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  • Mark Wyatt
  • Mon January 23 2017
  • Posted Jan 31, 2017

The Iowa Bicycle Coalition has remained undecided on the proposed requirements for lights on bicycles in lieu of reflectors in it’s current state. It is a surprising position for an organization with a mission of bicycle safety. However, we are an organization that believes in careful policy that is fair, effective, and realistic. If there are some changes in the language, we would be more inclined to support the proposal.


We are not against bike lights or bicyclists to be more visible, especially on rural roads. Some of the most simple solutions on the surface are very complex below the surface. We have assembled the following information not as a case for or against any law, but as information for policy makers and the public to make an informed decision.


It is important to note, the Iowa Bicycle Coalition encourages bicyclists to be visible if operating at night and to meet or exceed the current requirements of the Iowa Code. The current law requires a bicyclist operating on a highway between sundown and sunrise must be visible from 300'. You can use a rear facing red light or red reflector, but either must be visible from 300'. It takes 150' to stop a vehicle at 55 mph, so 300' gives ample distance to stop. Reflectors are advertised to be visible from 1000'.


The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been a long-time proponent of the all reflector system for bikes. Many states have instituted statutory requirements for a front headlamp, but bicycles are not sold with lights, only reflectors. One of the reasons behind the all-reflector system was the lack of maintenance. Reflectors are always on, do not require batteries, and bulbs do not burn out. In the minds of the CPSC, kids who ride bikes could not be trusted to maintain a light system or remember to turn the lights on.


Batteries are a limiting technology on bike lights. One must account the battery system to evaluate the true cost of the lights. Lower cost systems have non-rechargeable batteries and even occasional use requires frequent battery replacement. Cheaper rechargeable systems do not indicate remaining battery capacity. Many bicyclists have stories about batteries failing during a night ride. There are generator powered systems that provide a constant energy feed while the bike is moving, but those systems are expensive.


A front headlamp has been required in the Iowa Code for many years. A front light is different because it allows light to be cast ahead of the bicyclist without an external source of light like the reflector requires. This is appropriate because the headlamp provides warning ahead of where the bicyclist will traveling. It also allows the bicyclist to avoid road hazards, pedestrians, and other obstacles in the dark.


It is likely the reflector option remained in the code because the rear light technology was not as effectively visible as some of the light sets that you see today. Alkaline batteries and incandescent lights had poor visibility in comparison to the simplest LED bike lights today. At that time in the past, it makes sense that the reflector may produce more reflective light than an alkaline powered incandescent light. However, those old light systems are still on the road. And, as long as they are visible at 300 feet, they meet the definition of bike light even according to the proposed law.
There is one difference with lights and reflectors, reflector size is regulated by ISO and CPSC. Light surface area or number of lights is not regulated. A single bulb LED light, if visible from 300’, meets the requirements of this chapter.


So who will this affect? This will not affect anyone that identifies as a “bicyclist”. This will more likely to affect kids, adults who ride once in awhile, casual riders, people that don’t have the financial means and the bicycle is their only mode of transportation, and the homeless. If the regulation is too much of a burden, many will simply stop bicycling and we want to avoid that.
In reality, many will simply break the law. Kids that stayed at a neighbor’s house too long or the ball game ran late will ride their bikes home illuminated by streetlights. Many in the economically disadvantaged population will continue to ride without lights, front or back, choosing to break the law and remain invisible.


This hasn’t been a priority for law enforcement. We understand the small crash statistics of bikes at night without lights in comparison to other traffic violations take precedence with limited law resources. The lack of law enforcement is a problem to change compliance.


There is a difference between bicycling on a high speed road and bicycling on a neighborhood street at night. Speeds are usually lower and streetlights are present. Many cities have ordinances that address lights and reflectors. Since state code, 321.236 allows local regulation of bicycle operation, we assume that part of the Iowa Code will remain intact. A good addition to this bill would be to allow regulation by local authorities even though it would already be allowed by 321.236.


The bottom line is we want policies that will improve safety, but we also want them to be fair and effective. The research studies question if a law will produce changes in compliance or safety. We are concerned about the lack of law enforcement, education, and awareness campaigns associated with the provision.


There are parts of this bill that we really like. We want better policy for bike safety and think this concept may be combined with change lanes to pass and other safety measures with some modifications.


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Wait a minute! The Coalition wants drivers to completely move to the other lane to pass (an unenforceable law), and require severe penalties for hitting a bicyclist from behind, but don't want to require a rear light that makes the bicyclist more visible after sundown. That's ridiculous. An LED rear light can be had for $25 that the battery will last for a year or more under normal conditions and gives better visibility under all conditions.

#1 - FarmallM51 posted Feb 1, 2017


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