An updated guide to cycle lighting regulations

Keir Gallagher explains the legal requirements for bike lights in this video

An updated guide to cycle lighting regulations

It is illegal to cycle on a public road after dark without lights and reflectors. Exactly which lights and reflectors, where to fit them and when to light up, is defined by the Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations. Simon Bever takes a look at what the rules say.

When you ride a bicycle in the dark, the law requires that you have lights and reflectors; and the law is quite specific as to what lights and what reflectors you use. 

The RVLR, which were first published in 1989, and then amended in 1994, 1996, 2001, 2005, again in 2005 and most recently in 2009. Whilst most of the amendments made no difference to cyclists, it is still quite a task to work out what the law is.

It is true to say that few Police officers will know the finer details of these Regulations, and so long as you are showing a white light at the front and a red light at the rear then you are unlikely to be challenged. However, if you're involved in an accident at night, any slight irregularity could be challenged in court and may be regarded as 'contributory negligence' (a polite way of saying that the accident is partly your fault!)

The main points of RVLR are as follows:

  • Lights and reflectors are required on a pedal cycle only between sunset and sunrise.
  • Lights and reflectors are not required when the cycle is stationary or being pushed along the roadside.
  • When they are required, the lights and reflectors listed below must be clean and working properly.

Note: Reflectors have to be fixed to the rear of your bike and to the front and rear of each pedal. The Pedal Cycles (Safety) Regulations (PCSR) ensure that every new bicycle is sold with several extra reflectors, some of which are not required by RVLR (you may have seen bikes with yellow or white reflectors placed in the spokes). 

However, you only have to look around to see that most reflectors are subsequently removed from the bike and, in the case of 'racing' bikes, the pedals are frequently changed for cleated versions that rarely have even have space for reflectors to be fitted. 

Below is little more explanation of the 'details' of the regulations so that you can be sure to equipped with at least the minimum requirements.

Front Lamp

At least one lamp is required, showing a white light, positioned centrally or offside (the right-hand side of the bike), up to 1500mm from the ground, aligned towards and visible from the front. If capable of emitting a steady light, it must be marked as conforming to BS6102/3 or an equivalent EC standard.

If capable of emitting only a flashing light, it must emit at least 4 candelas.

Note: It might sound obvious, but the light needs to be fixed to the bicycle; there is a fashion for helmet lights which can be pointed in the direction you're looking which might be useful but is not legal. A single helmet mounted light doesn't conform - and if you're an adult, then the chances are that your helmet light will be more than the 1500mm height limit from the ground anyway.

The reference to '4 candelas' isn't very useful because most bike lights are given an output in 'lumens'; for a guide, 1 candela approximates to 12 lumens, so the tiny blinky flashing lights which usually put out around 25 lumens won't enough on their own; you'll need at least two of them.

Rear Lamp

One is required, to show a red light, positioned centrally or offside (the right-hand side of the bike), between 350mm and 1500mm from the ground, at or near the rear, aligned towards and visible from behind. If capable of emitting a steady light it must be marked as conforming to BS3648, or BS6102/3, or an equivalent EC standard. If capable of emitting only a flashing light, it must emit at least 4 candelas. 

You might have noticed that rear bike lights tend to have much lower lumen outputs than front lights. Firstly, is because we're unlikely to want to see where we're going with the rear light but it is also because our eyes react differently to red and white lights; to our eyes, a 50 lumen rear light has similar brightness as a 200 lumen front light

Flashing lights

It took until 2005 for the Regulations to be amended to allow the use of flashing bicycle lights (the older type of battery lights in existence when the Regulations were originally drawn up weren't able to flash). The 2005 RVLR amendment meant that it was now legal to have a flashing light on a pedal cycle, provided it flashed between 60 and 240 times per minute (1 – 4Hz).

The amendment also meant that a flashing light was approved, meaning no other light was needed in that position. And since BS6102/3 does not cater for flashing, approval is granted simply on the basis of its brightness (as specified above).

Because the Department for Transport prefers things to be evaluated against a proper technical standard wherever possible , any flashing lamp that is also capable of emitting a steady light is approved only if it conforms with BS6102/3 when switched to steady mode. Since most flashing lights do also have a steady mode, they're legal but not approved, so you'll probably need another lamp that is.

The problem for the cyclist today is that there are now very few (if any) lights available on the UK market that were designed and manufactured to conform with BS6102/3, so any lights you purchase are unlikely to be approved. There is a rear light that uses the term 'BS approved' but the approval is only for the reflector contained in the light rather than the light itself.

Fortunately, despite the confusion, our police seem hardly more concerned by legal niceties than light manufacturers. Since it became theoretically legal to ride a bike with just flashing lights on it, they're nowadays no more likely to quibble its legal status than one equipped with steady lights. 

If this all sounds a little confusing, then it is because it is. Current UK legislation isn't up to speed with the technological advancements or the effects of global markets.

Rear Reflector

One rear reflector is required, coloured red, marked BS6102/2 (or equivalent), positioned centrally or offside (on the right-hand side of the bike), between 250mm and 900mm from the ground, at or near the rear, aligned towards and visible from behind.

