Getting Along: Lights

If you haven’t noticed yet, you will soon: The days are getting shorter, and it’s easier every day to find yourself caught without a light while you’re out riding.

Testing lights at sunset on the MoPac last week.
Testing lights at sunset on the MoPac last week.

Pull ’em out, charge ’em up, use ’em – it’s the law! From the Lincoln Municipal Code:


(b) Light, Front. Every bicycle operated on the streets of Lincoln, paved walkways through city parks or on Lincoln’s designated pedestrian-bicycle trails between one-half hour after sunset and one-half hour before sunrise shall be equipped with a white light that is visible from a distance of at least 500 feet from the front on a clear night. The light shall be directly attached to the bicycle or worn by the bicycle’s operator.

(c) Light, Rear. Every bicycle operated on the streets of Lincoln between one-half hour after sunset and one-half hour before sunrise shall be equipped with a red light that is visible for a distance of at least 500 feet from the rear on a clear night. The light may be directly attached to the bicycle or worn by the bicycle’s operator.

In English, that means that, in Lincoln, you’re required to have both front and rear lights – a reflector won’t cut it. You’ll need to use them in the dusk / dark. And you’ll want them to be bright. Five hundred feet is 1/10 of a mile, or about 1.5 blocks. That’s the minimum. If you’re shopping, go to a bike shop and ask a salesperson to help you find lights rated for at least that distance. Also note that red goes on the rear, and white on the front, just like on a vehicle. Switching them is jarring and unnerving for everyone around you – don’t do it!

Types of Lights

I’m going to keep it simple, and I’m not going to endorse any particular lights here. I do think it’s important to distinguish between what I’ll call “see” and “be-seen” lights – the latter for complying with the law, and the former for actually seeing things in the dark while you ride. Taillights will all, by their nature, be “be-seen” lights, although some models are vastly brighter than others. Buy as bright as you can afford, but also keep in mind that you’ll want a brighter light for, say, riding on a highway than cruising the local multi-use trails. Headlights can vary in brightness from about 15 to 1500+ lumens, with lights under about 200 lumens falling in the “be-seen” category and anything above it being “see.” Again, you’ll want more light for being out on the road and being noticeable to vehicles, and need less for being on city trails with other people walking and biking close by. Look for lights with different settings; most have several levels of brightness and one or more flashing modes.

As for power: Suffice it to say that the majority of lights you find for sale will either use batteries (AA, AAA, etc.) or be USB-rechargeable, and the battery lights are on the cheaper end of the spectrum. Battery lights have a few advantages:

  • They’re cheap.
  • They’re less of a theft magnet than the more expensive lights, so you’re more likely to just leave them on the bike.
  • If they’re dead, a new set of batteries will take them from 0% to 100% charged immediately. It’s possible to buy batteries in gas stations, unless you’re heading to really remote areas.

But, of course, there are some disadvantages:

  • They’re not as bright as USB-rechargeable lights.
  • You’ll need to carry batteries, and you’ll be disposing of used ones, unless you buy and use rechargeable batteries.
  • It’s hard to know when they’ll go out; they don’t have charge indicator lights.
  • If you accidentally leave them on and drain the batteries, the batteries are trash. (Unless they’re rechargeable!)

So, if you want a light that is brighter – better for actually seeing with – you’ll likely end up with a USB-rechargeable light. The pros:

  • They’re brighter.
  • They tend to be higher-quality, better-built lights.
  • Many are waterproof.
  • You won’t be trashing batteries.

But, the cons:

  • You’ll tend to pay more for USB-rechargeable lights.
  • You’ll probably be afraid to leave them on your bike, because people think it’s fun to take them. (People suck sometimes.)
  • They do take some time to charge.

Also think about where and how you’d like to mount the light – on the handlebars? On a bag? On the fork? On a helmet? You can put it anywhere on your bike or on your person, as long as it’s visible, and some lights are designed to be used in particular ways. If you always have one bag that you use for riding, maybe you want your rear light on it. If you want light to always be where you’re looking, a front helmet light is good for that. Make sure any light you buy has the right type of mounts for the way you want to use it.

Again, it’s wise to talk to a salesperson at your favorite local bike shop about the kind of riding you do, and what types of riding you need the light for. If you don’t want to spend a lot, let them help you get the most for what you’re willing to pay.

When, and Why, to Use Lights

The law says you need lights in the dark, and the reasoning there is obvious. But it’s smart to use them during the day, too, for the same reason that vehicles have daytime running lights, and motorists are encouraged to use headlights during the day – you’re more visible, all the time. When you’re riding defensively and interacting with motorists, they’ll see you much sooner if you’re using lights. Even some of the big bike companies are now marketing lights as “daytime running lights,” because their research has established that daytime lights help reduce collisions. You don’t have to use lights during the day, but it’s a safety tactic to consider, particularly if you are riding on roads.

A Note on Light Etiquette

Bright lights are great – but keep that firepower under control! If you’re riding on city trails, use the lowest setting you can get away with, and point the light down and/or slightly off to the side, so it’s not hitting people in the face. Save the brights for when you’re out on gravel roads at night, mountain-biking, or biking in wooded/remote areas – places where you aren’t likely to be aiming them at other people’s faces.


2 thoughts on “Getting Along: Lights

  1. MG

    Great article, Sarah… I particularly appreciate the part about keeping all that firepower under control when approaching other cyclists or pedestrians.

    Incidentally, I spoke with a fellow cyclist the other day that was running a red light up front, and he claimed he was doing it because the red light didn’t disrupt his night vision. An interesting take on a departure from the norm…

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