Legal Brief – Collision Safety Laws in the USA

Failure to comply with state or local laws with respect to lights could result in a ticket, or worse yet, being blamed for a collision. Breaking them compromises a cyclist’s legal position.

An overwhelming majority of the cases I handle are on behalf of what we call the “vulnerable users” of the roadways: bicyclists and pedestrians. The most common statement I hear from drivers after they strike a cyclist is, “I didn’t see [the bicycle].” Over the course of my years in practice advocating on behalf of vulnerable users, I have found that the single most important factor for avoiding being hit by a car is to make sure you are conspicuous. In my experience, the most effective way to make a bicyclist conspicuous at night is with lights, reflectors and bright clothing.

Most jurisdictions in the United States have laws on the books dictating what lighting and reflective equipment bicyclists must use when they ride at night. Some jurisdictions only require bicyclists to use a white headlight and red rear reflector, but many jurisdictions require front and rear lights and reflectors. You should be aware of the requirements of your state and local government, and comply accordingly. Be aware that you must comply with both state and local regulations with respect to lights and reflectors. If state law requires only a headlight and rear reflector but your municipality additionally requires the use of a red rear light, you should make sure you have all of those.

Failure to comply with state or local laws with respect to lights could result in a ticket, or worse yet, being blamed for a collision. Take the example of the “left cross.” In the “left cross,” a driver approaches a cyclist from the opposite direction. The driver intends to make a left turn at an unmarked intersection, and in so doing should yield to the cyclist and all other traffic proceeding through the intersection before executing the left turn. The driver turns into the cyclist and a collision occurs. In instances where the accident happened at night and the bicyclist didn’t have lights, the driver will point out that the cyclist was in violation of the state or local statute requiring a headlight. Since violation of a statute is “per se” evidence of negligence on the part of the cyclist, the driver has set up an ideal defense. The driver will argue that the accident is the bicyclist’s fault because if the bicyclist had had a headlight as required by law the driver would have seen the cyclist and the collision never would have occurred.

Ideally, all bicyclists would use a white front headlight and a white front reflector together with a red taillight and red rear reflector. The color of light gives other road users an indication of your direction, and they will gauge their actions accordingly, so don’t use red in front or white in back.

You can never have too many lights or reflectors, nor can you be too conspicuous. The best way to avoid a collision is to be seen. At night nothing accomplishes that goal better than proper lights and reflectors.

Jim Freeman is a lawyer and bicycle commuter in Chicago who advocates on behalf of bicyclists and pedestrians. Jim believes the bicycle is a solution to many of the transportation and health problems facing urban America today.

3 Comments

  • Bruce A. Wilson

    I prefer a generator light to a battery-powered one; batteries will always fail at the Most Inconvenient Moment.

  • ch1

    I found that riding on the bike trail at night that some cyclists have lights that are way too bright. It blinds me from seeing where the trial is. Some folks have a flashing bright light on top of one that is on steady. This may also blind motorists and other road users. You can be too conspicuous. Please do not overdo it.

    The reason why people in Europe don’t dress up like traffic cones is because they have a safe and healthy traffic environment to ride in.

  • Mark Brewster

    I concur — I hardly EVER ride after dark (except for the Dec/Jan time period, no way to avoid), and if the weather is the LEAST bit questionable, my red rear blinkie is flashing madly. (I like the ‘frenetic flash’ mode). Also, contrary to what many people may think is proper, I will not ride certain roads, as the drivers in my town are NOT bike-friendly. With the number of people who think texting while driving is acceptable, I stand too good a chance of becoming a new hood ornament!

    I look at bike-specific headlights, and I am mostly apalled — $20 buys you a cheap POS light that BARELY works, and a GOOD light costs at least $150! This, however, sparks my creativity…….

    I made a ‘channeled’ base for a small flashlight out of an old stem, and mounted it on my bar. The flashlight sits in the channel, strapped down with a small bungee (one-piece, not hooked). My current flashlight is rated at 144 lumens (QUITE bright!), and cost me $24. The crappy headlight that came with my good taillight has flash modes, as well, which help catch attention, so I grooved the underside of the old stem, as well. TWO lights up front, one flashes, one TORCHES!

    If you are not seen, you are roadkill.

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