The winter is of course the period of the year when people riding bikes get urged to ‘lighten up’ and to make themselves visible. It is easy to lose count of the number of articles and police campaigns on the subject – the latest in a long line in recent months is this from Oakham Police, covered by the Rutland Times.
Police are advising cyclists to be seen and be safe while riding at night.
During January and February officers in Oakham will target cyclists who ride their bikes without lights at night.
PCSO 6017 Martin Clarke said: “We have received a number of complaints about cyclists riding at night without any lights.
“This is not only illegal, but presents a danger to other road users as well as the cyclist themselves.”
During the campaign police will stop any cyclists not wearing safety equipment and reminding them to use lights, helmets and visible clothing.
PCSO Clarke added: “Persistent offenders may be prosecuted.”
People who persist in wearing invisible clothing may be prosecuted?
But seriously. The subject of illumination and visibility is an interesting one, especially when placed in historical context. Over time, the burden of being seen has increasingly been placed on the people who pose little or no danger – to make themselves more and more obvious to the people who are posing the danger.
Where did this obsession with illumination come from?
Before motor cars arrived on the roads, the only piece of safety equipment someone using a bicycle would possess would be a front lamp. Obviously this showed other people using the roads in the dark that you were approaching, but its primary purpose was to allow you to see where you were going, and what obstacles might be in your way. There was no need to make yourself visible to the rear, because the onus was anyone approaching you from behind to spot you.
Interestingly, even after the numbers of motor cars that were on the roads had increased sharply, a front light remained the only piece of equipment that cyclists were expected to use. No hi-viz. No rear light. There was only one ‘extra’ tool of visibility required – a rear reflector.
The very first Highway Code – dating from 1931 – is quite clear on the subject, in its advice to ‘pedal cyclists’.
Remember that in the dark you are not easily visible to following traffic. Act accordingly and keep well to the left of the road.
If you do not use a red rear lamp remember to keep your red reflector clean and properly fixed. [It is an offence under the Road Transport Lighting Act to ride at night without either a red rear lamp or an obscured and efficient red reflector.]
So in 1931, you could quite happily and legally ride a bicycle that didn’t have a rear light, provided you had a reflector. In today’s world of hyper-illumination and garishness, this probably sounds incredible to most people, but, at the time, even the law requiring just a reflector was met with much grumbling by those who used bicycles. They were merely pedalling along, and it would be the person who was approaching them from behind who should have sufficient illumination to spot them, and to act accordingly.
There is a serious issue here. It is entirely possible that many drivers today simply do not expect there to be obstacles in the road that are not illuminated, or reflective. Trees can be in the road when it is dark. Cars can be parked on the road when it is dark. People can be in the road when it is dark. We don’t expect any of them to be reflective, or clad in hi-viz, or to have lights (although perhaps in the case of pedestrians it is only a matter of time, as we shall see below).
This was something the Cyclists’ Touring Club appreciated back in the 1930s, writing to the Times in 1934 that
The club does not see the necessity for supplementing the reflector (approved by the Minister of Transport after exhaustive tests) with a white patch or any second compulsory device. Anything of this kind merely tends to lessen the responsibility of the motor driver and to encourage faster and more careless driving, to the ever-increasing danger of the unlighted pedestrian.
If motorists drove in accordance with the Highway Code, so that they could pull up within the distance of the road they could see to be clear, they would never have any difficulty in avoiding running down cyclists. To make compulsory the use of rear lights on cycles might be one step towards legalizing a standard of night driving which would increase the dangers on the roads not only to cyclists but to other road users as well.
It was in this year, 1934, that cyclists using just a red rear reflector were now required to additionally have a white patch on the rear of their bike, by the 1934 Road Traffic Act. The traditional design of the classic Dutch bike is an artefact of this period (perhaps Dutch readers could provide some information on the legal history in the Netherlands!).
[UPDATE – see the comments from Bicycle Dutch, below].
From 1939, with restrictions on headlights required during blackouts, it became compulsory, for the first time, for red rear lights to be used at night, in the Second World War. This proved to be the basis for a permanent law. In March 1945 (while the country was still at war) the government pushed a Bill through Parliament perpetuating the use of rear lights, once the war was over.
So, curiously, it is World War II blackouts that gave rise to the compulsory use of rear lights in on bicycles. Before this period, it was up to drivers – and indeed anyone cycling – to spot the presence of un-illuminated cyclists ahead of them.
