Urban Velo

Cycling Legalese: Reflectors, Lights and Liability

bkevinidesCycling Legalese is our online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides.

Reflector and light laws vary from district to district, but what are the legal ramifications of flaunting them and riding without the legally required lights or reflectors? Find out.

Q:It’s my understanding that reflectors on the wheels and pedals are mandated by law, yet many cyclists remove these items upon purchase or use equipment largely incompatible with reflectors, like clipless pedals. If the cyclist is struck by a motor vehicle, particularly at night, could the driver face less liability if the bicyclist did not have reflectors to the letter of the law?

The law regarding lights and reflectors varies significantly from state to state. Failure to have the necessary lights and reflectors on your bike during a crash may negatively impact a personal injury claim, but will not necessarily bar legal recourse.

To emphasize what I hope is plain good sense, put at least a light on the front of your bike and a red reflector on the rear. Turn the light on at night and in crappy weather. In Illinois, the law requires that bicycles ridden at night “be equipped with a lamp on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet.” A red reflector that is visible from at least 100 feet is also required. A red light may be used in addition to, but not instead of, the rear reflector. Oregon has similar requirements but its vehicle code requires that lights and reflectors be used during all limited visibility conditions, not just at night. The California vehicle code requires more illumination. That state mandates that a bicycle have a white lamp that both illuminates the road to the front and is visible from at least 300 feet in front and from the sides of the bike. The California cyclist must also have a red rear reflector, a white and yellow reflector “on each pedal, shoe or ankle,” and side facing reflectors or tires with reflective properties.
The consequences for not having the required items at the time of a crash will depend on the specific circumstances. The key to determining whether your lack of a light and reflector will bar legal recourse is whether your absence of illumination was the cause of the crash. In many instances lack of lighting will indeed cause or at least contribute to cause a crash. For example, front lighting will undoubtedly reduce a bicyclist’s chances of getting doored while riding at night. A driver exiting her vehicle will be much better able to see a cyclist in her side view mirror if the bike is properly illuminated.

However, lack of bicycle illumination will not always bar an injured bicyclist from recovering against a negligent driver for their injuries. To recover compensation in a personal injury case the injured person, aka, “the plaintiff”, must prove that the defendant (1) owed them a duty of care, (2) breached that duty and as a result (2) caused (4) an injury. For example, all drivers owe a duty to all other roadway users to stop at stop signs. If a driver blows a stop sign and crashes into another driver causing injury then the offending motorist will be found guilty of negligence and ordered to compensate the other driver for their injuries. But, in most states, a jury asked to decide a personal injury case may consider the plaintiff’s conduct as well. Sure, the defendant may have been negligent but the plaintiff may have been as well. The world is messy and complex that way. It is not always the case that person A was wrong and person B was right. Person A and person B may have both been wrong but one was more wrong than the other. In considering a plaintiff’s “contributory negligence” a jury must, as with the defendant, determine whether he or she violated a duty imposed by law and whether that breach caused, or at least contributed to cause, his or her own injuries. In the simple hypothetical scenario presented above, the injured driver also had a duty to stop at all stop signs. If both drivers blew their respective signs the injured party may have his or her monetary compensation reduced or barred altogether if he or she contributed to cause the injury inducing crash. Jurors are generally the ones charged with determining percentages of fault.

Back to the issue of bicycle lighting. It is important to emphasize that a defendant, to establish the plaintiff bicyclist’s contributory negligence, must prove two things: First, that he or she violated a duty either imposed by statute, e.g. the stop sign law, or by the general requirement imposed by “common law” (judge made case law) that all people act as a reasonably prudent person would under similar circumstances. Secondly, that the failure to do so was approximate cause of his or her injuries. A bicyclist riding through the streets of Chicago without a white front headlight and red rear reflector has violated a duty imposed by state statute. However, whether that failure is a cause of a particular crash and resulting injuries will very much depend on the circumstances. I have faced this issue several times in my bicycle law practice. In my experience, whether the plaintiff bicyclist’s lack of illumination proximately caused a nighttime collision with a motor vehicle becomes controversial when the driver hits the cyclist from the side in a well lit area. I have successfully argued a number of times that in that circumstance the cyclist’s violation of the light/reflector law had nothing to do with the crash. If the bicyclist was hit from the side, then a front facing light and rear reflector would not have helped the driver see him or her from the side much better. Also, if the location of the crash was very well lit, then even lacking the required equipment the driver still should have seen the bicyclist. Lack of bikes lights did not cause the crash.

Riding a bike at night without lights is dumb 100% of the time. However, the legal effect of not doing so will very much depend.

Nothing contained in this column should be construed as legal advice. The information contained herein may or may not match your individual situation. Also, laws differ from place to place and tend to change over time. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information presented herein without seeking the advice of an attorney in the relevant jurisdiction. This column is meant to promote awareness of a general legal issue. As such, it is meant as entertainment. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.

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  1. kristinOctober 8, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    I’ve never understood why a rear light can’t replace a rear reflector. Wouldn’t it be more visible? Is it because of the variables like batteries and brightness, or just because?

  2. NickApril 16, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Kristin, both lights and reflectors have their own ranges of effectiveness. Lights are much more effective close up, or within certain angles. Reflectors can be visible from a much wider observation angle. However, this can be limited based on angle of incidence and intensity of headlights.

    That said, I am willing to bet the law is written that way because reflectors have been available much longer than efficient bike lighting.

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