Lights for Pedestrians and Bicyclists After Dark

By Cory Bilton

Storm Clouds Over WOD

One way to tell that fall is approaching is that it is starting to get dark earlier in the evenings. In fact, my commute home on my bicycle is mostly in the dark already (sunset was at 7:10 pm this evening). Many bicycle commuters in the area are pretty good about affixing lights to their bicycle or body (I’ve previously blogged about the legal requirements for biking after dark). On urban streets or in a business district of the Washington, DC metro area, there is typically sufficient ambient light from street lights and buildings for bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists to have the opportunity to see each other. However, on the numerous paved trails in our region serious hazards exist because bicyclists’ lights often blind other trail users and pedestrians rarely wear lights or reflective clothing.

Angle Your Lights Down, Bicyclists

Vehicle manufacturers understand that while headlights illuminate the road ahead for the driver, headlights also have the effect of shining into the eyes of drivers in oncoming vehicles, making it more difficult for them to see. This is why vehicle headlights are angled down, to point at the pavement in front of the car instead of straight ahead. I have gathered from my own experience riding on the paved trails in DC and Northern Virginia that many bicyclists aim their headlights straight ahead. Because the paved trails in our area allow both pedestrian and bicycle traffic to travel in opposite directions on the same width of asphalt, bicyclists with lights facing straight ahead blind oncoming bicyclists and pedestrians after dark.

I made some visuals to demonstrate. This is what I frequently see, bicyclists with front headlights aimed straight ahead. This is unsafe, particularly on trails.

Bicyclist - Headlight Forward

Light Pointed Forward on Bike






Instead, bicyclists should aim their front headlight so that it angles downward, like this:

Bicyclist - Headlight DownLight Angled Down on Bike






Aiming your headlights downward not only saves other people from being blinded by your headlights, but it also illuminates the pavement around you, which makes you easier to see (for example, a forward facing light makes it difficult to know whether a bicyclist or pedestrian is behind the light). Aiming headlights downward is not a legal requirement, but will make riding and walking on our trails safer.

Some cyclists may aim their headlight straight ahead in order to see further in front of them. My counter to this is that in the dark, your eyes will adjust to seeing ahead of you, even with low ambient light. I’m not a scientist or a doctor, I’m just speaking from experience. Even on dark trails, I can usually see ahead of me just fine without a headlight directed at the horizon. However, what kills my night vision is having a headlight shining brightly at my face. If you are convinced you need your headlamp to face straight ahead, just get in the practice of temporarily covering it up with your hand when you are meeting and passing someone going the opposite direction. I have encountered plenty of courteous cyclists that do this and it greatly reduces the harm.

Pedestrians, Use Lights or Reflective Clothing on Trails

Something I personally fear, and have heard other local cyclists express concern over, is hitting a pedestrian on a trail after dark. This is the other side of the coin. Pedestrians, whether walking home from work or while out exercising, often wear dark clothing on the trails. While cyclists sometimes create a safety hazard by overdoing it with lights, pedestrians create safety hazards by having no lights or reflective gear at all while using the trails after dark.

Pedestrians don’t need a lot of light or reflective gear, just something, anything, that will give a bicyclist some notice that you are walking on the trail after dark. I’ve seen pedestrians carry small flashlight, wear reflective arm or leg bands, or use the same type of small lights that bicyclists use. Although it might be unintentional, even pedestrians using their smart phones while walking on the trail after dark provide a small sliver of light that I often notice as I’m cycling along. Pedestrians that I see on my commute that don’t take any precautions to use lights or reflective gear while using the trail after dark are really increasing the risk of harm to both themselves and bicyclists around them.

Bottom Line: Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes

The reason that bicyclists shine lights in peoples’ eyes and pedestrians don’t shine lights at all is that each only thinks about her own situation. A bicyclist might not realize she is blinding oncoming traffic. It might not occur to a pedestrian that his dark clothing and lack of light makes him very difficult to see. Since our local paved trails (such as the ones I ride on: the Rock Creek Trail, Custis Trail, and W&OD Trail) are popular routes for both exercise and commuting, there are many users even after the early-dark on these fall evenings. Next time you are out, remember to consider not only if you can see others, but consider if they can see you, too.

Please review my disclaimer.