As stated previously, there are a few bicycle light units that have reflectors included - so if you don't have/want a reflector on your bike, then to comply with the law when you ride in darkness, it would be sensible to purchase one of these lights.

Pedal Reflectors

If you're going to ride your bicycle in the dark then four pedal reflectors are required; coloured amber, marked BS6102/2 (or equivalent), and positioned so that one is plainly visible to the front and another to the rear of each pedal.

As mentioned earlier, most many modern pedals, such as clipless systems won't allow you to fix pedal reflectors to them so, technically, they should not be used in the dark. If in doubt, then reflective ankle bands are a suitable (though please note not a legal!) substitute.

Exceptions and explanations

As with most laws, the 1989 Regulations were not retroactive so bicycles manufactured before 1989 can still have any kind of white front lamp that is visible and bicycles manufactured before 1985 don't need pedal reflectors. So if you have a pre-1985 steel framed bike with pedals, you can ride it in the dark without fear of prosecution.

Cycle trailers are becoming ever more popular with touring cyclists and they too need a rear lamp as above and a triangular rear reflector with an ECE mark III or IIIA. (Trailer manufacturers appear unaware of this, however, and generally fit round cycle-type reflectors and leave no provision for attaching a rear lamp.)

Seriously reduced visibility

Unlike other vehicles, pedal cycles are not legally required to light up when conditions of seriously reduced visibility occur in daytime - but you're living dangerously if you don't. That's because this clause applies only to lights that are required to be fitted at all times as with a car; lights are not required to be fitted to a pedal cycle between sunrise and sunset. So even if the cycle has lights fitted and is ridden into a bank of fog, for example, they do not have to be switched on. Yes, the law is strange.

'Lighting-up time' and the 'Hours of Darkness'

These commonplace phrases have meant many different things in the past and continue to cause confusion. However, for a cyclist, the only thing that matters is the sun; the moment it dips below the horizon, our lights are required to be turned on, even though there may be plenty of light to see by for another half hour or so on a clear evening. It's the rules. 

Sunset to sunrise: that's lighting-up time when drivers must also switch on their sidelights at least. They can leave off the headlights for another 30 minutes, until - you guessed it - the 'Hours of Darkness', which nowadays endure from half an hour after sunset until half an hour before sunrise.

Prior to 1989, cyclists could also wait until then before switching on their lights, and if you go back further, the 'hours of darkness' were 60 minutes shorter, starting a whole hour after sunset and ending an hour before sunrise. Go back further still, to before the roads were nationalised, and some counties didn't require lights at all during the full moon! It wasn't any lighter back then, but when things moved more slowly I guess we didn't need to see them coming so far off.

Beware that some publishers of 'lighting-up times' are a bit careless and give the 'hours of darkness' instead. Don't trust any such data unless it clearly states the times of sunset and sunrise.

The EU-friendly clause

A European Directive of a few years ago stated that wherever a British Standard (BS) is referred to, equivalent standards from other EC countries must now also be recognised - but only if they provide an equivalent level of safety. It’s not exactly clear which do. However Germany has arguably the strictest cycle lighting laws in Europe so we should consider it safe to use equipment that is marked accordingly, with a “K~number”.

It should also be noted that wherever a British Standard is referred to, that reference applies to a specific edition. In the case of BS6102/3, that is the 1986 edition, as amended on 15 April 1995 and again on 1 September 2003. These amendments (in conjunction with the 1994 amendment of RVLR) removed the filament bulb design restrictions, so that lamps may now get their light from LEDs or HIDs.

Dynamos

Dynamo powered lights are legal even though traditionally they have gone out when you stop (modern dynamo systems have 'standlight' technology which means that the light stays on for a while after you have stopped - another German legal requirement). In the UK it is legal to have a light turn off when you stop - which is OK so long as you stop on the left. Usually, it's much safer to stay where you are (e.g. in a stationary queue with left-turning traffic filtering up your inside), since most cars do stop for red traffic lights and those that don’t are unlikely to pay more heed to a bike lamp!

It is also worth noting that modern dynamo systems are very different to those from twenty years ago. They now use LED's as well and have far higher outputs and more advanced beam management. The hub-style dynamos (as opposed to the bottle sort which runs on the side of the tyre) have also increased their efficiency and reduced their drag considerably.

Additional lamps and reflectors

Some cyclists like to fit extra lamps and reflectors, in addition to the approved ones specified above. This is perfectly legal provided they are the correct colour and in an appropriate position.

These optional lamps and reflectors do not have to comply with any standards, but it's illegal to use some designs of lamp or reflector that have specific other uses. You must not, for instance, show a red light at the front, or a white light to the rear, or fit triangular-shaped rear reflectors on anything other than a trailer. 

Confused?

There is no question that the regulations with regards to bicycle lighting are confusing and it doesn't look as if this situation will change in the short term. However, as cyclists we should not be satisfied at just achieving the minimum requirements; the more lit we are and the better we can reflect other user's lights to make us more visible, then the safer we will be. 

This article was orginally written by our former Senior Technical Officer Chris Juden in 2013, it has been updated by Simon Bever in 2017. 

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