The Bike Laws on Bike Lights: What You Need and When

Bicycle safety includes many aspects, such as knowing how to navigate in traffic, making sure your brakes work properly, and wearing a helmet. One important safety feature that cyclists cannot overlook is the lighting on their bicycle. In fact, there are laws that dictate the kind of bicycle lighting that is needed in order to legally ride your bike during night-time and times with limited visibility.

But what are the laws regarding bike lights? Technically, each state has its own laws regarding cycling safety and lights. However, there are general laws that are present in all states that mandate certain lights and reflectors for all cyclists. For instance, all bicycles should be outfitted with headlights and reflectors, but some states also require taillights.

What are Bicycle Lights?

Bicycle lights, by definition, are any type of illumination that is attached to a bicycle to improve both the visibility of the cyclist to motorists around them and the ability of the cyclist to see their surroundings when riding in the dark or in weather conditions that limit visibility. Lighting for bikes includes reflectors, headlights, and taillights.

Generally, bicycle lighting is split into two categories: active lighting and passive lighting.

  • Active lighting includes any lighting that you have to actively turn on to activate. Headlights and taillights are active lighting features.
  • Passive lighting includes any lighting that you do not have to activate. Reflectors and reflective materials qualify as passive lighting features.

Headlights and taillights should be fitted onto the front and back of your bike, respectively. Reflectors usually include a red reflector on the back of the bicycle, yellow reflectors on the back of the pedals, and white or yellow reflective material on the tires.

Laws Regarding Bicycle Lighting

While bicycle lighting laws can vary by state, there are some basic laws that all states enforce when it comes to proper bike lighting.

Some general bicycle lighting laws that all cyclists must follow include:

  • Headlights and taillights must be equipped and turned on in order to ride on public roads during night-time and times with limited visibility.
  • Headlights, taillights, and reflectors must be visible from 500 feet in the front and 600 feet in the back.
  • Headlights should be white, and taillights should be red. Most states allow both flashing and steady lights to be used.
  • Reflectors should be present on the front and rear of the bicycle and on the bike’s pedals and spokes. This is actually required by federal consumer product safety regulations and included on all bikes currently made for riding on roads.
  • Headlights and taillights must be equipped and turned on in order to ride on public roads during night-time and times with limited visibility.

As stated before, some states have different laws and requirements for bicycle lighting. Some of the laws that differ are listed below:

  1. Louisiana allows the red taillight on a bike to be either flashing or steady.

2. In Oregon, when a cyclist is riding in limited visibility conditions during the daytime, they only have to have a white headlight on the front of their bike that is visible to 500 feet.

3. Washington bike law does not allow flashing or blinking lights to be equipped on bicycles at all.

4. In Florida, all lights and reflectors must be placed on the bicycle itself in order to legally ride in dark situations. Cyclists can wear additional safety lighting on their bodies, but in order to ride legally, their lights and reflectors must be on their bicycle.

5. Some states allow blue lights to be used on bikes instead of the usual white and red. However, in order to know if your state allows blue lights, you have to check the motor vehicle laws regarding the use of blue lights in your state.

6. California only requires a white light to be visible in the front, and it can either be fastened to the front of the bike or the front of the cyclist.

7. Vermont only requires the rear lights on bikes to be visible up to 300 feet.

8. In New Jersey, cyclists only have to have a red rear reflector equipped with a white headlight. No taillight is required.

9. Tennessee gives its cyclists a choice between a red taillight or a red rear reflector on their bike, as long is it is visible to 500 feet.

10. In North Carolina, both front and rear lights only have to be visible to 300 feet.

Because of the variation in bike lighting laws from state to state, it is important to look up legal bike lighting within your state to make sure you are fully equipped according to the law. Additionally, you should be aware that if you are riding across state lines, you are required to follow the bike lighting laws of the state you are riding in.

Types of Bicycle Lighting and Power Supplies

There are various types of lights available for both front and rear applications on bicycles. In addition, there are different power supplies that you can choose from to fit your personal preferences.

Front lighting options available for bicycles are:

Front Lighting Option Description
LED Lights Great for providing powerful front lighting can provide as much light as an automobile headlight often includes options to dim the light or make the light flash. Good for using on unlit trails. Rechargeable system.
Halogen Lights Originally designed for off-road use. Lights are cheap and bright, but project in a cone and are not allowed to use on public roads in some places. Rechargeable system.
HID Lights HID stands for high-intensity discharge. One of the brightest lights available for bicycles, second only to LED. Lights tend to consume lots of power and are very expensive. HID lights must be adjusted for use on public roads to avoid dazzling drivers. Rechargeable system.
Low-Cost Battery Lights Usually bright enough to meet legal requirement. Low-cost but must be replaced often as the batteries run out. Best fit for occasional use.

