Why giving away bike lights makes sense

Having a front-facing bike light can greatly reduce a rider’s chances of being struck in many of the most common types of car-bike collisions. The rate of collisions goes up significantly at night, and a common response from drivers who hit people on bikes is, “I didn’t see him/her.”

Bike riders, especially inexperienced riders, do not fully grasp the importance of lights. When I first started cycling (I lived in Kansas City at the time), I asked the clerk at my local bike shop to point me in the direction of the cheapest possible lights that would prevent me from getting a ticket. I ended up with these awful 1 LED lights that hardly stood out among all the other city lights. My concern was with getting a ticket, not being seen.

The more you read about bike safety, the more you realize that having a front light is probably the single most important thing you can purchase to prevent a collision.

So, basically, there are three ways to deal with the problem of people riding without proper lights. 1: Give them a ticket. 2: Do nothing and allow dangerous riding to continue. Or 3: Help people get lights.

By law, Seattle riders need a rear reflector and a front white light. However, I strongly suggest a rear blinky light, as well. Bought at bulk, a proper light set can cost as little as $7 (especially with nonprofit discounts and such). For the lay person, you can find decent sets for $15-25. That is less than the cost to enforce and administrate a bike light scofflaw law, that’s for sure. It fixes the problem, is cheaper, and is positive.

Thursday evening, as we enter the darkest part of the year, Cascade Bicycle Club and the city handed out free lights to unlit, ninja cyclists at three bike path locations. The lights were paid for by Bridging the Gap money earmarked for pedestrian and bicycle safety. Because of this simple event, 420 cyclists without lights are now safer, and the city successfully and visibly promoted proper bicycle light use to thousands of riders. It is a bicycle safety campaign that was also directly active in fixing the problem.

I would love to see this idea go even further. Imagine if SPD’s stock response to an unlit cyclist were to provide them with lights (or batteries, if the cyclist’s are dead). Hell, maybe they could offer cyclists a choice to either buy them from the officer or get a ticket… (I’m in dream world, I realize, but it’s fun to imagine)

For some reason, King 5 has pushed further with their recent War on Safety (pedestrian safety? Bah!), this time attacking the free bike light program more or less on the grounds that drivers have to pay money for car tabs. A completely irrelevant point, but okay, I’ll play.

Providing bike lights to unlit bikers makes them more visible to car drivers, who often express fear at the idea of hitting someone on a bike that they don’t see. Even if this program were paid for by car tabs (repeat: it was paid for by the Bridging the Gap property tax levy), it would be a great use of those funds. Having road users visible to each other is a great cause that everyone, regardless of how they get around, should get behind.

The program has precedent. Portland’s Get Lit program has been handing out free lights to ninja cyclists since 2003. I wonder how many collisions or even deaths have been avoided due to that program. Similarly, if even one cyclist is saved from injury or death over Seattle’s recent $5,000 safety campaign, then it was money well spent.

Again, I am excited that SDOT is trying new ways to improve safety for all roads users. Some might even say that is their most important job. This light program was successful in getting at least 420 people lit while starting conversation about the importance of bicycle lights. Safety programs like these are completely positive ways to improve safety. Going around punishing bad behavior is one way to try to stop this behavior (note: the city and county have not changed their laws), but being positive about traffic laws can be just as if not more effective.

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4 Responses to Why giving away bike lights makes sense

  1. daisy says:

    When Portland’s program began Dave Guettler of River City Bikes gave the Police Department 20% off coupons for lights to hand out to cyclists without proper legal lights.

    One of the cyclists on that segment is a guy I see every morning who probably would never buy them himself due to language and cultural barriers that exist in the North American bicycle shops. His bicycle is his transportation to a job that most likely provides an income for at least two households.

    It was good to see my/our tax dollars being spent on something that will save lives and lessen the burden on our social services.

    Too bad the repetitive news feels they need such a narrow vision to maintain ratings.

  2. Carl Ballard says:

    I can’t wait for the following stories that are surely coming from King 5:

    Taxpayers pay for free roads for cars.
    Taxpayers pay for free parking for cars.

    I’d also like them to go to Elliot Bay Bike Shop to get their person on the street interview.

  3. West Seattle Dude says:

    Look, I am all for bicycle traffic safety, but another government expenditure is absolutely the last thing we need. It’s fairly straightforward, and even the invincible teens understand it – you ride your bike at night without a light and you risk a ticket or an accident and its your fault. What happened to personal responsibility?

  4. Pingback: Better Use of Infrastructure Dollars: Lines or Signs? | Cycle Twin Cities

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