For many years, the law on bicycle lights in the UK was archaic in the extreme. Cyclists were required to rely on filament bulbs which were heavy, short on power and very power hungry. Thankfully, the law has now caught up with modern lighting technology and LED based lights are permitted. the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations 1989 (amended in 1994, 1996, 2001, 2005, again in 2005 and 2009) dictate that bicycles must have various lights and reflectors working and clean when ridden between sunset and sunrise. These Regulations are routinely ignored by the police but if you are caught up in an accident after dark and have not complied with the lighting rules, you run the risk of being liable in some way for the accident. The liability will be in the common law tort of negligence. Negligence is pursued by the victim (or, more commonly these days their insurance company) through the civil courts.
At least one white front lamp is required, no more than 1500mm from the ground. It must be positioned centrally or offside and visible from the front. Steady light emitting bulbs must conform with BS6102/3 or a European equivalent standard. One red rear lamp is required, again positioned centrally or offside, between 350mm and 1500mm from the ground and it too must be visible from behind. Steady lights must conform to to BS3648, or BS6102/3 or equivalent European standard. If either front or rear light can only manage to flash, they must emit at least 4 candela, which is probably rather more than the Union Lamp Company William’s Globe (pictured right) managed to emit.
A red rear reflector is also required, conforming to BS6102/2 (or equivalent), with the same positioning rules as the lights, between 250mm and 900mm from the ground. It must also be visible from behind. Four amber pedal reflectors are required, conforming to BS6102/2 (or equivalent), positioned so that one is plainly visible to the rear of the pedal and one to the front.
To escape these rules you can ride an old machine. Any bicycle manufactured before October 1990 can have any kind of white front lamp which is visible from a reasonable distance and bicycles from before October 1985 don’t need pedal reflectors.
Someone needs to inform the trailer manufacturers that trailers need a rear lamp as above and a triangular rear reflector with an ECE mark III or IIIA. Most do not bother to fit a rear lamp. If you’re one of the rare types who uses a bicycle side-car, it also needs its own front and rear lamps. Wherever a British Standard (BS) is required, equivalent standards from other EC countries must now also be recognised but it is not exactly clear which ones match up. Germany has the strictest cycling laws in Europe. Consequently equipement marked with a “K~number” is probably going to be up to scratch.
Dynamo powered lights are legal even though, without a capacitor fitted, they extinguish when you stop. That is deemed to be okay so long as you stop on the left, which is troublesome if you are waiting for oncoming traffic before turning right.
So long as you don’t fit a red light to the front or a white light to the rear, you can supplement the prescribed lighting arrangements with as many lights and reflectors as you like. The smart money is on you covering yourself with lights, reflectors and anything else which makes you visible. I’ve painted my bike with strontium aluminate, which glows in the dark after being out in the sun or after being sweeped by car headlights. For many years in my youth I rode around without lights but then I got a telling off from a fellow cyclist who crashed into another who had been waiting at traffic lights, invisible in the dark. These were the days when lights didn’t really show you much of the rode ahead but after hearing that tale, it seemed positively antisocial not to don the lamps. Since then I’ve gone the other extreme and prefer to cover my bike with as many lights and reflectors as possible. The idea being that at the back of every motorist’s mind will be the notion that if they hit you, they will later on have to explain how they failed to notice you. For that reason, I’d strongly recommend that you wear high visibility clothing too.
Once upon time the idea that you might accidentally break the bicycle lighting regulations by causing undue dazzle or discomfort to other road users would have been fanciful but these days LED and HID lamps can be very powerful indeed. Do remember that apart from excessively powerful lights being illegal, they are also dangerous, even if cars all have them.
Unfortunately, although the The Pedal Cycles (Safety) Regulations mean that new bicycles are sold with several extra reflectors, they do not require them to be fitted with lights, which begs the question of whether it is unlawful for cycling shops to sell bicycles in the late afternoon in winter.
Flashing lights have been allowed. Incredibly, despite their demonstrable advantages for rear lights, it wasn’t until 2005 when flashing LEDs were allowed. However, due to the technicalities of the regulations, the government’s insistence on confirmity with the brightness of lights in their steady state and the general distaste in the British establishment for cyclists, flashing LED lights are legal but are not approved, which means that to be lawful you will need another light as well. The really big problem is the lack of bicycle light manufacturers who will trouble themselves by testing their products to the British Standards. We are considered to be too small a market to trouble with.
There is a new generation of more powerful LED lights on the way. They ‘burn’ ten times brighter than LEDs did before. Developed by a new Californian company, Soraa, there isn’t yet a version for a bicycle. Soraa claims that a 12 watt bulb uses 75% less power than a 50 watt halogen bulb but produces the same illumination. This must be good news for cyclists – the more energy efficient a light, the longer the batteries will last. These lights may be very expensive because they use gallium nitride. Expense may not put off the mountain biking brigade or the fashionistas but, as Max Glaskin tweeted:
Brighter family of LEDs needs less power so will battery bike lights get, er, lighter? Or brighter? Or nicked?