Rear lighting options available for bicycles are:

Rear Lighting Option Description
LED Lights LED lights are most often chosen for rear lights. Incredibly long service life. Very bright and relatively cheap. Can choose between flashing or steady lighting.
Filament Lamps Has the advantage of being omni-directional (however, new LED lights have this feature as well). Essentially just a headlamp with a red lens suitable for most rear light requirements but not often chosen.
Xenon Strobes Brighter than LEDs. High power consumption and high price. Must be replaced rather frequently. May be too bright for use on public roads.

Power supplies available for bicycle lighting include:

Power Supply Description
Batteries Lower-powered lights can be run with AA and AAA rechargeable batteries. Higher-powered lights can be run with external battery packs like a 12V VRLA. Gives the option to power other things along with the bicycle lights. Li-ion and LiPo batteries are gaining popularity because they have higher capacities and weigh less.
Dynamo Systems These power supplies do not need batteries and are permanently attached to the bike. Hub dynamos are built into the front or rear wheel hub. Bottle dynamos are built into the fork under the seat. Bottom-bracket dynamos are built between the chainstay and the bottom bracket of the bike.No recharging or changing of batteries. Only light up when the bicycle is moving. More environmentally-friendly and less expensive than battery power.
Magnetic Lamps Can be powered with electromagnetic induction. No need for batteries or dynamo systems. Magnets are mounted either on the wheels or the frame and fork of the bicycle and use eddy currents to power the lights.

When choosing the bicycle lights and power supplies that you need, the first question you must ask yourself is: Do I need to see or be seen? There are bicycle lights that are built for both. For instance, if you are riding on a public road at night, you need to be seen. However, if you are riding on an unlit trail in the woods at night, you need to see.

Lights that are made to see with will be brighter, have a larger battery, and project a narrow beam angle that helps you see into the distance. Lights that are made to be seen will be able to project wide beams of light and light up the sides of you, so they are usually lighter with small batteries and cost less than lights that are made to see with.

Another important aspect of choosing your bicycle lighting is knowing the terminology, so you are aware of what you are looking for. Common lighting terms include:

  • Lumen – The number of lumens represents the total amount of light that a light source emits.
  • Lux – The measure of light intensity on a specific area or surface; usually measured between one and ten meters.
  • Beam Angle – Tells how much the light will spread out from the original source; a high lux means a narrow beam and a low lux means a wider beam.
  • Beam Type/Setting – Different settings that can be featured on a light include super, high, full, standard, regular, low, flash, and pulse.
  • Burn Time – The time it takes for a light to die from a full charge.

The last factors you need to consider are brightness, mounting, battery, run time, bulb type, and your personal budget.

  • Brightness is determined by lumens. The more lumens the light has, the brighter it is. You should choose a light that will not blind motorists if you are planning to ride on public roads. You can also purchase a bright light and simply tilt it downward when traffic is coming.
  • Mounting is generally very easy because most bicycle lights will fit onto handlebars or seat posts. Mounts can vary from Velcro to stretchy rubber straps to a screw and bracket that has to be tightened. Consider what your bicycle frame is made of before settling on a mount because carbon frames can crack if you tighten the mount too much. Aluminum is stronger.
  • Batteries for bike lights are almost always rechargeable. Higher-powered lights require a battery pack. If you want a cheat sheet for knowing what kind of battery you’ll need, remember this: The brighter the light and the longer the run time of the battery, the bigger the battery will be.
  • Run times tell you an estimated time of how long your light will last on a full battery charge. Run times can be affected by the setting you have on your light, as well – such as flash or economy.
  • Bulb type is mostly LED when it comes to the current bike lights on the market. There are halogen and HID bulbs, but they are used much less often than LEDs.
  • Your personal budget is probably the most limiting consideration you will face when it comes to purchasing bike lights. Lights used to be seen are usually $150 and under. If you need lights to see, you will have to spend over $150, typically.

The Best Bicycle Lights on the Market

With so many bicycle lights available on the market to choose from, it can sometimes be hard to pick just one! Don’t worry, though. The best bicycle lights on the market are listed and described in the charts below.

