bicycles have reflector packages that include front and rear reflectors. While some reflector packages effectively catch and reflect light from approaching headlights, no reflector is activated unless it has light hitting directly upon its surface. Further, even a new bicycle with a reflector package is not in legal trim to ride at night. Oregon law requires that bicycles have a white light in front, and a red reflector or light to the rear during “limited visibility conditions.”
Violations of Oregon’s bicycle lighting law are probably the most frequently observed traffic offense committed by bicycle riders. During the winter months, it is impossible for most bicycle commuters to avoid riding during darkness at the beginning and end of their commute. While bicyclists may feel that they are visible with their yellow rain gear and reflectorized bicycles, a bicyclist involved in a collision with a car usually discovers (the hard way) the importance of Oregon’s lighting law. When the driver tells the investigating police officer about the invisibility of the cyclist, the cyclist receives a traffic citation for what would otherwise be considered an accident that was primarily the fault of the motorist.
Psychology recognizes a common human behavior known as “case building” engaged in by people when they have committed a questionable act. While “case building,” starts for most people at the moment of impact and blossoms forth upon first contact between co-participants in an accident, many straightforward accidents that are clearly the motorist’s fault become contested liability fights because the bicyclist failed to have a head light. Since many accidents occur when a motor vehicle pulls out in front of a bicyclist, it is often the finding of a post-accident reconstruction that the ambient light was insufficient to activate the front reflector on the bicycle. Since the motorist was not facing directly toward the bicyclist, the car headlights did nothing to make the front reflector visible and the motorist has some justification in claiming that the unlighted bicycle rider was at fault for failing to have a proper light. It is sometimes possible to show that ambient light, the headlights of other cars, and the bicyclist’s bright clothing combined to make the bicycle rider clearly visible if the motorist had been paying attention; however, a bicyclist involved in an accident at night without a headlight always has a big problem with liability.
The law is very clear in its requirements:
At the times described in the following, a bicycle or its rider must be equipped with lighting equipment that meets the described requirements:
A. The lighting equipment must be used during limited visibility conditions.
B. The lighting equipment must show a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front of the bicycle.
C. The lighting equipment must have a red reflector or lighting device or material of such size or characteristics and so mounted as to be visible from all distances up to 600 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of headlights on a motor vehicle.
Violation of this provision is a Class D traffic infraction carrying a $75.00 fine.
Note that helmet mounted lights (which many people prefer because they are directional) are fully compliant with the law. Further, a light is only necessary on the front. A red reflector is sufficient for the back of the bike. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) mandates that all bicycles sold in the United States contain a reflector set. However, it is ironic that the higher end bicycles have fewer or no reflectors, and one of the first things that many riders do is remove the reflectors when they purchase a new bike. Spoke and pedal reflectors are particularly prone to making clicking noises when the bicycle is underway, and most reflectors are incompatible with bicycle racks.
Some riders report that police officers have told them that front strobes do not comply with the law. There are no Oregon appellate decisions interpreting Oregon’s lighting law. It is my belief that these battery saving lights are in legal compliance with the law although probably not as good as a steady white light to the front for illuminating pot holes and other hazards in the dark. Certainly a rear strobe is okay, but the best practice is to have both a rear light and a rear reflector.
It is also good practice to use bicycle lights during twilight or foggy conditions, any time you would be tempted to turn on your headlights if you were driving a car. Carrying a small flashlight in your pack or bike bag is a good backup in case your bike light battery goes dead or the light bulb burns out. Most bike light bulbs are pretty tough, but the combination of high pressure tires, no suspension, and rough roads frequently combine to break the little filaments in the bulb so that the replacement frequency for bike lamps are higher than on a motorized vehicle. Carrying a flashlight gives you a good backup, keeps you in compliance with the law, and will be a welcome companion if you ever flat out on the way home and need to complete a roadside repair in the dark.
Generator sets used to be somewhat problematic because when the bicycle stops the lights go out. Now, many generators have a “standlight” function, which stores energy in a capacitor so that the light continues to shine for a few minutes after the bike stops moving, such as at a stop sign. While a generator set is preferable from an ecological standpoint (no dependence on chemical batteries that must be discarded) it is probably better to buy a modern halogen light set with rechargeable batteries. My favorite lighting systems use large rechargeable batteries that fit in the water bottle cage or attach somewhere because they provide a long charge and can be readily removed for daytime only riding. Many experienced night riders use a small strobe light to the rear and then a larger halogen unit for the front. If you do use a rear light, make sure you mount it so that your bike bag or pack does not obstruct its view from the rear.
Complying with Oregon’s lighting law adds a little hassle to your daily commute, but, provides additional safety and confidence for night riding. Many riders are lulled into a false sense of security because new bikes have reflector systems. While few riders receive tickets for violation of Oregon’s lighting law, if you are ever in an accident, violations of the lighting law will almost certainly be used against you. Bicycle lights are inexpensive to purchase and easy to mount so add this important equipment to your night time ride.