A Guide to Lights on Your Bike - How to See and Be Seen

Statistically speaking, between 40-60 percent of injuries and fatalities from bicycle/vehicle collisions occur during the hours of darkness.

This is due to two factors. First, during the evening and overnight hours, a significantly greater portion of both cyclists and drivers are intoxicated than you'd find during the day. The second factor (and the one that we're going to address with this article) is the difficulty that motorists have in seeing cyclists.

I suppose you could promise yourself that you'll only ride during daylight hours. But the fact is, for many bike commuters, riding in darkness is a fact of life, particularly during the winter when the daylight hours are so much shorter. Plus, you'd also miss out on a lot of fun riding opportunities, including a number of crazy and fun bike events. So, we're going to look at how you can light yourself up effectively -- in a way that is both effective in terms of increasing your visibility to motorists and at the same time going fairly easy on your pocketbook.

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Front Light on Your Handlebar

NiteRider UltraFazer 5.0
NiteRider UltraFazer 5.0. (c) NiteRider Technical Lighting Systems

A basic item that you really need to have if you are riding in darkness. is a handlebar-mounted headlight. In most cases, these are intended simply to make you more visible to others, as opposed to illuminating your path. Having a strobe option (like many lights do) is always a nice idea since I'm convinced that a flashing light is more noticeable to drivers than a solid beam. Plus it's easier on batteries and doesn't get lost in the glare of other headlights. Additionally, for simplicity in your life, consider getting a headlight paired with a dynamo that provides it with juice. With one of those, you never have to worry about batteries since the light is powered solely by your bike's motion.

Things to consider in assessing headlights:

  • What type of battery does it use?
  • Are the batteries rechargeable?
  • How many hours of run time does the light have before draining the batteries?

Halogen and LED bulbs are both good choices for delivering strong, bright light. Expect to pay $25 and up for lights that allow you to be seen by drivers; more ($100+) for stronger lights to help you see, i.e., strong illumination for your path as you go down the road. The NiteRider MiNewt Pro 750 is a good example of this type of light.

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Front Light on Your Helmet

Energizer Trailfinder LED headlamp headlight
David Fiedler

For additional visibility, a real plus is to wear a helmet-mounted light. These are good since on your head they sit up higher, lifted up above much of the automobile traffic, making it less likely to get lost in the stream of car headlights. Plus, since a helmet-mounted light points in the direction that you look, it's effective at grabbing drivers' attention with the bright beam pointing directly at them as you approach.

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Rear Light on Your Bike

Blackburn Mars 3.0 tail light
Blackburn Mars 3.0 tail light. (c) Blackburn

By law, riding after dark not only do you need a white light on the front, but you also need a rear red light on your bike as well. Though most lights have a solid red setting, I prefer a blinking red light as a more an effective way to make yourself visible as people approach from behind. Depending on how your bike is set up, you can mount the red light on a fender, on your seat post or on your rack or trunk bag. Most tail lights run on either one or two AA batteries, and last for several hundred hours.

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Rear Light on Your Helmet

helmet with red rear blinkie light
Flickr/G.R.R. used under Creative Commons license

Like a front white light mounted on your helmet, attaching a red blinking light to the back is another good idea. It's an easy way to keep you safer, and the lights generally clip on to the helmet pretty easily. The light is lifted up higher, again making you more visible to motorists. If you can't find a way to clip the light on your helmet, attaching it to the collar of your jacket or on a backpack or messenger bag will achieve the same result.

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Reflective Vest or Jacket

Rear View of L. L. Bean Ridge Runner Vest
Rear View of L. L. Bean Ridge Runner Vest. (c) David Fiedler, licensed to About.com

As a bonus tip, beyond just lights, if you really want to be seen, you want to get yourself the brightest colored reflective vest or jacket you can find. Though it may feel just a touch dorky the first time you wear it, your goal is to be as visible to motorists as possible. A bonus is that when you're not riding, you can also wear these vests to direct traffic, go deer hunting or just pick up trash alongside the road.

When you combine that with a reflective strap worn around your ankle or calf, you're really jamming. The strap is designed to pick up lights from headlights, and the fact that it's moving up and down when you pedal makes it that much more visible to others.