The best headlights you can buy for your bicycle are:

Headlight Features
Cygolite Metro 750 Max Lumens: 750. Easy-to-use handlebar mount. Low battery indicator. Side illumination ports. Six light modes, including daytime flash and steady pulse. Takes 5 hours to charge fully.
Light & Motion Urban 500 Max lumens: 500. More affordable. Option includes amber sidelights for more visibility. Four light modes, including a flashing option, multi-color battery light indicator. Comes with handlebar mount. Can purchase helmet and GoPro mounts for it, as well.
Light & Motion Vis Trail Max lumens: 800. Can mount to handlebars, a helmet, a GoPro, or a headband. Low battery indicator. Four light modes. Powerful and versatile.
Nite Rider Lumina OLED 1200 Budget Max lumens: 1,200. 9 light modes – 5 steady options with different brightness and 4 flashing modes. Able to change settings by touching a button. Able to lock the headlight when you aren’t riding to prevent battery drain. Digital display on the top of the light that shows battery life and current light mode.
Serfas True 1000 MTB Head-light Max lumens: 1,000. Perfect for trail riding. Able to mount on handlebars, helmets, and GoPro. Five light modes, including 2 flashing modes. Low battery indicator. Reliable and affordable.
Beryl Laser-light Max lumens: 300. Made from LED and laser lights within a durable aluminum case for amazing visibility. Five light modes between the two lights. Each light can be set to flashing. Easily mounts to handlebars. Includes a hex key that can easily pop the light on or off the bike.
Bright Eyes 1200 Lumen Rechargeable Bike Head-light Max lumens: 1,200. Comes with rechargeable external battery pack and extension cable so it can be mounted anywhere. Lightweight, aerodynamic design. 6 light modes, including two flashing options. Low battery indicator. Comes with a head mount and a beam diffuser. Both light and battery pack are fully waterproof
Cateye Volt 500XL Max lumens: 500. High-intensity LED lights. Four lighting modes, including a flashing mode. Has a rubber bar mount that is very easily attached and removed. Has a mode memory function that remembers the last light mode you used. 360-degree adjustability. Bright, dependable, and affordable.
Lezyne Micro Drive 500XL Max lumens: 500. Lightweight, durable aluminum construction that is also heat-dissipating. Memory mode function that remembers last light mode. Has a MOR, or maximum optical reflection, lens that maximizes side visibility. Comes with a cable-free recharging USB stick and a micro USB cable for charging. Silicone rubber strap that is versatile enough to be installed on any handlebars. Weather-resistant construction.
Lezyne Zecto Drive Max lumens: 250. Built-in powerful Lithium-ion rechargeable battery. 3 ultra-bright LED lights that are visible from the front and the sides. 7 light modes to choose from. Very lightweight but durable. Made from CNC aluminum. Low battery indicator. Includes versatile 2-in-1 Clip-On System straps that attaches the light to handlebars.

The best taillights you can buy for your bicycle are:

Taillight Details
Cygolite Hotshot 50 Max lumens: 50. Very affordable. Six light modes, including a customizable blinking mode and a flashing mode Internal memory remembers the last light mode you had set. Can be attached to your seat post or your clothing.
Light & Motion Vya Smart Tail-light Max lumens: 50. Almost all functions on this smart taillight are automated. Turns on when you start pedaling and turns off when you stop pedaling or remove the light from its mount. Automatically adjusts the brightness of the light as well.
BV Rear Bike Tail-light 2 Pack Visible to up to 1500 feet away, Super bright with three light modes, including flashing and blinking. Runs with 2 AAA batteries, 4 batteries to run both tail lights. on/off button is in the back of the light. Features 3 LED lights for brightness.
Cycliq Fly6 Max lumens: 100. Built-in HD camera with incident detection mode and audio recording built-in. Fully weatherproof. Multiple light modes, including a flashing and a dimming mode. Powered by a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery.
Bontrager Flare RT Max lumens: 90. Equipped with smart connectivity. Compact design visible up to 2km away. Has an integrated light sensor that auto-adjusts brightness according to your surroundings. Has specially designed focus, flash, and range for daytime visibility Waterproof design, 3 flashing light modes and 2 steady modes. Comes with a Quick Connect bracket.
Garmin Varia Radar Rear Max lumens: 15. Includes smart technology. Senses traffic approaching and changes the brightness and flashing pattern. Gives out an audible notification when vehicles are coming up behind you. Radar system even determines the threat level of approaching vehicles. Lacks brightness and has a low battery life
Moon Nebula Max lumens: 180. Cool, lightweight design. Maximum visual impact. Has a day flash mode that gives a lower output to save on battery life. Multiple mounting options available. Water resistant. Includes a rechargeable Lithium-polymer battery. Six light modes, including two flashing options and a strobe mode.
Exposure Tracer MKI Daybright Max lumens: 75. Simple mount with a quality design. Yruly high-powered bike light. 3 light modes that can all be set to flashing or steady. Has a special “Daybright” beam pattern for daytime riding. Can be angled in two positions.
Lezyne Strip Drive Pro YII Max lumens: 300. Insanely bright with five, ultra-high-output LED lights, 9 light modes, including a daytime flash mode, mode memory function that remembers the last light mode used. Aerodynamic design.
Knog Blinder Road R70 Max lumens: 70. Extra bright light output with side illumination powered by a rechargeable Lithium-polymer battery. Made from industrial-grade silicone in polycarbonate housing for durability. Waterproof and dust-proof. Lightweight and aerodynamic.

