Everything You Need to Know About Bike Lights

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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Everything You Need to Know About Bike Lights

When it comes to biking in the dark, bike lights come in handy. In fact, they’re the law in many states, however, it’s not as simple as you might think.

THE LAW

While exact requirements can vary according to your state of residence, most states have laws that require bike lights between sunset and sunrise or during limited-visibility conditions. In addition to these laws, all new bikes must be equipped with a white reflector on the front of the bike and a red reflector on the rear. These can be removed by the owner without penalty, though you will need to use some form of a lighting device when operating your bike at night.

Though there is no federal code requiring lights, most state laws for bicycle lights are similar to this example taken from the Oregon Vehicle Code (ORS 815.280):

At the times described in the following, a bicycle or its rider must be equipped with lighting equipment that meets the described requirements:

  1. The lightning equipment must be used during limited visibility conditions.
  2. The lighting equipment must show a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front of the bicycle.
  3. The lighting equipment must have a red reflector or lighting device or material of such size or characteristic and so mounted as to be visible from all distances up to 600 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of headlights on a motor vehicle.

THE RIGHT MODE

On almost any decent bike light you purchase, you’ll have a variety of modes to choose from. Which mode is ideal for you depends on the weather conditions, time of day and length of your ride.

Here’s a quick guideline for when to use each setting:

FLASH OR BURST MODE

The flash or burst mode can help you to be seen on urban roads when you’ll need to grab the attention of other motorists. These modes can be more dangerous at night because they won’t allow you to see the road and can make it more difficult for other motorists to judge your speed and distance. Keep in mind that the flash and burst mode preserves the life of your battery, so it can be an option when your battery power is limited on lengthy early morning or evening training rides.

CONSTANT BEAM, HIGH POWER

This setting drains your battery the quickest (usually in an hour or two), but is also the safest when riding at night. A beam light helps you see the road when street lights are limited and is always a good option when you’re away from the city. If you are riding in an urban area at night, pairing a high beam light with a cheaper flashing light is the way to go for both the front and rear of your bike when possible. This help you see the road and grab the attention of other motorists.

CONSTANT BEAM, MEDIUM/LOW POWER

During early morning and evening hours when sunlight might be limited or during medium- to long-training rides when battery life could be an issue, using the constant beam in a lower power setting might be the best option. Using a lower power setting can, in some cases, double your run time while still providing a constant stream of light for other motorists to judge your speed and distance. The medium or low setting also provides some additional light on the road surface — which is helpful for locating potholes and other hazards that may be difficult to pick up with the flash mode.

THE RIGHT LIGHT

To see the road and to be seen by other vehicles, you’ll need to purchase a good front and rear bike lights. In general, there are three different types of bike lights:

HIGH-OUTPUT LIGHTS

These lights offer a high number of lumens for maximum illumination on the road so you can see where you’re going. They are higher priced and often have a high-powered beam for riding on roads without street lights.

FRONT AND REAR SAFETY LIGHTS

The primary purpose of safety lights is to help motorists see you. Many options feature very bright LED lights suitable for daytime and nighttime use. Various mounting options and the type of battery used (rechargeable or disposable) affect the price point. Since these lights aren’t meant to help you see where you’re going, they are generally less powerful and cost less than high-output lights.

OFF-ROAD LIGHTS

Often available as a helmet or front handlebar mount, off-road lights are some of the most expensive lights on the market because they are brighter and transmit a wider beam of light than road models to help you see the trail in complete darkness. Because of the power required to operate these lights, run time is often limited.


READ MORE > THE RULES OF THE ROAD THAT CYCLISTS NEED TO KNOW


GARMIN VARIA UT800 SMART HEADLIGHT
$149

When paired with a Garmin Edge head unit, this high-output light automatically adjusts its brightness to save battery power by only projecting the brightest beam when you’re riding at high speeds and light is limited. The 800-lumen headlight lasts 1 1/2 hours on the high setting and up to 25 hours on the daytime flash mode.

LEZYNE ZECTO COMBO
$67

With 180 degrees of visibility, these safety lights ensure you’re seen on all sides. There are seven different flash modes that last for 3–15 hours depending on the setting used. The mount allows for a variety of attachment options and the battery can be recharged with a USB cable.

LIGHT & MOTION SECA 2500 RACE
$429

Claimed to provide more light than most car beams, the Seca Race generates 2,500 lumens of LEDs positioned at both upward and downward positions for an extremely wide field of vision that’s ideal for off-roading. A three-cell battery provides 1 1/2 hours of light on high.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.  

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