|Courtesy Florida Cycling Law|
The key to determining whether your lack of a light and reflector will bar legal recourse is whether your absence of illumination was a cause of the crash. In many instances lack of lighting will indeed cause or at least contribute to cause a crash. Bicyclists should ride with a bright white light on the front of their bikes and with a bright red light and reflector on the back. Doing so will substantially reduce the chances of being involved in many types of crashes. For example, front lighting will undoubtedly reduce a bicyclist's chances of getting doored while riding at night. A driver exiting her vehicle will be much better able to see a cyclist in her side view mirror if the bike is properly illuminated. Furthermore, Illinois law requires a bicyclist to outfit their bike with at least a front light and a rear reflector. The relevant statute states:
Every bicycle when in use at nighttime shall be equipped with a lamp on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front and with a red reflector on the rear of a type approved by the Department which shall be visible from all distances from 100 feet to 600 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of headlamps on a motor vehicle. A lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear may be used in addition to the red reflector.
However, lack of bicycle illumination will not always bar an injured bicyclist from recovering against a negligent driver for their injuries. To recover compensation in a personal injury case the injured person, aka, "the plaintiff", must prove that the defendant (1) owed them a duty of care, (2) breached that duty and as a result (2) caused (4) an injury. For example, Illinois law states that all drivers owe a duty to all other roadway users to stop at stop signs. If a driver blows a stop sign and crashes into another driver causing injury then the offending motorist will be found guilty of negligence and ordered to compensate the other driver for their injuries. But, in our state a jury asked to decide a personal injury case may consider the plaintiff's conduct as well. Sure, the defendant may have been negligent but the plaintiff may have been as well. The world is messy and complex that way. It is not always the case that person A was wrong and person B was right. Person A and person B may have both been wrong but one was more wrong than the other. In considering a plaintiff's "contributory negligence" an Illinois jury must, as with the defendant, determine whether he or she violated a duty imposed by law and whether that breach caused, or at least contributed to cause, his or her own injuries. In the simple hypothetical scenario I presented above, the injured driver also had a duty to stop at all stop signs. If both drivers blew their respective signs the injured party may have his or her monetary compensation reduced or barred altogether if he or she contributed to cause the injury inducing crash. Jurors are generally the ones charged with determining percentages of fault.
Back to the issue of bicycle lighting. It is important to emphasize that a defendant, to establish the plaintiff bicyclist's contributory negligence, must prove two things: First, that he or she violated a duty either imposed by statute, e.g. the stop sign law, or by the general requirement imposed by "common law" (judge made case law) that all people act as a reasonably prudent person would under similar circumstances. Secondly, that the failure to do so was a proximate cause of his or her injuries. A bicyclist riding through the streets of Chicago without a white front headlight and red rear reflector has violated a duty imposed by state statute. However, whether that failure is a cause of a particular crash and resulting injuries will very much depend on the circumstances. I have faced this issue several times in my bicycle law practice. In my experience, whether the plaintiff bicyclist's lack of illumination proximately caused a nighttime collision with a motor vehicle becomes controversial when the driver hits the cyclist from the side in a well lit area. I have successfully argued a number of times that in that circumstance the cyclist's violation of the light/reflector law had nothing to do with the crash. If the bicyclist was hit from the side, then a front facing light and rear reflector would not have helped the driver see him or her from the side much better. Also, if the location of the crash was very well lit, then even lacking the required equipment the driver still should have seen the bicyclist. Lack of bikes lights did not cause the crash.
There is support in Illinois case law for the notion that an injured bicyclist's violation of a statute need not bar her recovery against a negligent motorist. Though not a bike lighting case, the First District Appellate Court (Chicago is in the First District) considered this issue in Savage v. Martin, 256 Ill.App.3d 272 (1st Dist. 1993). That case arose from a car versus bicycle crash occurring at 103rd and California in Chicago. The bicyclist, a 10 year old girl, was struck by a westbound vehicle on 103rd near its intersection with California as she attempted to ride from south to north across the east-west roadway. The impact occurred in one of the westbound lanes of 103rd. There was conflicting testimony as to what color the light controlling westbound traffic was when the girl rode into the westbound lane. However, there was no issue that when the girl started across the eastbound lanes of traffic on 103rd the light controlling eastbound traffic was yellow. The girl was in clear violation of the vehicle code when she crossed the eastbound lanes. Based upon that the trial court found that she was contributorily negligent as a matter of law. The appellate court reversed that ruling, however, finding that crossing the eastbound lanes on a yellow light was not as a matter of law a proximate cause of the crash that occurred in the westbound lane. The Court stated that, "A jury could conclude that by the time plaintiff crossed over the eastbound lanes of 103rd and the median and reached the westbound lanes, the signal for westbound traffic had turned red. Thus, her act of riding in front of eastbound traffic when the light was yellow may have been negligent, but not a proximate cause of her being struck by a westbound vehicle."
Riding a bicycle at night without lights is dumb 100% of the time. However, the legal effect of not doing so will very much depend upon the circumstances.