While you can buy your bicycle headlights and taillights separately, there are also combos available that sell the headlights and taillights together. Some of the best bicycle light combos include:

  • Bontrager Ion 200 RT/Flare RT Light Set
    • 200 lumens in front; 90 lumens in the rear
    • Visible from over a mile away on both sides
    • 10 brightness settings between the pair
    • Flashing options included
    • Both auto-adjust according to your surroundings
    • Very user-friendly
  • See.Sense ACE Front & Rear Set
    • 150 lumens in front; 125 lumens in the rear
    • Auto-adjusting lights sense cars approaching and blink brighter and faster
    • Lights connect to the See.Sense app
    • You can choose flashing patterns and check the battery levels on the app
  • BioLite Cyclist Light Kit
    • 135 lumens per light
    • Includes two PowerLight Mini lanterns that can be used for front and rear interchangeable
    • Both lights have 5 light modes – normal, bright, red, white flashing, and red flashing
    • Both are equipped with low battery indicators
    • Point light for added brightness
  • Ascher USB Rechargeable Bike Light Set
    • Both lights are equipped with a rechargeable lithium battery
    • Four light modes that include two flashing options
    • Equipped with silicone mount straps
    • Versatile enough to be used for cycling, hiking, and other outdoor activities
  • Cycle Torch Bolt Combo
    • 20 lumens in front; 10 lumens in the rear
    • Both powered with Lithium-power rechargeable batteries
    • 3 light modes on both, including flashing and pulse modes
    • Waterproof and dustproof
    • Able to fit all bikes

Other Methods of Lighting and Reflection for Cycling

While states typically require bicycle lighting to be affixed to the bike for safety, some cyclists like to supplement their bicycle lighting with other methods of lighting and reflection.

Some methods of lighting and reflection that can supplement bicycle lighting include:

Headlamps

Headlamps are simply lights that are connected to your bicycle helmet. This is a great addition for anyone biking in extremely poor conditions, dark roads, or within very dark trails because the helmet light can be pointed at different places without having to steer the bike. It allows you to be able to see your surroundings better. In addition, headlamps can help to read street signs that are placed on high posts.

One thing to remember when wearing headlamps is that they can dazzle oncoming traffic, so make sure to move your headlamp’s beam away from approaching motorists.

Side Lights

Side lighting is sometimes included with front headlights, but there are other ways to increase your side lighting. You can add lights on your wheel spokes, LED lights on your bicycle tires’ rims, and handlebar lights. Side lights can be very helpful because certain traffic situations cause your front and rear lights to not be visible.

Reflective Materials on Your Bicycle and Clothing

You can use retro-reflective materials, like fixed reflectors, reflective tape, and reflective clothing, on both your bike and your body to add reflection while cycling. It is very important to realize that reflectors and reflective clothing do not illuminate the road in any way. They light up when headlights or the lights around you hit them. Never substitute actual bike lighting with only reflective materials.

On your bike, you usually already have reflectors placed in the front and rear and on the pedals and spokes. You can use reflective tape to add reflector features to any other part of your bike. Adding amber-colored reflectors to supplement your front and rear bike reflectors is a great idea, as well.

When it comes to your clothing, you can wear brightly colored neon clothing or very light clothing to make sure your body is visible. Additionally, Scotchlite is a retro-reflective material and will show up in car headlights. Safety vests and jackets that are outfitted with reflective material and pants straps that are made with reflective materials are great additions for night cycling, as well. Also, armbands that are equipped with lights can be added to your arms for extra visibility.

In Conclusion…

Proper bicycle lighting is crucial for cycling safety at night-time and in low visibility conditions. While different states have different laws regarding which lights and reflectors you have to have equipped on your bike, it is wise to make sure that you are fully covered with all standard reflectors and front and rear lights.

Remember that, no matter how much reflection you have on your bike and your body, it is no replacement for actual bicycle lighting. Cycle safe and cycle smart!

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