The Iowa Code requires a white headlight and red rear reflector.
321.397 Lamps on bicycles.
Every bicycle shall be equipped with a lamp on the front exhibiting a white light, at the times specified in section 321.384, visible from a distance of at least three hundred feet to the front and with a lamp on the rear exhibiting a red light visible from a distance of three hundred feet to the rear; except that a red reflector may be used in lieu of a rear light. A peace officer riding a police bicycle is not required to use either front or rear lamps if duty so requires.
I grew up in a small town in downstate Illinois where the police would ticket kids who were caught riding at night without a headlight. I remember that no one would take a chance of riding without a light because if Officer Mitchell saw you, he’d pull you over and give you a ticket. I had an old school Cateye headlight powered by C cell batteries. It was state of the art at the time, but it was huge. I never rode at night without it because I didn’t want to get a ticket. To be honest, I don’t know if anyone ever actually got a ticket, but I do remember that the fear of being ticketed was real among my friends. We all used headlights or flashlights.
My experience over the last 30 years is that headlight law enforcement is basically nonexistent. Since I left that small town I have never once heard of an instance in which a person received a ticket for riding at night without a headlight. Every time I give a presentation to a cycling club or group I ask if anyone has ever heard of a person getting a ticket for no headlight. Understand that I have been giving presentations to cycling groups for almost 2 decades, and only once did a person say they had a friend who was issued a warning some years back in a suburb of Chicago. Other than that I have never heard of a headlight ticket being issued since I left my small town.
Although I never see this law used by law enforcement, I have seen it used time and time again by otherwise negligent motorists asserting a violation of the headlight law after they hit a bicyclist at night. The typical scenario goes something like this:
A bicyclist gets struck by a motorist at night. The street could be lit up beautifully by street lights, and the bicyclist could have had all possible contrasting clothing and reflectors. The driver says the same thing a majority of drivers say after they strike a bicyclist. “I didn’t see them.” They point out that the bicyclist did not have a headlight as required by statute. The defendant driver will assert an affirmative defense at trial suggesting that because the bicyclist was operating the bicycle at night without a headlight they were per se negligent. That means the statutory violation speaks for itself. They argue that the bicyclist was negligent because they were riding at night without a headlight and if they had used a headlight the driver would have seen them and the collision would have been avoided.
I like the idea of bicycle laws being enforced consistently so that bicyclists comply. I don’t like having unenforced laws on the books that provide otherwise negligent motorists with defenses.
The bottom line is that if you don’t use a headlight you do so at your own peril. Not only does a white headlight make you more visible and give other roadway users a good indication of your direction of travel, but it is also required by law. If you don’t have a headlight a driver can basically do whatever they want to you and then point to the statutory violation as a defense.
Be seen and be legal. Use a white headlight and red rear reflector.