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Bike lights and reflectors – the basics

8 November 2010
by blondwig

A few times last week I had to look up the rules on bike lights and reflectors.

This is not a fun thing to do. It’s one of those dreary afternoon things, with 400 pages of pdfs open on your screen, when you drink so much tea you can’t sit still, check facebook every 90-or-so seconds and wish people would just update their status a little more often.

I originally thought, and wrote in this post and in the comments on this Guardian bike blog article, that you couldn’t be given a fixed penalty notice for breaking the rules on lights and reflectors. I discovered last week that I had missed one little well-hidden rule, which changes things around a bit.

The details aren’t very exciting. But the important thing is that you can be given a fixed penalty notice for not having the right lights and reflectors. (RTA s.41(1), 41(4)(b), 42; RTOA s. 51, Sch 3; RVLR r. 18(1), Sch 1 table 3)

A German friend once had a phrase for this kind of situation: ash on my head. He was a laid-back chap and liked illicit combustibles, so I used to wonder whether he was actually describing a physical phenomenon. But regardless, right now his phrase might be apt – sorry if there’s been any confusion.

What lights and reflectors do you need?

The rules about lights and reflectors are complex, and the points below are just the basics.

The first thing to know is that these rules don’t apply to bicycles during the day (i.e. between sunrise and sunset). The requirements only apply at night (i.e. after sunset). (RVLR r. 4(3)(c))

After sunset:

 It’s not clear whether the lights and reflectors have to be physically fixed to your bike. The rules require your bike to be “fitted with” the items above. It doesn’t seem clear whether wearing them on your rucksack, for example, is enough.

There is also uncertainty around whether lighting strips are legal (for example lights built into a jacket – the kind of thing talked about in the Guardian article above, and which Londoncyclist is reviewing here). Generally speaking, lights which ‘show to the rear’ have to be red. But that restriction only applies to lights fitted to a vehicle. So again, it depends whether something you wear on your back counts as fitted to your bike. There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. (RVLR r. 11(2); 20)

I hope to cover some of these rules in more detail later on. I thought I’d just set out the main points at this stage.

Penalties etc

So a constable in uniform can give you a fixed penalty notice for breaking the rules on lights and reflectors. The maximum fixed penalty for a cyclist is £30. (RTA s. 42; RTOA ss. 51, 54, Sch 3; FPO Sch 1)

Alternatively the police could choose to prosecute you in the courts, in which case the maximum fine is £1000. (RTOA Sch 2)

In this context, because the rules are complex, it’s perhaps unlikely that you’d be given a FPN or prosecuted for little technical breaches (like having a light which doesn’t comply with the relevant British Standard).

On the other hand, it’s also a context where failure to comply with the rules might have other consequences. As I’ve suggested before, it might affect your insurance, if you have any. There’s also a fair chance the courts would find you negligent if you were in an accident when you didn’t have the lights required by law. If you were sued by someone else for causing an accident, this might make it more likely that you’d be found liable. Alternatively if you were injured in an accident and sued someone else, it might mean that any damages the courts awarded you would be reduced.


Photo by from

21 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 November 2010 19:00

    Is it not also a requirement for reflectors on you pedals after sunset too? This is a problem when using clipless pedals/shoes.

    • 9 November 2010 09:56

      hi there one loose nut

      yes – you’re right. this seems to be a real enforcement black hole – i’ve even seen quite a number of bike police riding around without pedal reflectors – which is why i haven’t gone into it above.

      given the enforcement issues, i’ll post separately about this soon.

      • 8 June 2011 12:46

        post updated on 8/6/11 to include pedal reflectors, for completeness. for a fuller account see this post

  2. Josh permalink
    9 November 2010 10:53

    I always thought that your mandatory rear light had to be constant, not flashing – from what you’re saying that’s not the case?
    As I understood it, a flashing light makes it harder to judge distance in the dark.

  3. 9 November 2010 11:46

    Hi Josh

    That used to be the case. The rules were changed in 2005 to allow flashing lights.

    Now both front and rear lights can flash, so long as (i) the light is at least 4 candelas bright, and (ii) it flashes at constant intervals and between 1 and 4 times per second. (RVLR r. 13(2)(g-h), 18(1); Sch 1 table 3; Sch 2(I) para. 12(c); Sch 10(I) para. 12(b))

    That said, the Highway Code recommends that when you’re cycling in an area without street lighting, you use a “steady front lamp” – see rule 60. For the consequences of not complying with recommendations in the Highway Code, see my earlier post here.

