By Dom Nozzi
August 8, 2017
In an earlier blog, I had written about why laws requiring bicyclists to use lights at night are problematic. The following essay are further thoughts I have on the topic.
To begin with, I strongly agree that bike lights are a very important way to be safe when riding a bicycle at night. I use a light nearly every time I ride at night.
This is not a question of whether bicycle lights dramatically improve safety for cyclists at night. Clearly they do. The question is whether a law requiring cyclists to use a light at night is a good idea.
A question was asked on the Boulder CO “Thursday Cruiser Bike Ride” (a mass weekly bike ride which seeks to maximize the number of cyclists riding on Thursday after work) as to why some cyclists don’t use a light on these nighttime rides. I believe responsible cyclists will, when necessary, use lights, wear a helmet, and stop at intersections. I understand the safety importance. I also believe in each of those three cases, a law does almost nothing to increase the use of lights, use of a helmet, or stopping at an intersection (largely because all three can be done safely in many cycling situations, or for reasons I note below). We already have laws for certain things that distinguish between actions that are so dangerous (to oneself and others) that a law requires it, and situations that are considered relatively safe and the law therefore makes an exception (a boating life preserver, for example).
On the other hand, our society makes it very difficult, impossible, inconvenient, illegal, and dangerous in countless ways to ride a bike. There are so many of these discouragement factors that I’m shocked that ANYONE bicycles regularly. For the vast majority of people in the US, the very rare cyclist seen on American roads strikes nearly all Americans as a person who is completely out of his or her mind.
I don’t at all agree, as some claim, that lights can be attached to a bicycle and forgotten about. In America, here are very frequent worries:
- Bike batteries notoriously run low on electricity.
- Bike lights are very quickly and easily (and therefore often) stolen – particularly if they are high enough in quality to be reliable. Bike lights need to be easy enough to put on and take off a bike so that they are reasonably convenient. They are therefore inherently prone to theft. For this reason, at least in America, it is a bad idea to leave lights attached to a bike.
- Bike lights are very notorious for breaking down to the point where they don’t work. Often due to cheap construction, collisions with walls, racks, legs, rust or corrosion in rain, etc.
- It is easy to forget to bring along a light to attach to your bike (many don’t keep a light attached due to reasonable fear of theft or rain). Given how often a cyclist must attach a light to their bike for each night ride, I wonder how “convenient” a motorist would find it if they had to attach a portable front a rear light to their car each time they drove at night? And each time they went into and out of a store or restaurant each night?
- It is common for a cyclist to start a ride in daylight hours and not anticipate being out late enough to need to ride later in the dark. This is never a problem a motorist has to worry about.
Each of these circumstances happen quite frequently for a cyclist, and almost never, if ever, for a motorist.
So a bike light law regularly exposes a cyclist to a stiff fine, inconvenience, financial costs, and the burden of dealing with purchase and maintenance of the light.
Again, there are already a huge number of ways in which our society strongly discourages cycling.
Given the fact that responsible cyclists already ride safely and irresponsible cyclists are unlikely to be influenced by a law, why add another reason to discourage cycling?