With the days getting shorter there is less time for cycling outside when it is not dark. But the definition of “darkness” includes more than the nighttime hours—-it is when visibility is limited. That means if there is fog, overcast skies, or heavy rain it is considered darkness under the law. So even if your commute is only between sunrise and sunset, you should seriously have a lighting system on your bicycle.
We call it a system because it can consist of both passive and active items. A passive item, which means it does not require you to do anything to make it work, are reflectors. Federal regulation requires every new bike intended for use on the road to come with reflectors. You can legally remove the reflectors, but it is not legal to ride your bike during periods of darkness without them. The law in Illinois requires a bicyclist to have a red reflector visible from 100-600 feet by a car with its headlight on. Most cyclists would agree that a reflector by itself is not sufficient to assure you are visible on the road, even with city street lights, and they often add a rear red light called a blinky because it can be set to flash. Optional passive items are pedal reflectors, ankle straps, reflective clothing, and reflective tape.
Illinois law also requires an active white light on the front that can be seen for 500 feet. When selecting a front light, the brighter the better. The more noticeable the light the sooner a car will react to your presence on the road. It will also help you see the pavement and avoid potholes, gravel and other road hazards that can be difficult to see even with ambient city lighting. Optional active items include lights you can install on the frame, wheel, spokes, and helmet.
During this period of waning daylight, it makes sense to check that your ride meets the minimum requirement for passive and active lighting. But if you really want to protect yourself it is a good idea to go beyond the minimum that the law requires. Again, the brighter the better.
Sharon Kaminecki comments on adventures in bicycling and other stories