WASHINGTON — Uncle Sam wants to know if bicycles glow enough in the dark.
No, this doesn't mean all bikes may soon look like your kid's "Rad Thrasher" model, with its neon-lime paint visible from the moon. But it does mean that the federal government is studying the reflectors bicycles now carry - those white, red, and amber sparkly things that glitter at night.
Driven by safety concerns, US regulators have launched a study to determine if 20-year-old government standards for bike reflectors are adequate. One goal: Determine if Washington needs to order manufacturers to equip bikes with lights.
Get ready for a 21-speed revolt from some cycle sources if they do. More safety education - not an extra $100 in US-mandated hardware - is the real answer, some bikers say.
"Since night usage among cyclists is relatively small, it would be unfortunate to increase the cost of all vehicles sold," says Roger Herz of the New York-based Bicycle Transportation Action, which promotes bicycle transportation as economically and environmentally beneficial to city life.
The Consumer Protection Safety Commission (CPSC) is the government group that's doing the study. It was prompted to begin by a recent increase in deaths and injuries to bicyclers riding at night.
"We're going to look at the existing reflectors, we're going to look at possible improvements to the reflectors, and we will also look at lights" to see how quickly automobile drivers react to them, says Mark Kumagai, who is in charge of the CPSC's bicycle reflector project.
As more riders - the League of American Bicyclists now estimates 30 million - hop on bikes each month, addressing requirements that haven't been looked at in the past 20 years becomes more urgent. Current regulations call for eight reflectors: a white one in the front, a red in the rear, one on the spokes of each wheel, and four on the pedals.
But some bicycling enthusiasts worry that instead of shedding light on the real problems, the study will lead the CPSC to mandate that manufacturers add lights to bicycles.
Most everyone agrees that headlights are better than reflectors. Indeed, all states require them for nighttime riding. The controversy is over whether the federal government should be mandating lights or reflectors at all.
Bicycle experts say what's needed is education about nighttime riding, not government regulations that lull riders into a false sense of security or that make bicycles more expensive for everyone - especially since only a small percentage of cyclists ride at night.
"Most Americans think the all-reflector system makes nighttime riding as safe as it can be," says John Forester, a cycling transportation engineer who writes on the subject.
He cites a 1989 New Jersey court case, Johnson v. Derby Cycle Company. Collin Johnson, a high school student from East Orange, N.J., got off work about midnight and began riding his bicycle home. His bike was equipped with the required reflectors but no headlight. Pedaling downhill, he smashed into a Jeep that was making a left turn. Because the Jeep didn't approach Mr. Johnson from the front or rear, its lights didn't shine on the bike's reflectors. The crash left Johnson partially paralyzed.
He sued Derby Cycle Company, the maker of his bicycle, for negligence because it didn't supply a headlight as standard equipment and didn't warn him it was unsafe to ride at night without a headlight. After a trial that ended in November 1993, the jury ordered Derby to pay Johnson $7 million. (Johnson later agreed to settle on appeal for $3.25 million.)
"That shook the industry," Mr. Forester says. The regulation of reflectors encourages cyclists to ride at night without headlights, he argues. "What we want [the CPSC] to do is scrap the all-reflector system."
Allen Greenburg, government relations director for the Washington-based League of American Bicyclists, agrees. He says well over half of evening bicycle accidents involve reflectors that just "won't do the job." By the time an automobile gets close enough for its lights to shine on the reflectors, he says, "it's too late."
"Most controversial is the front [white] reflector, because some people believe it implies you have a headlight," Mr. Greenburg says.
For Greenburg, education is key. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which discourages bicycling at night, does not offer the right solution, he says. Many people, such as Johnson, ride bicycles to and from work because they don't have alternatives. "We need to stop telling people not to ride at night and tell them what measures they need to take to ride at night," he says.