Doubtless this use of lights was, and still is, largely a pragmatic measure. It just ‘helps’ to have a bit of illumination to allow drivers to spot you more easily, especially on dark roads, and with the speeds of motor vehicles increasing. In the modern world, it is unthinkable to cycle on dark country roads – where vehicles could have an approaching speed of 40-50mph – without a rear light. I certainly wouldn’t dream of doing this.
The picture in urban areas is rather different, however. Here street lights are almost universal, and vehicle speeds are (or at least should be) much lower – no more than 30mph. A reasonable question here is that, if it is so difficult to perceive a bicycle without a rear light, what does that mean for pedestrians without lights on their person, who are crossing the road, either at junctions or on zebra crossings? Bear in mind that a bicycle will be travelling away from a driver, giving an extra amount of time to be spotted, unlike a pedestrian, who will typically be stationary in the direction the driver is approaching from. Pedestrians are also far less likely to be wearing clothing with reflective patches. Or lights.
The absence of a rear bicycle light, when cycling in urban areas, under streetlights, is widely seen as reckless and dangerous, yet we do not insist on these standards of illumination for pedestrians who will, very often, be in the road. The increasing prevalence of ‘shared space’ – which has the intention of making it easier for pedestrians to mingle in places where people will be driving – makes this philosophical question all the more pertinent.
I always have a rear light on my bike, but it is entirely reasonable to argue that my higher standard of illumination puts un-illuminated pedestrians at greater risk when they venture into the road. Rear lights on bikes creates a general precedent for objects in the road being illuminated; un-illuminated objects (or people) will be less readily perceived under these conditions than otherwise.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the standards that used to be applied solely to people riding bikes are now shifting towards people walking too. There was the notable case last year of an insurance company appealing against a payout for a brain-damaged young girl, hit by a driver on a country road, because she wasn’t wearing a hi-visibility vest. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before we expect people crossing the road not just to have reflective clothing, but even lights. I hope that day never comes, but this is the direction we are travelling in.
Of course this doesn’t mean I think bicycles should not have front and rear lights, or that I ever ride without them. Indeed, the two bikes I use on a regular basis have lights permanently attached to the bike, and that will always be ready to go, at the flick of a switch – powered by a dynamo. The bicycle itself is my visibility tool, with reflective elements built into it – pedal reflectors, reflective sidewalls, and reflectors (in addition to lights) both front and rear.
This kind of visibility is largely unobjectionable, because it is subtly built into the vehicle, and requires no extra cost on my part – I don’t need to wear any special clothing, or carry around any extra items. Unfortunately bicycles in Britain are rarely sold with lights fitted to them, as part of the bike. When autumn rolls around, people find themselves caught out. This is true even for bikes which are explicitly marketed as ‘city’ or ‘utility’ bikes. You wouldn’t expect to buy a car without headlights, and yet it is apparently the norm for bicycles, even for those that will never be used for sporting purposes.
Riding without lights is, of course, illegal, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it – but it is not hard to feel that the reaction to people who do ride at night in urban areas without lights is often overblown. If you ‘nearly hit’ someone riding without lights, well you could just as equally have ‘nearly hit’ a pedestrian in the road. You should be driving – or riding – to the limits of your own visibility, not relying upon people or objects in the road to make themselves visible to you, because we don’t expect them to, unless they happen to be on a bike.
I suspect many people who fixate on this issue would have a heart attack in Dutch cities like Utrecht or Amsterdam where, at night, the levels of people who have functional lights on their bikes is considerably lower than in Britain – on some evenings, at a rough guess, typically around 50 percent are riding without any lights at all. Reflective clothing is non-existent.
But this never strikes me as being particularly hazardous – the environment in these city centres feels safe, much more so than British urban areas. Encounters with motor vehicles are limited, and where they do occur, they are at slow speeds, and in areas where pedestrians are mingling in the street anyway.
Indeed, cyclists here essentially amount to wheeled pedestrians. They look like them, they move like them, except at running or jogging speed. Lack of lights just doesn’t seem like a serious problem, although there are frequent operations by Dutch police. The broader issue is one of civility, and what we want our towns and cities to look like. Reflective clothing, and excessive lighting, just doesn’t feel appropriate in high density areas. It is the wrong answer to the problem posed by motor traffic.