My objective is simple enough... I want people to be safe when out riding. Too often on my way to work I often see cyclists in the dark and rain without lights. When I see them I try and offer them an extra light I keep handy, just in case.

The problem is I have only been successful two times over the course of a full year. Most of the time, male or female, young or old, I am told that they either have one some where or they forgot their batteries or some other crazy excuse. I have even offered free batteries to no avail.

One time it took me running into the same fellow three times on a dark forest track before he would accept an old set of trail lights I had kicking about. (And of course the next day my newer replacement lights died - talk about Murphy's Law!) The only other time, I felt like the person was begrudgingly allowing me to mount a light on their bike (they were riding in the dark down a busy rural road with no street lights).

In theory this should be a simple exercise, but I am failing miserably.
I know my approach is important so I focus on being friendly and non-judgemental (no one likes being called out). I don't tell them what they should or should not be doing, I only talk about how the conditions make it hard to see and that I have some lights they can have.


What is going on here? Am I missing some sort of psychological/human nature angle? Should I be taking a completely different approach?

Note: I am unclear if the bicycles stack is the most appropriate stack for the question, but figured I would give it a go here first.


I wanted to thank everyone for their ideas and feedback.I am currently shopping the idea of a central light give-away with various local sponsors. The best target will be in the area around the major city I live in as it has the highest density of cyclists.

That said, I actually work out in a smaller community, which will likely be missed in any give away due to the lower volume of cyclists. So I am continuing to work on my technique for the ones I encounter here. Tonight I was able to give one to a older stealth cyclist who refused me in the past (and who was actually the impetus for this post). I just extra time striking up a conversation and was a bit more persuasive in my sell job. Also I made an extra effort to communicate that there were no strings were attached (mainly in my tone and some small comments about the origins of the lights - Moᶎ's "unknown provenance." I will also see if a small light gift certificate is an easier give-away.

  • 7
    Do you live in a town with a lot of cyclists? If so, your police department might be able to do an event to give away bicycle lights and stuff.
    – Batman
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 22:38
  • With casual riders, I often run into the rebels that ride no lights in the dark. The thinking often here is,"I'm just doing this one time to get home." Often I've had to go as far as mentioning that the local police ticket regularly. Trust me a pair of LED front and rear lights is convincing weighted against a citation cost. I'm not tried to be a vigilante, I'm just concerned for others safety. I'm surprised that people aren't aware of the low cost options they have for lights for those "just one time" situations. So if there is an opening in the conversation, I'll politely bring it up. Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 23:39
  • If they are too careless or too stuck-up to accept a light when they need one, don't worry about them. They will eventually learn their lesson.
    – BSO rider
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 0:34
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    when you offer lights to people, what is their reaction when they refuse? is it a polite refusal? or maybe a "mind your own business" refusal? I'm just thinking that although you say you adopt a non-judgmental attitude, possibly they could interpret the gesture itself as being judgmental?
    – PeteH
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 11:44
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    I suspect that you might also get good answers to this question on Cognitive Sciences.SE
    – Zano
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 9:21

8 Answers 8


We have had much more success advertising it and doing it through a local bike shop or bike group. Once each, so far, that I've done.

I think the psychology behind refusing a gift from a stranger is much as Criggie says. You're some random dude approaching people at night offering second hand lights of unknown provenance. Why are you doing that? What's going on? Especially because you're also criticising them "you, the idiot without lights, stop and let me tell you how to do it properly". Yeah, nah.

FWIW, I have your same issue with chain lube. Occasionally I'll ride up behind someone whose bike is in mortal agony and say "I have chain lube in my pannier, wanna stop and let me fix that noise for you" and hardly anyone will accept.

The first time I was involved in a lighting give-away was when the Critical Mass fund I kept had more than a thousand dollar surplus and I decided I should do something with it. Critical Mass is an anarchy, so it really was my decision. While chatting with the owner of a bike shop at Mass we came up with the idea of buying a bunch of cheap-but-reasonable lights and giving them away. We talked to the local cycling promotion bureacrazy and they agreed that given 6-12 months to get themselves organised they could help promote it. We declined. I handed over the cash (my $1000, about $500 from the shop for lights that wholesaled at ~$5/pair when bought by the boxful), the shop ordered some of boxes of lights, I printed up a few posters and we put them up in the shop and along the bike route we were targeting. Then one winter night we set up a stall on the footpath next to the bike route, got 3-4 people to man it, and gave away about 300 sets of lights over 3 nights. We explicitly didn't stop people getting more than one set, but we did refuse a couple of people who were obviously going "free stuff, give me everything".

That was very popular, and was sufficiently effective at promoting the bike shop that the owner went "I can spend $500 on a 1/4 page ad in bike magazine, or $500 on free lights... the lights work much better". Even people who didn't need or want the free lights thought better of the shop for the give-away.

So a couple of years later the shop owner did a deal with the cycling promotion unit in the local council or state government or somewhere (I wasn't involved with that bit). The promotion people advertised it and put in half the light fund, the shop ditto, and we/they gave away another few hundred lights (I helped with this bit). The location was picked to suit the promotion people, but it was busy and also the site of a new cycle route. Again, very popular and effective.

