Bicycling After Dark

By Cory Bilton

Dim Bike Path 1

If you are like me and still trying to commute to and from work on your bicycle this time of year, it’s almost impossible to avoid riding in the dark.  The official sunset time in DC today is 4:46 pm.  So you’d have to leave work pretty early to ride home with sunlight.  Riding a bicycle in the DC area after dark presents a number of different challenges.  Here are some tips to remember for the hale and hearty cyclists in the area:


More important than helping you see, lights on your bike help other people see you.  In fact, in most areas of the city, you can probably see just fine without bicycle lights, due to all the ambient light coming from street lights, apartments, and businesses.  But lighting up your bicycle and yourself is critical for others to see you.

In DC, Municipal Regulation 18-1204 requires cyclists riding after dark have a white light facing forward that can be seen from at least 500 feet away.  The light can be mounted to the front of your bike or worn on your body while riding.  The rear of the bicycle must have only a red reflector (but a red light is a much better option, and the regulation permits this too).  Likewise, Maryland Transportation Code § 21-1207 requires a cyclist riding on a road in the dark to have a white light in the front, and a rear red reflector (which may optionally be a rear red light).  Similarly, while riding in Virginia, Va. Code § 46.2-1015 requires cyclists riding in the dark to have (1) a white headlight in front, (2) a red reflector on the rear, and (3) a red taillight.  So, the only difference between the three jurisdictions is that in Virginia, the red rear light is mandatory, while it is optional in DC and Maryland.

These regulations are minimum lighting requirements for cycling after dark.  You should not only consider a front and rear light for your bicycle, but should use as many lights as you need to ensure that other people can see you.  For some cyclists, this can be lots of lights!  I’ve seen a few cyclists in the area that are lit up like Christmas trees.

However, it is possible to go overboard with lights.  I think the biggest problem is that sometimes there is a fine line between making yourself visible to other people and blinding them with your radiance.  It is important to remember not to shine your lights directly into other people’s eyes.  Often, this requires you to angle your lights downward.  I’ve had quite a few near misses with other cyclists in head-on situations and blinding headlights directed at my face.  It’s not a pleasant experience.


Closely related to lighting is clothing.  There are no laws or regulations requiring specific clothing while cycling in the area.  But wearing bright colors or clothing that has reflective fabrics will help you be seen.  Most cyclists I see tend to wear brightly colored clothing even without being required, so this isn’t typically a huge issue.  What is a big issue for cyclists is dark clothing of pedestrians or joggers.  It’s very easy to lose sight of a darkly-clad pedestrian among the vehicle and bicycle headlights.  Cyclists have a duty to yield to pedestrians, so cyclists should use extra caution after sunset.

Rock Cr Pk Sign 1

Trail Use After Sunset

Another issue that may come up for bicycle commuters is trail hours of operation.  On my way to and from work, I use trails operated by different entities; the National Park Service (Rock Creek Park trail and Mount Vernon Trail), Arlington County (Custis Trail), and sometimes the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (the W&OD trail).  Not surprisingly, all three of these entities seem to have different hours of operation.  The Rock Creek Park trail is apparently open only during daylight hours.  The Mount Vernon Trail seems to be open from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm each day.  The Custis Trail, according to Arlington County’s Commuter Page, is not only open 24 hours a day, but it also has its own lighting.   And starting just this year, the W&OD trail has extended its hours from “daylight only”, to now being open from 5:00 am until 9:00 pm each day.  As the DC area continues to promote bicycles as a viable alternative for commuters, it would be a big improvement if commuter bicycle trails had the same hours and conveniences (if anyone with clout is reading this, 24 hour access and lighting on all trails would be huge).

This is the first winter that I have continued to commute by bicycle.  My own experience has been that having both a front and rear light on my bike increases my visibility to vehicles immensely.  I actually think drivers are more courteous to me after dark than when the sun is out.  All of my close calls have been with other cyclists and pedestrians, not vehicles.  But with these considerations in mind, and an extra ounce of caution, you are more likely to reach your destination perfectly safe, even if your trip is in the dark.

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