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Traffic Q&A: Is it legal to have a flashing light on the front of my bike?

Are flashing lights or strobe lights illegal on a bicycle? It depends.
Are flashing lights or strobe lights illegal on a bicycle? It depends. Staff file, 2008

Q: Are flashing lights or strobe lights illegal on a bicycle? – Darrell E., Tacoma

A: It depends, Darrell. It depends.

Before we elaborate, let us hear why Darrell wants to know.

A short while back, he was on an outing with some “fast riders” when they had a run-in with a flock of geese. There was a crash.

“One of the riders had to be taken to the hospital with injuries,” Darrell wrote to Traffic Q&A headquarters.

The fate of the geese is unknown.

Anyway, a local police officer was dispatched to the scene, and he admonished some of the riders for having strobes attached to their bikes, Darrell continued. No tickets were handed out, but the castigation left Darrell wondering about the law.

“I am an avid bicycle rider, and many other riders have flashing/strobe lights front and rear that we use for safety,” he said. “Could you comment on this, please?”

You betcha!

RCW 46.61.780 spells out what is required by way of lighting on a bicycle being ridden after dark in the state of Washington and what is allowed.

So what is required? This:

“Every bicycle when in use during the hours of darkness … shall be equipped with a lamp on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front and with a red reflector on the rear of a type approved by the State Patrol which shall be visible from all distances up to 600 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of head lamps on a motor vehicle.”

So what is allowed? This:

“A lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear may be used in addition to the red reflector.”

And, finally to the point, this:

“A light-emitting diode flashing taillight visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear may also be used in addition to the red reflector.”

The key word there, we think, is “taillight.”

So, Darrell, if you or your fellow riders were pimping strobes on the fronts of your bikes, the police officer was within his rights to upbraid you, we’re sorry to say.

The issue of flashing lights on the fronts of bikes is a bit of a hot topic among bicyclists, if our Googling is any indication, with some folks, like Darrell, advocating for their use.

Others, though, think the law is right on.

Writer and bicyclist Josh Cohen wrote a piece on the subject last year for the website Next City, titled “The Case Against Bright-as-the-Sun Flashing Bike Lights.”

Cohen acknowledged that using strobes might make bicyclists more visible but added that some studies have shown the flashing lights make it more difficult for “other road users” to judge a bicyclist’s speed and distance.

Strobes also can cause problems for people with photosensitive epilepsy and can be blinding for everyone else, he reported.

“Using flashing bike lights at night doesn’t make you safer, can create medical problems for people, can be dangerous for other bicyclists and is definitely obnoxious to be around,” Cohen wrote. “So really, why on earth would you do it?”

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644, @TNTAdam

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