The difference is that we had an official-looking banner and multiple people, plus the signage/people were known entities. People will take a free gift from a local businessman, or "that guy from Critical Mass" who they see regularly, much more willingly that someone they've never seen before. It's about attributing motivation. "it's a bike shop promotion" or "that guy is nuts about bike community" is easy and people will just run with it. Having to think about why you're trying to press lights on them is hard.

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    +1 for "unknown provenance." I have thought about organizing a centralized give-away - so your answer has given me motivation. Glad to hear you have good success. In the same vein have also considered give out a small gift certificate when running into someone without lights. That way people can think on it rather than make a split second decision whether or not to accept something from a random crazy at night.
    – Rider_X
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 22:24
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    The more I think about it, your "unknown provenance" is bang on. We all have a tendency towards being cognitive misers, if its too difficult to assess all the factors (who, what, when, where, why) we take the easiest/"safest" option, in this case "no, thanks!"
    – Rider_X
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 22:32
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    This was going to be my answer but Moz beat me to it. If this is something you're passionate about, work with some local businesses and legitimize it! A combination of the gift certificate and light giveaway option if you were partnered with a bike shop might be that they could either get a free cheap light, or a coupon for $5-10 off a set of good lights at the shop. Or, even let them take the free light, and exchange it for a discount on a better light if they wanted to upgrade in the future. Then you can take the exchanged free lights and give them out again!
    – nhinkle
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 22:32
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    It depends on who you're targeting. We were after people on BSO's who can't afford/won't buy lights as our first priority. The gift certificates strike me as a bit of a hassle, TBH. I'd do them as business cards if I did that, because those are cheap and reasonably robust so they'll survive being dropped in a sweaty pocket better than a flyer will. And you can use "$5 off a light at {bike shop}" for any promotion, so if you don't use them on the day you don't have to bin them. 'return the light for a discount' risks a stack of lights appearing in the shop over the next few months.
    – Móż
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 22:39

I am from the Bike Lobby in Austria, and we are doing security checks together with the police. We make a checkpoint, the police stops all cyclists and checks their equipment.

If everything is O.K. we give the rider a goodie, like some chocolate

If something is amiss we have a repair tent nearby where we fix the problems. We have reflectors for free, and do repairs e.g. for dynamo powered lights for free. If there are some components missing (battery lights) we sell them cheaply. If someone does not want to fix their lights (happens rarely) he will not be fined, but has to push his bike.

This works great, and we have pushed the light quota from 60% to 95% in the city we are doing this kind of activities. It requires a lot of effort and support from the government though. We run 12 of these checkpoints on different places in the city, always in the weeks before or after the change from daylight saving time to normal time. This activity is sponsored by the government, they are paying the costs for the repair tent and some of the equipment and goodies.

So summarizing: Instead of trying on your own, better work together with some people and get organized. This approach works!

Infos about the Event in German

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    Setting up police checkpoints to stop all cyclists sounds more like harrassment than promotion.
    – Dan Hulme
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 13:02
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    No fear! The relationship between police and population is a little bit more relaxed in Austria. And they would do the checkpoint anyway, but if we in on it there are no fines and reprimands but free reflectors and free chocolate.
    – Paul Weber
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 13:16
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    If police were standing around on the street (downtown Chicago) and I saw them trying to stop people en masse to check their bike equipment, I'd blow right by them. Here you have to be suspected of a crime to be stopped and or detained in a vehicle.
    – ebrohman
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 18:07
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    @ebrohman 625 ILCS 5/11-1509 Illinois Vehicle Code "A uniformed police officer may at any time upon reasonable cause to believe that a bicycle is unsafe or not equipped as required by law, or that its equipment is not in proper adjustment or repair, require the person riding the bicycle to stop and submit the bicycle to an inspection..." I wouldn't recommend ignoring an order to stop even if you think there's nothing wrong with your bicycle and the officer doesn't have reasonable grounds. If push comes to shove its your word against theirs.
    – Ross Ridge
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 6:42
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    Again, this is Austria. You do not have to fear Police, except if you are doing stupid stuff. Well cycle on and miss your free cookie and they might have put a patrol car and some motorcycles 500 m up front and might stop you forcefully. This is what they are doing on ordinary checkpoints, they are not dumb. Or there might be no patrol car because bike lobby is here and everybody stops. There is a reason we are converting this inconvenience to a pleasant experience. In Austria, checks like this are not so unusual for cars and for bikes, because we have a problem with drunk drivers.
    – Paul Weber
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 15:46

Yeah I've thought of doing this too. However people generally don't accept spontaneous gifts because it creates a sense of obligation and humans avoid that.

The other viewpoint is they are adults and have made a choice to ride without lights. You are not responsible for their decisions, and they have to live with the results of their actions.

Short answer: Not your problem - Respect a fellow adult's space, even if you know its stupid.

Alternative answer: If you still want to help, contact your local bike co-operative and see if you can volunteer time fixing bikes. Our local coop subsidises a pair of red and white flashies for less than wholesale cost, and sometimes we just put them on a repaired bike. Downside is they're still pretty poor lights but better than nothing.

