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Riding a bike in the dark without lights is not only dangerous, but in Holland it's also illegal - we all know that. Still, about half of the young Dutch cyclists ride their bike without lights. That's why this year's campaign encouraging cyclists to 'switch on your lights' specially focuses on 12 to 24 year-olds. Will it make any difference?
Beware, cyclists without lights are a common sight on the Dutch roads! Photo © Holland-Cycling.comBeware, cyclists without lights are a common sight on the Dutch roads! Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Aim of the campaign

Each year, as the days get shorter, Holland has a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of cycling in the dark without lights. As the directors responsible for this year's campaign say: "Cyclists are extra vulnerable in traffic in the dark. Therefore it is important that we make them aware of the necessity of good bike lights, because this contributes to their own safety." Sadly, years of such campaigns have made little difference in the number of young cyclists putting their lives at risk.

Young cyclists don't seem to be too worried about being visible in the dark. About half of them cycle without lights on. Some just don't bother, even though their lights are in perfect working order. Interestingly, as soon as these very same young cyclists get behind the steering wheel they consider this behaviour irresponsible (87%), wrong (82%) and very annoying (76%).

As car drivers they would never dream of being out on the roads in the dark without lights. The organisers of the campaign hope these young drivers will become aware that they need to be equally responsible when they ride their bikes.

Why no lights?

The most common reasons cyclists give for riding without lights is that 'they have forgotten to switch them on' or that 'they don't have lights that work because the lights are broken or have been stolen'. One cyclist in Utrecht said: ' If it were really dangerous without lights... But here it's always light as it's a city. People always see me.' Officially cyclists without lights risk a fine, but many say they've never been fined. In other words, it doesn't really matter.

Clearly 'forgetting' to switch on bike lights or thinking traffic will see you anyway is pretty stupid. Awareness campaigns are likely to have a positive influence here - as long as they appeal to the target group. To get ideas how parents can motivate their children to switch on their lights, Utrecht City Council has set up a competition. The entries have to be practical, effective and possible to implement this winter season. The best ideas will be awarded € 1000.

Bike light repair sessions

Then there is the problem of broken and stolen bike lights. Unfortunately, stealing and vandalising bike lights seems to be a common pastime in Holland. That's why many cyclists just give up. As one desperate cyclist said: 'I buy bike lights once a year and if they get stolen or broken, I continue cycling without lights.'

To help cyclists start the winter season with working bike lights, Dutch Traffic Safety Organisation (VVN) will be checking the lights of 75,000 bikes. The Dutch Cyclists' Union (Fietsersbond) and the Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) offer bike light repair sessions around the country to fix those broken lights.

For cyclists who are caught out without working lights after shops closing hours, the bike light vending machine was introduced in 2013. Here cyclists can purchase simple replacement lights that will get them home safely. Now these bike lights are also available at certain cafes - so-called 'Light Points' (Lichtpunten) - where they can be purchased for the price of one beer!

Our experience

Over the years a lot of time and money has gone into bike light campaigns - clearly with little result. Are Dutch cyclists such an irresponsible bunch of people that refuse to abide by the law, or is there a deeper problem that is not addressed by the campaigns?

Take us, for example. We cycle day and night (if we have to). We believe good bike lights are vital for our safety - to see and to be seen. But despite all our efforts to keep our bike lights in working order, I have to confess that even we sometimes break the law. Not because we want to, but because our lights stop working at the wrong moment due to run down batteries or faulty equipment.

What should manufacturers do?

So let's go back to the difference in attitude between young car drivers and young cyclists. Is it only their attitude that's different? Unless there has been an accident, car drivers expect their lights to work for many years on end. Cyclists, on the other hand, are lucky if their lights last through one winter. Surely, manufacturers of bike lights should be able to address that!

I remember a bike fair where a manufacturer of bike lights was proudly demonstrating their extra-safe 'intelligent' bike light with beams that changed depending on the speed at which you're cycling. A great idea maybe, but they were forgetting the basics: bike lights need to be reliable and sturdy, able to stand some rough handling and bad weather. Advanced electronics aren't going to much good on a bike if they're housed in a flimsy plastic casing. When sooner or later it inevitably breaks, one more cyclists will be out on the road without working lights.

Bike light campaigns are an important way to raise awareness of how dangerous it is for cyclists to be out in the dark without good lights. We find that most lights on the market today are too flimsy and breakable, so unless manufacturers take some responsibility and stop producing bike lights that may not even last one season, I fear the number of cyclists unwillingly putting their lives at risk in the dark won't significantly decrease.

Requirements for bicycle lights and reflectors
'I am visible' campaign poster [br]Photo © Holland-Cycling.com'I am visible' campaign poster
Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Bicycle lights:

  • Front light - white or yellow
  • Back light - red
  • Lights have to shine straight ahead
  • Flashing lights are not allowed
  • Loose lights (i.e. not fixed to the bike) are allowed if properly visible and attached to your upper body, not to your head or limbs

Fine for incorrect bike lights: € 55

Bicycle reflectors:

  • Red reflector (not triangular) - on the back of the bicycle
  • Yellow reflectors - on the pedals
  • White or yellow reflective tyres

Fine for incorrect bike reflector: € 35

See also: Traffic rules & regulations for cyclists