California vehicle code mandates that any bike operated in darkness is required to have a front headlight that emits a white beam visible from 300 feet and a red rear reflector that’s visible from 500 feet when illuminated by motor vehicle high beams. The law also mandates reflectors on both pedals or the rider’s ankles, and side reflectors or tires with reflective sidewalls. The headlight can be attached to either the bicycle or the rider. Check the vehicle code for the jurisdiction in which you ride to be sure you’re meeting at least the minimum requirements.
A normal part of year-round commuting is riding in the dark. Beginners tend to be nervous about night riding, but with a little preparation, many people quickly grow to enjoy the experience. Roads tend to be less trafficked after dark, off street paths are often deserted, and, assuming you have a good lighting system, motorists give you a much wider berth than they do during daylight hours.
We’re currently in the golden age of bicycle lights, due mostly to the incredible efficiency of LED emitters (aka bulbs). In recent years, bike lights have become brighter, lighter, and cheaper, while offering longer run-times and a wider variety of mounting options. There’s a wide selection of bike lights on the market and new models are coming out all the time, so instead of getting into specific models (which would date this article), I’m going to touch on a couple of basic approaches and point you to your local bike shop to discuss current offerings.
Simple, Effective, and Inexpensive
The simplest and least expensive lighting set-up is a white LED headlight on the front, and a red blinking LED on the back. Small, but surprisingly powerful, AA- and AAA-powered lights are available for under $50 each. Mount the headlight on your handlebar, and either mount the red blinkie on your seat post or rack, or clip it on your back, and you’re good to go. I highly recommend rechargeable batteries and a battery charger as part of the system.
Dedicated and Convenient
For those who ride in the dark regularly, a dynamo lighting system provides battery-free lighting that’s always available at the flip of a switch. Power is provided by either a bottle or hub dynamo. Bottle dynamos mount on the bicycle frame and have a small roller that rotates against the tire to generate current. Hub dynamos (aka generator hubs) have the generator built right into the hub. In recent years, hub dynamos have far surpassed bottle dynamos in efficiency and popularity. Dynamo lighting systems are more expensive than small battery-powered systems, and unless they come pre-installed from the factory on a commuting bike, they also require a more involved installation process. If you’re interested in a dynamo system, contact your local bike shop or one of the dealers on the internet who specialize in dynamo systems.
The Sky’s the Limit
I’ve just barely scratched the surface on bike lighting possibilities. From fully-integrated systems wired right into the bike frame, to high-powered flood lights designed for 24-hour mountain bike racing, there’s practically no limit to how deeply you can get into lighting. The good news is that a basic set-up to get you back-and-forth to work safely can be picked up at any well-stocked bike shop and installed in just a few minutes.