Bicycling at Night

by John Rider, LCI and Regional Trainier

Have you ever been surprised at night when a bicyclist comes out of nowhere? Or you just catch a glint of reflection from a shiny brake lever? In the dark, cyclists without lights or proper reflectors are virtually invisible to other road users. But riding your bike at night can be a safe and fun experience if you have the right equipment. The keys to safe night riding are: Seeing and Being Seen. Most states have laws requiring a front white light that is visible 500 feet from the front, and a rear red reflector visible 500 feet from the rear, but some states require a rear light. Please check your own state laws to make sure that your bicycle is in compliance.

     It takes a bicycle traveling at 15 mph about 35 feet to stop on clean dry pavement, so your headlight should allow you to see the road at least 35 to 50 feet in front of you. Handlebar mounted lights perform this function well and allow you to see bumps and holes easily, but only directly in front of you. Helmet lights allow you to aim your light where you may need it. But since the light source is so close to the level of your eyes, you do not always see the shadows that indicate bumps and holes. Either placement will work as long as you take these limitations into account. Having both a handlebar light and helmet light is the ideal setup.
     Many AA battery powered lights will put out a useable light. But for really seeing the road or trail at night, brighter is better. The brightest lights use rechargeable battery packs and vary from about 6 watts to 15 watts. But batteries and battery packs eventually discharge, so it is advisable to carry extra batteries or a spare light to get you home if your main light quits.

Being Seen:
     Placement of rear reflectors and lights is very important to be seen from behind at night. A flashing light clipped to a backpack may only be seen by the surveillance helicopters when you lean forward on your bike. A seat post mounted light may be obscured by items placed on a rear rack. Reflectors do not need batteries, but they do need a light source to reflect back. Properly angle your reflectors so that they can effectively reflect light back to following vehicles. A red light is important if following traffic does not have their headlights on. Flashing or moving lights and reflectors are very eye catching and effective. Reflective leg bands, pedal reflectors, and wheel reflectors are especially effective, and reflective tape can be placed on frame parts, rear rack, helmets, or even clothing to help draw attention to you and help drivers to identify you as a bicycle. Flashing lights draw attention to you, but a solid light or reflector is easier for others to focus on and judge their distance to you. This also pertains to being seen from the front. A flashing headlight draws the attention of oncoming traffic, but it's harder for them to judge their distance to you. And that flashing light may not illuminate roadway hazards. When using a high powered light, be careful where it is aimed. It may be bright enough to temporarily blind oncoming cyclists or motorists, and that can be both dangerous and impolite.

Confirm Your Visibility:
     Never take for granted that your lights and reflectors are effective. It can be very enlightening to find a dark spot, turn on the car headlights, and have a friend ride your bicycle around in the light. You can see for yourself just how visible your bicycle may or may not be. Do the same for them, and you will both be much safer when you ride at night.

In Review:

  • Learn and comply with your state laws regarding lights and reflectors
  • Use a headlight that illuminates 35-50 feet ahead
  • Carry extra batteries or a spare headlight
  • Angle rear reflectors and lights properly
  • Place reflectors and reflective tape on moving parts
  • Place reflective tape on frame parts, helmet, and you
  • Test your visibility

Now that you know how to properly prepare you and your bike, you can extend your riding time by bicycling safely at night.

Reprinted from "American Bicyclist", magazine of the League of American Bicyclists, July-August 2007, page 10.
For more information about the League of American Bicyclists, visit their web site,, or e-mail them at

Serving the Pacific Northwest for over 12 years.

Home | Clubhouse | Sponsors | Links | Webmaster

©1998-2010 Seattle Bicycle Club, Inc.