If you have a regular 9-5 job, this time of year you’re getting off work when it’s still dark out. If you ride your bike to work or you like to get some miles in after work it’s important that you make sure you have proper lighting equipment on your bicycle, not only to make you safer, but also to be sure you are compliant with Iowa bicycle laws. Title VIII of the Iowa Code provides that when operated at night bicycles must be equipped with a white headlight and a red rear reflector. All bicyclists are required to use a white headlight and red reflector from sunset to sunrise, or when conditions such as fog, snow, sleet or rain provide insufficient lighting to see a person 500 feet away.
Some cyclists think they don’t need lights because they can see just fine, especially under a full moon or street lamps but a bicycle headlight’s main purpose is to make you more visible to others, not to light the road in front of you. Most bicycle lights are insufficient to adequately light the roadway in front of a cyclist, however, headlights are very good for making the cyclist visible to other traffic on the roadway.
I have been known to say that when you ride at night without a headlight you throw yourself on the mercy of drivers because you give them a perfect defense if they hit you. They can claim they were looking and attentive, but they didn’t see you because you didn’t have proper lighting equipment.
The earliest bicycle case I’ve found on record in Iowa is the matter of Cook v. Fogarty, 103 Iowa 500 (1897), in which a bicyclist was injured when he was struck by a horse drawn carriage at night. At trial the jury found in favor of the defendant horse drawn carriage operator. One of the seminal issues in that case was the bicyclist’s lack of a proper lamp. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s instructions to the jury that they might take into consideration the bicyclist’s lack of a light. There are a number of cases in which a bicyclist’s lack of headlight was an issue at trial, and it is well established law that a lack of headlight can be used as a defense in an automobile/auto collision at night. See Riedsel v. Koch, 241 Iowa 1313 (1950), Coble v. McShane, 233 Iowa 54 (1943).
Consider the example of a very common bicycle/automobile collision, the “left cross.” A left cross occurs when a bicyclist and automobile approach one another from opposite directions. The motorist makes a left turn into the person or path of the bicyclist and a collision ensues. If this happens at an uncontrolled intersection, or both parties have a solid green light, the motorist should yield to the bicyclist. If the motorist fails to yield to the bicyclist a resultant collision would typically be attributed to the driver’s failure to yield the right of way to the bicyclist. If the accident happens at night and the bicyclist has no headlight the bicyclist’s lack of headlight will give the motorist a perfect defense. The motorist will say, “I looked for oncoming traffic. I didn’t see anyone approaching so I made my turn.” They will point out that the bicyclist had no headlight as required under Iowa law. Their attorney will then make the argument that the bicyclist’s failure to have a headlight was the proximate cause of the collision. It’s an effective defense too. You wouldn’t drive a car without headlights, right?
One of my first bicycle cases years ago involved a lack of headlight. My client had been doored as he ride his bicycle past a parked car at night. The defendant stated at his deposition that before he opened his door he looked in his rear view mirror, his side view mirror, and then he actually turned around and looked back before opening his door. He did not see anyone approaching, so he opened his door. While we were eventually able to secure a recovery for my client, it took longer and was probably smaller than it would have been had the client used a headlight.
In my experience the best way to avoid being hit is to be seen. Making yourself as conspicuous as possible is the best way to be seen. Lights and reflectors are the best ways to make yourself conspicuous at night. Remember, you can never have too many reflectors, and I have never seen a bicycle light that was too bright.
The relevant section of the Iowa Code reads as follows:
§321.397 321.397 Lamps on bicycles.
Every bicycle shall be equipped with a lamp on the front exhibiting a white light, at the times specified in section 321.384 , visible from a distance of at least three hundred feet to the front and with a lamp on the rear exhibiting a red light visible from a distance of three hundred feet to the rear; except that a red reflector may be used in lieu of a rear light.
Section 321.384 sets forth when a white headlight and red rear reflector are required to be used by bicyclists:
321.384 When lighted lamps required.
1. Every motor vehicle upon a highway within the state, at any time from sunset to sunrise, and at such other times when conditions such as fog, snow , sleet, or rain provide insufficient lighting to render clearly discernible persons and vehicles on the highway at a distance of five hundred feet ahead, shall display lighted headlamps as provided in section 321.415 , subject to exceptions with respect to parked vehicles as hereinafter stated.
2. Whenever requirement is hereinafter declared as to the distance from which certain lamps and devices shall render objects visible or within which such lamps or devices shall be visible, said provisions shall apply during the times stated in subsection 1 of this section upon a straight level unlighted highway under normal atmospheric conditions unless a different time or condition is expressly stated.