USAG BENELUX-BRUNSSUM, Netherlands — Darker days during the winter can mean increased danger for bicycle riders in the Benelux.
The season’s shorter days and adverse weather can make it difficult for drivers to see the cyclists and other vehicles around them when travelling along the region’s roadways. This can lead to an increase of accidents, and – especially for cyclists – sometimes even fatalities.
“[Bicycle] riding in winter often means riding in gloomy conditions or in the dark,” said Charles Bowring, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux safety and occupational health specialist. “Low-light conditions mean lights are necessary to get around safely.”
According to the European Commission, almost one in 10 registered road fatalities in Europe occur with cyclists. Taking countermeasures such as proper bicycle illumination can help decrease this statistic.
While cyclists can often think collisions are caused because of driver inattention, the Škoda Traffic Safety Research Centre in Czechia (also known as the Czech Republic) says nighttime accidents between vehicles and bicycles are mainly due to the driver not seeing the cyclist.
Bowring agrees. “The two most important reasons to use bicycle lights during winter are frankly to see and be seen.”
Dutch, Belgian and German law all require cyclists to have a non-flashing white light visible to their front and a red taillight in the back. The lights can be affixed to the bicycle or worn on the chest and back. When shopping for bicycle lights, a brightness of 200 to 600 lumens is considered ideal and can be purchased at many low-budget stores.
“In rural, unlit areas, you’ll need to make yourself stand out like a sore thumb,” said Bowring. “With fewer light sources and more blind bends, the higher the lumen count the safer you’ll be.”
In addition to the lights, both bicycle wheels are required to have two double-sided reflectors mounted 180 degrees apart on the spokes. The pedals must also have reflectors visible from both the front and back of the bicycle.
Law enforcement in all three countries randomly check cyclists and will administer fines of up to €64 for cyclists without lighting or with underactive lighting. Fines for not using mandatory reflectors are closer to €44 per ticket.
Neighboring countries have similar penalties for not properly outfitting bicycles for low-light or winter conditions.
“[Proper illumination can] prevent you from being hit,” said Nino Antonacci, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux-Brunssum's safety officer.
To further increase visibility to drivers, Bowring also recommends cyclists wear brightly colored clothes and reflective outerwear.
Outside of illumination requirements, most European countries also require bicycles to have a bell affixed to the handlebars and regularly serviced brakes.
Wearing a helmet is required on all U.S. military installations and in Belgium, with approved helmets required to be fastened under the chin. While not a requirement, they are highly advised in the Netherlands and Germany.
According to the European Commission’s 2022 road safety report for cyclists, the use of a helmet can decrease fatal head and brain injuries by 71% during falls or crashes.
With constantly changing road conditions throughout the year, pedestrians and motor vehicle drivers also play a key role in traffic safety.
Similar to cyclists, pedestrians should avoid wearing dark clothing and instead don brightly colored reflective outerwear.
Drivers can increase their visibility by cleaning vehicle windows and mirrors regularly. Wearing sunglasses or using the visor can also help shield the driver's vision from the low winter sun.
By following precautionary advice and established laws, road users can all share the road more safely and possibly even save lives.
“It’s not about obeying the laws,” said Antonacci. “It’s about safety—not only for yourself—but for other road users as well."
For more tips on traffic safety contact your garrison Safety Office.