Lights came from http://dx.com/ Not a product recommendation, but they're cheaper in lots of 10. Batteries last about a month of daily usage, and they're unobtrusive enough to leave on the bike most of the time.


Personally I use one of these as a second/backup rear light, and I also hang one on the dog's collar when walking at night.

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    I think "not my problem" is a lazy way out. While I realize you can't force people, we can do a better job at persuasion. I do donate time and parts to a bike co-operative, but the not everyone who needs a light seeks them out from the co-op.
    – Rider_X
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 21:28
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    @Rider_X I agree - its not a good answer, but taking on someone else's bad choice and fixing it for them is denying them their individual freedom to chart their own course through life, Human psychology is a strange beast - if you can work around the obligation-rejection somehow then they might accept a gift of a light. One thought - how do you get the attention of a rider? Hearing someone yell "HEY YOU ON THE BIKE!" would make me ride off quicker, specially in handgun-legal countries.
    – Criggie
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 21:33
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    To get attention, I just give a quick "howdy" when passing (I don't attempt to someone heading in the opposite direction). People are typically friendly, followed by some awkwardness when they try and figure out how to respond. The more I think about it, I suspect people are just being cognitive misers, its too difficult to assess all the factors (who, what , why) so the easiest answer is "no, thanks!"
    – Rider_X
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 22:30
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    I think you've nailed the psychological barrier on the head. People don't want to feel suddenly obliged to someone else for something they never asked for in the first place. Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 5:44
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    Along with obligation, accepting a light would mean admitting you were wrong not to have had one already. No one likes to admit they were doing something dumb!
    – Cascabel
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 7:37

Consider offering to lend your spare set instead, and give an address where they can be returned. It doesn't have to be your own address; you could specify a local bike shop, for example.

This reduces social pressure on the recipient, because they can then believe they are willing to return the lights to you. Whether they do or not is of little relevance, as you don't mind if you don't get them back.

If people do return them by dropping them off at the bike shop, then you are likely to go up in the shop owner's estimation for sending in lots of potential customers, so that's an extra benefit!

  • 5
    That's a good idea. I wonder if it would work better to say "and pass them on to someone else when you don't need them any more" instead?
    – Móż
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 22:47
  • 1
    @Mσᶎ - I'm like the paying it forward idea. I think I will take it a step further and say the lights were lent/given to me, and I just wanted to pay it forward. It makes it my issue, not theirs.
    – Rider_X
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 0:15

There may be an element of social debt, as Toby mentioned, especially if the lights are large or otherwise look expensive. By approaching them in the dark and rain they may also be more on edge compared to being approached midday.

In Ottawa, Canada, there's been success passing out free cheap lights with a small information brochure. Make sure you approach very friendly, and explain why you're doing this. There's a short news report from last year on one cyclist taking this in his own hands: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/free-bike-light-campaign-aims-to-make-ottawa-roads-safer-1.2719526.

  • Thank you for the link, it was an interesting read. A thousand lights out-of-pocket is very generous!
    – Rider_X
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 4:58

One factor that has not been mentioned yet. Most people are not getting on their bike to participate in social mingling, but are on their way to something. So if you stop them to offer them light you are interrupting and delaying them from reaching their destination. This might or might not be a significant issue for the other person, but it might set you up for a negative start. So just be aware of this and adjust the shortness of the interaction appropriately.


I have given away about 20 sets of lights to local teenagers. They have nearly all accepted them gratefully. My tips:

I give away small USB chargeable lights. If teenagers can't be bothered to buy lights, they won't bother with changing batteries so it's pointless giving them lights that require batteries to be changed. The small size and USB connectivity I think make them more acceptable as a high-tech solution. They also strap on so no need for ugly brackets or tools to fit.

I just offer them the lights, I don't make comments about it being unsafe to ride without lights.

Generally they know me or have seen me around, and I offer them when in conversation and they are stopped, not when they are purposefully riding.

Having said that there have been some isolated incidents where the situation has been different, and they have still been well received, e.g. some wild teenage boys wheelieing in the high street, I caught up with them and complimented them on their skills and offered them lights, and they accepted them.

Another idea I have is to donate some to a charity event. There is an annual BMX jam thing at the skatepark, which includes an auction of merchandise donated to the event. Often this is made up into packs, and in previous years this has included helmets, so I think they'd be happy to include lights in the pack.

It is good fun giving away lights!


I tend to use several battery powered bike lights on my bike, the rather cheap kind you use for a couple of weeks or even months but do not change the batteries in, with a rubber or elastic band to attach it.
Several times each week I use the local pool and most of the time parents leave with their kids after swimming lessons at the time I park my bike and at the time I leave.
When mother tells the kid the light is not working I offer one of mine and more than half the time the mother accepts it.

While I am a regular at that time, nobody has ever offered it back.

My point, the lights are quite cheap and I clearly can miss one (as I still have two working ones at least) and the person getting it and I are both standing still, within easy talking distance.

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