Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bike Lights

07 Dec

Decisions, decisions. It’s time to decorate our Christmas tree, starting with the lights. But which color? Red like last year? Traditional clear? Or Mardi Gras colors to honor my Louisiana heritage: purple, green and gold?

At least there’s one decision we won’t have to make–whether the lights should blink or not. Dick and I both prefer steady Christmas lights over blinking, which is why I don’t miss that crazy set we once had with three different blinking patterns. Every year we’d run through all the different modes and then settle on steady.


With bike lights, though, Dick and I don’t agree. I’m all for keeping it steady, while Dick likes to flash. You could also say that I’m Paris while he’s London. Paris’ Velib bikes and the London’s Barclays bikes are both equipped with always-on front and rear lights. A great little feature not only for nighttime riding, but also for improving daytime visibility. And you don’t have to remember to turn them on, or remove them when you lock up the bike since they’re permanently attached and can’t be stolen. I wish my bikes were so well equipped.

But the difference is that the Velib lights burn steady while the Barclays flash, which to me reflects the two cities’ attitude toward urban cycling. Steady bright lights say to me: “I have lights like cars and motorcycles. I’m just another vehicle on the road.” In contrast, flashing lights shout out a strong warning message: “Be careful. Watch out. Don’t hit me.” The presumption is that drivers can’t be expected to see you.


Philosophical arguments aside, here’s my case for steady vs. flashing:

  • With today’s bright lights, flashing ones can be very annoying to drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists. I refuse to ride behind Dick when he has his rear light flashing.
  • A steady front light will help you see the road ahead better so you can avoid potholes and other obstacles.
  • Steady lights help other road users gauge your distance from them better than flashing lights.

That said, there are times when I will set my lights to flashing:

  • At dusk, when there’s little contrast between the bike lights and the ambient light, I’ll set both front and rear lights to flashing.
  • After dark, when the route takes me through an area with a lot of lighting distractions, I’ll set the front to steady and have two red lights in the rear: one steady and one flashing.
  • Ditto for when it’s raining at night, for the same reason.

Finally, be aware that technically speaking, the California vehicle code only allows flashing lights to be used on emergency vehicles, a rarely enforced law that at least one cop with an attitude has used to harass cyclists with before. I wonder what that cop would have said if he had seen me with my Down Low Glow lights.

So, do you like to flash or keep your lights steady? Do you use the same mode for both front and rear, and for all occasions?



Posted by on December 7, 2011 in Gear Talk


8 responses to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bike Lights

  1. Lorri Lee Lown

    December 8, 2011 at 11:25 am

    During dusky hours I run a flashing white in front and a flashing red in back. These are my “be seen” lights. Once it’s dark, I had my powerful non-flashing white in front. This is my “see” light.

    I like your distinction between flashing and solid lights, Janet.

  2. Dan Connelly

    December 8, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    Often when I’m riding with my rear flashy, car drivers pull over to the shoulder in a panic, confusing me with an emergency vehicle. I know it’s wrong; really I do! But I just can’t help myself.

  3. Brian

    December 8, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    Flashing rear red lights for a slow-moving or stopped vehicle is fairly conventional. For instance, I always turn on my flashers in my car if I slow to less than 30 on the freeway and think that traffic behind me might not notice otherwise. I always set my rear light on my bike to blink.

    California law requires a steady white front light on bicycles ridden at night. I always have my light on steady (unless the battery is going to die and I need the extra juice saved from flashing). A flashing white light is traditionally for emergency vehicles. So, yes, it does get drivers’ attention.

    California law also requires a rear reflector and pedal, tire or wheel reflectors and you’d probably get away with reflective ankle bands.

    This is not just an issue about getting stopped by police. If you are in an accident and your lights or reflectors were not legal, that counts against you.

  4. ladyfleur

    December 8, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    @brian @dan You scofflaws with your flashing red lights! I sure hope you have reflectors on those tires/wheels and pedals!

  5. Dan Connelly

    December 9, 2011 at 4:34 am

    Actually, I don’t believe he’s correct about the flashing lights being disallowed.

    From definitions:
    670. A “vehicle” is a device by which any person or property may be propelled, moved, or drawn upon a highway, excepting a device moved exclusively by human power or used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks.

    So bicycles are not vehicles. But there’s 21200, which says:
    21200. (a) ( )1 A person riding a bicycle or operating a pedicab upon a highway has all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this division, including, but not limited to….

    So a bicyclist needs to stop at stop signs, etc, as would a person operating a vehicle.

    So the flashing light restriction is 25251:
    Permitted Flashing Lights

    25251. (a) Flashing lights are permitted on vehicles as follows:….

    This is not a restriction on the “driver of a vehicle”, but on the “vehicle”. 21200 doesn’t say “bicycles are subject to all the provisions applicable to a vehicle…”, it says “a person riding a bicycle is subject to all the provisions of a driver of a vehicle…” Since bicycles aren’t vehicles, it seems fairly clear to me flashing lights are allowed on them.

    Consider the stop sign law, 21800:

    21800. (a) The driver of a vehicle approaching an intersection
    shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle which has entered the
    intersection from a different highway….

    This is a restriction on the driver, not the vehicle, and therefore applies to cyclists.

  6. ladyfleur

    December 9, 2011 at 10:04 am

    @dan I can always count on you to find the traffic code loophole! You’re spot on with the lights on vehicle vs. person issue. I think the LA cops position in the linked story was that the lights were on the bike not the rider. That’s how it was in the UK until 2005 when they legalized blinking lights on bikes. Before that, riders used the loophole of attaching the lights to themselves.

    • Dan Connelly

      December 11, 2011 at 6:14 am

      The ones playing the loophole game are the cops, not us. There’s obviously no risk of a rear flashie being confused with a police flasher. Honestly they just make stuff up on the fly because it’s easier than enforcing actual code: they prefer to believe they have the right to issue tickets at will to whomever they wish at any time for whatever reason. So I always check the law myself before I believe anything a cop says, and they’re virtually never accurate.

  7. Brian

    December 10, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I am pretty good about reflective ankle bands, even though my pedals and wheels are not up to code. I’ll put reflective tires on my District when the current ones wear out. I think ankle bands (or pedal reflectors) are the clearest signal to drivers that you are on a bicycle because the motion is unmistakable. A red light or reflector, blinking or not, could be anything—car, traffic signal, etc.—and it’s hard to tell if a small red patch is moving or not.


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