Picture of lights and indicators st, no longer made.
Buy one of these kid, or you'll be sorry!

Lots of brilliant lights, but still illegal!

It’s that time of year again, when the bikeshop window fills with bright and shiny twinkly winky things and the cyclist protection racket (“Buy one of these kid, or you’ll be sorry!”) goes into overdrive!

This weekend the clocks go back, so if you’re not already coming home from work in the dark, on Monday you surely will be and in addition to whatever else you may have been persuaded to festoon your bike and person with, to be legal you will need:

  • Fixed to the bike itself, NOT dangling from your belt or perched on top of your hat…
  • An ‘approved’ white front light
  • An ‘approved’ red rear light
  • An ‘approved’ red rear reflector
  • And ‘approved’ pedal reflectors facing both ways on both pedals.

What’s does ‘approved’ mean, you may well ask, because the bike shop is unlikely to have mentioned it when they sold you those lights. It means that the lamp is designed to conform with BS6102 part 3, and is marked accordingly.

That was fine back in the 1970s, when the likes of Ever-Ready mass-produced bike lamps in Britain and sold them around the world. Nowadays however, everything plastic with batteries comes from Asia, which manufactures in volume for the American market, where they don’t have any lighting standards for bikes at all! Almost anything goes on a bike over there. And since we speak more or less the same language: everything that goes over there comes over here too!

We were (and still are) only too pleased to sell, buy and use these laissez-faire lamps, which were initially cheaper and generally work better than lamps that are hidebound by a standard. Deprived of any British manufacturing or retail interest to keep them up to date, British Standards were soon left behind by the state of the art. One Asian manufacturer, Cat-Eye, nevertheless continued to ‘do the right thing’ by designing a few of its lamps to BS6102/3, and getting it revised to allow LEDs. British retailers however, did not reward Cat-Eye’s efforts by drawing customers’ attention to the unique selling point, that these were the only battery lights you could ride legally with in the dark. I guess shops were reluctant to make it obvious that all the other lamps in the shop would only do as extras!

There are other ways for a lamp to be approved. If it flashes it simply has to be bright enough and flash at a rate between once and four times per second. But if the lamp also has a steady mode it’s back to BS for approval. Most flashing lights unfortunately, also have a steady mode – and are strangers to BS.

Another option is to conform with the approval system of another EC country – but only if that approval gives as much safety as BS6102/3. Most don’t. The only other EC approval that’s at least as demanding as BS6102/3 is German ‘StVZO’, indicated by a K~number mark on the lamp. Germany has supported its established dynamo lighting manufacturers in many ways, such as requiring a dynamo system to be fitted and in working order (not necessarily switched on) at all times on all bikes weighing over 11kg, and by keeping their lighting standards up to date. So they still have a sizeable cycle lighting industry - mostly dynamo. And since there are 80 million Germans, most of whom ride bikes, there’s no point in anyone else making dynamo lights unless they can sell them in Germany. So its good news for dynamo users: nearly all dynamos and dynamo lamps do have this approval. A few battery lamps (made to go on German racing bikes) also have a K~number, but not many are sold in UK.

Most lamps have an EC mark and this will often be pointed out by a dealer anxious to please. But that EC mark has nothing to do with its performance as a lamp – just means it isn’t toxic or likely to electrocute! There ought to be but isn’t as yet, any harmonised EC-standard of approval for the performance of bike lamps.

So short of fitting a dynamo system (don’t scoff, modern dynamo lights are brilliant and stay on when you stop) the chances are you’ll be technically illegal when cycling at night, no matter how bright your (battery) lights. Fortunately, Police seldom bother to look for approval marks on bike lamps and will be happy to see a white light in front and red behind. Some will pick up on the lack of a rear reflector, so better have one of those too. And fortunately it’s easy to get an approved one, because the standards for those are internationally harmonised.

Pedal reflectors however, are another problem. When you can get them they’ll be approved alright, but all too often you can’t. And if you ask your friendly local cycle shop they may even deny that they’re needed. (I guess that when reflectors cannot be had for most of the pedals in the shop, it’s easy to suppose that they’re optional!) Nowadays only low-tech pedals can be fitted with reflectors, plus a few of Shimano’s clipless models.

Lack of pedal reflectors is also unlikely to be noticed by the Police. But whereas an unapproved light is likely to be just as effective as an approved one, the lack of pedal reflectors does make a difference. Research by TRRL proved that lights will get you noticed from the greatest distance, but pedal reflectors provide the most distance identification that the thing in front with a light is a pedal cycle – rather than a more distant motor-cycle. And that identification is important, because a driver will need to brake and/or steer around a pedal cycle pretty soon after seeing it. But that research was done in the 80s, before flashing lights existed. Nowadays they’re on most bikes and only on bikes. No other vehicle is allowed to mount a flashing red light, so one of those also uniquely identifies a pedal cycle – perhaps from a greater distance than pedal reflectors.

CTC suggests that in addition to de-regulating cycle lighting to take out the approval stumbling block, an additional rear light, resulting in one flashing and one steady rear light, shall be allowed to substitute for pedal reflectors. If you think that’s a good idea too, please write to your MP. Let’s make this the last winter when so many responsible, law-abiding cyclists cannot avoid riding illegally in the dark.

Chris Juden