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The bottom line: what to do

What equipment should you use at night? And how do you make sure it is working well?

Always use a headlight

Even when riding under streetlights, you need a headlight to alert people to your approach. Even a small battery headlight can be powerful enough to serve this purpose. If you ride on unlighted roads or off-road, you'll know you need a brighter headlight if you can't see well to find your way.

If a headlight is just to be seen by, aim it level and mount it high, so it appears as bright as possible to people ahead of you. A headlight to light your way is best mounted low, so it casts a longer beam and reveals surface irregularities better.

Always use a bright rear reflector

A 3-inch, round, amber reflector appears brighter than most taillights you could buy, under most conditions. Auto parts stores also sell reflectors shaped like rectangles with rounded ends. These reflectors have as much reflective area as the 3-inch circular reflector but are narrower, and so may be easier to fit onto your bicycle.

A taillight is highly recommended

As shown on previous pages, a rear reflector may sometimes perform poorly. A taillight is not subject to all of the same limitations as a reflector, and so it may sometimes be visible when a reflector is not. A red taillight meets the legal requirement for red at the rear if you are using an amber reflector. Several states require a taillight by law.

Obey the spirit of the lighting equipment law

Laws in your state may require additional equipment. As discussed on earlier pages, some of the equipment required by law is of little advantage, is not compatible with all bicycles or is downright hazardous. Still, in case you might have to make an insurance claim, it is advisable to have equipment which at least performs the function of the required equipment -- for example, ankle bands to substitute for pedal reflectors. I don't recommend that you follow the letter of the law requiring hazardous items such as wheel reflectors.

Additional equipment at your discretion

Depending on where you ride and how much night riding you do, you may decide to use additional equipment. Pedal reflectors or ankle bands are most useful in urban riding, but less so on rural roads where drivers are going too fast to see them for very long. On rural roads, a brighter taillight or second taillight may be advisable. Reflective tape on your helmet is too high to show up very well under low-beam headlights, but it is first to be seen over a hilltop -- and other equipment may have special advantages too. Excess visibility can't hurt. It's up to you.

Test your nighttime equipment

You can't tell how you look to other people when you are on your bicycle, so have someone else ride your bicycle at night while you observe it from a car and while standing at the side of the road. Adjust or replace equipment as needed until you are satisfied that you are easily visible.

Next: more about laws, regulations and standards.


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Contents 2001, John S. Allen
Last revised April 27, 2002