    Personally I don’t know about the issue of judging distance, although it seems from the comments on the Guardian article above that there’s a bit of a debate on the subject.

  4. simon permalink
    30 March 2011 13:03

    I have a bike which has dynamo lights which go out when I stop and are quite dim when going slowly. Is that legal?

    • 30 March 2011 13:32

      hi simon

      thanks for your comment. that’s a whole other post (which i hadn’t thought of!) – i’ll add it to the list.

    • MikeC permalink
      10 May 2011 09:24

      The Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations, Para 24 (9) (a) and (b) exempt a bicycle from the need for lights when being pushed (a) or “waiting to proceed” provided it is on the nearside of the carriageway (b). I believe this is the intended get-out for dynamo lights.

  5. Max permalink
    8 September 2011 21:20

    @ simon “I have a bike which has dynamo lights which go out when I stop and are quite dim when going slowly. Is that legal?”

    If you were to cycle in Germany that would be the only legal lighting option. Battery powered LEDs alone are actually illegal in Germany even though they work better. However, rumour has it that the police are happy if your bike is lit at all. What will happen after you have an accident and a smart lawyer catches onto the fact that your light was technically illegal even though it worked just fine is something I hope I will never find out. However, for the sake of my own safety (and to prevent regrets) I insist on having working lights which for me is battery powered LEDs.

  6. DITO permalink
    12 September 2012 11:57

    I want to do a school assembly on safe cycling. I am looking for very clear and ‘cool’ resources particularly about being seen with lights and reflectors.
    I could do with a series of photos that the youngster (13-16) will realise how important reflectors are, some video clips would be helpful as well as some new and exciting bike fashion accessories that comply with safety regulations in UK.
    If anyone can help me out I would be so so grateful. I’ve been in touch with Lincs Safety Partnership Trust, local poice who support schools … nothing so far so any help would be gratefully received. The assembly hall does have a projector that’s linked to a laptop (if it’s working, it works!)

  7. john permalink
    3 November 2012 03:44

    I have a blue light as my rear light and the police around where i live don’t seem to mind, cars behind me never fail to know i’m there.

  8. Spidernick permalink
    27 November 2012 19:50

    I ordered a supposed rear light on eBay from Hong Kong and it’s a white light! It seems the rules vary from country to country and I’ll have to use this as an additional front light.

    Can a standard read light not also act as a reflector? I had to remove my reflector to make room for the rear light and am sure that cannot be an unusual situation.

  9. Alun permalink
    28 November 2012 20:12

    You need to have a reflctor as well as a red light. The red lens doesn’t have reflective qualitiees. I would move your light to the top of the seat stay on the off side and replace the reflector on the seat post. Or purchase a set of guards with a reflector on them. Hope this helps.

    • Spidernick permalink
      28 November 2012 21:55

      That does, thanks. I’ll sort it out this weekend.

  10. Ian Daysh permalink
    15 December 2012 17:09

    Looking at all the links, there is no such entry 13(2)(g-h). It stops at f, and as it stands in the online information, your primary light sources (front and rear) must not be flashing. The only vehicles that can have flashing front lights are emergency vehicles.

    • blondwig permalink*
      16 December 2012 16:24

      Hi Ian

      The problem is that the site (to which I link) doesn’t update statutory instruments (and I haven’t gone through and added references to all the amending legislation, as the references would end up very long). 13(2)(g) and (h) were added in 2005 by SI 2005/2559, r. 6(b).

  11. Ruth Duckworth permalink
    9 January 2013 20:34

    I’d really like to know if lights that attach to the wheels or main part of the frame are legal. My father thought that the former were not as law stipulated that vehicle lights had to be fixed (ie. not moving), but the law on bike lighting is changing so fast that may no longer be the case. However, I can’t find any mention of either on anything official. Can anyone help clarify this? I’d very much like to make myself more visible from the side.
    @ the teacher who posted a few months back: if it’s not too late, try this site
    It’s not specific to cycling, but fun and educational. Hope it helps.

  12. Ruth Duckworth permalink
    9 January 2013 20:42

    @ DITO
    Aswell as the Finnish road safety site in my first post, Proviz make light-up armbands and clip ons, which are blue. Downside is, they’re a bit pricey, but less geeky than yellow armbands.


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