State law requires that cyclists riding at night have front lamps that emit white light visible at least 500 feet away, and red reflectors in back. Red taillights are optional.
Over the next week, daylight in Seattle will decrease by almost 25 minutes. On Halloween, the sun will start setting before 6 p.m. And around this time next month, after daylight saving time ends, the sun will be out only 9.5 hours a day.
For people who commute by bike, that shift in the sun’s schedule can mean a heightened risk of danger. Drivers packing streets during the evening commute have a harder time seeing. Proper bicycle lighting and reflectors are a must.
As daylight gets shorter, Seattle bicyclists are swapping nighttime riding experiences via online comment threads, and going over what bicycle equipment is required and prohibited by law. Seattle police say having proper lighting and reflectors on a bicycle is one of the simplest ways to avoid an accident.
“With no lights, you don’t see them until the very last moment,” said Ryan Young, of the Seattle-based nonprofit Cascade Bicycle Club. “And if someone’s light is blinding you, you can’t see anything.”
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Here is the deal:
State law requires that cyclists riding at night have front lamps that emit white light visible at least 500 feet away — including those that pulse without going all the way off — and red reflectors in back. Red taillights are optional. Those can blink, pulse or be constant.
And those brightly flashing strobe headlights? They are illegal.
For oncoming cyclists and drivers, a throbbing light can be distracting, make it hard to judge distance or speed, and trigger neurological conditions that cause migraines or seizures.
“When there’s a weird blinky light, I have to watch it for a few seconds to figure out whether it’s a bike and where it’s going,” one Reddit user said. “They steal so much of my attention that I worry that it could cause crashes.”
Seattle Municipal Court records show officers issued three tickets over bicycle lamps and reflectors so far this year, half of last year’s total. On average, police in recent years have issued about nine citations annually.
Seattle police spokesman Patrick Michaud said in an email the “key reason for this law is rider safety,” and instead of write citations, police prefer to teach violators about the importance of using proper equipment. They do give out a ticket if a cyclist’s lack of lights or reflectors led to a crash, he said.
Seattle and other cities are raising awareness around roadway visibility as part a nationwide safety campaign called Vision Zero that aims to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries.
Last October, New York City officials launched a special effort to boost safety after dark. Data showed a link between the season’s earlier nightfall and an increase in serious or deadly pedestrian-related crashes, The New York Times reported.
According to Seattle’s 2016 Traffic Report, the most recent available, 186 pedestrians and 141 cyclists were hit by cars or bikes between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. in 2015. Three people died.
Young, Cascade’s youth programs coordinator, said he regularly hears concerns from riders about lighting and visibility, especially when it comes to using paths without good street lighting in the fall and winter.
Cyclists should angle their headlights down, slightly below bike-level, to avoid blinding others.
Mike Kelly, 48, of Loyal Heights, said he occasionally comes across cyclists with lights positioned too high while biking to and from work in Interbay. “It’ll make you blind, literally.”
Kelly uses a USB rechargeable light on his handlebars.
Bicycle headlights range in price — heavy-duty ones can cost hundreds of dollars — and vary in brightness and design.
Young said before making a buying decision, consider this: “Am I using the lights to see? Or, do I actually need to be seen by the power of these lights?”
Beyond lighting, you can improve your chances of being seen by cars and other cyclists by wearing a bright outfit and using reflectors as ankle straps or on wheels, he said. And always ride defensively and predictably to help others anticipate your path.
John Gray, 83, of White Center, said bike lights have improved vastly since he rode around the Seattle area in the 1980s with basic flashlights or small red blinkers. He quit bicycling about two years ago, and as a driver keeps an eye out for cyclists.
“You can’t have too much light,” he said.
Got a question?
Last week, we explored the possibility of a passenger-only fast ferry between Tacoma and Seattle to give drivers an escape from I-5 traffic. The week before, we explained Seattle’s speed limits after a few people contacted us confused.