The Well-Tempered Bicycle Commuter: Night rider

By Steve Chambers

See and be seen for a safe night-time ride.
by Steve Chambers

Night can be a wonderful time to ride a bike. It’s cooler, quieter. There is less hurry to the world. Gliding almost silently along the street with only the sound of the crickets and the sprinklers a few houses away has a calming, almost therapeutic effect. Yet, most people sense riding at night is less safe than in daylight.

Data backs up that intuition. A report from Washington State shows a sharp spike in bicycle-automobile accidents between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. The Edgewater, Florida, bicycle safety website reports that nearly 60% of all adult bicycle fatalities occur between the twilight and dark hours of the day, even though only 3% of all riding takes place during that time. The reasons for these sobering statistics, besides the obvious (darkness), are increased congestion on the streets, particularly in late fall and winter, when the sun sets early; drivers’ lack of attention when traveling lightly used streets, those streets favored by cyclists hoping to avoid traffic; and increased use of alcohol and drugs by both motorists and cyclists. Riding while inebriated does not cancel the effect of drunk drivers.

Twilight is probably the most dangerous time to ride. Headlights do little to illuminate the road ahead and the contrast between the last light in the sky and creeping shadows makes objects nearly invisible.

A cyclist should have two objectives when riding at night: to see and to be seen. Many riders think that the reflectors that come standard on their bikes coupled, maybe, with a white or light shirt, are all they need to be seen. Not true. Any motorist who has been startled upon coming up behind a cyclist in the dark knows these reflectors are not sufficient.

To be seen, riders need to draw attention to themselves. Start by adding reflectors (“passive lighting”). Mount the ubiquitous triangular “slow moving vehicle” symbol on your rear fender or seat back. Put reflective tape on your frame. Buy a reflective vest (you can get these at almost any running store) and wear it over any backpack you might be carrying. Add strips of reflective tape to your pack or messenger bag. One really neat piece of equipment, which, unfortunately, I’ve only found available in Europe, is a plastic flag-type reflector mounted on an arm. The arm folds flat against the bike and can be extended perpendicular to the frame at night. It’s much like the warning and stop signs that extend from a school bus.

Beyond passive lighting, blinking amber or red flashers on the rear and sides of your bike are helpful-not the single red flashers you can get for a buck or two but rather rows of lights, as many as six, with extra flashers for the sides. To be strictly legal, taillights should be red. Many any cyclists, concerned more about being seen than complying with traffic regulations, mount white flashers, which are more visible.

Both these kinds of blinking flashers help drivers see bikes from front and back-very important, since most collisions come from these directions. Many riders, however, are also hit from the side, and often the only side visibility comes from spoke reflectors. A cheap solution is available: the Spokelit, an LED flasher that clips into the spokes in much the same way as traditional spoke reflectors. They can be found at a number of bike shops around town, as well as at Smith’s Market_place, for around $8.

For seeing, rather than just being seen, it’s a good idea to have two separate lights, one mounted on the handlebars, to see what’s in front of the bike, and one mounted on your helmet, to see wherever you turn your head. A number of headlamps for hikers and backpackers can be adapted for a helmet.

The biggest problem with most headlights is that, while you may see to your satisfaction, they are far too weak to be distinguished by oncoming traffic when the rider is backlit by a car. The bicycle headlight blends in with the car’s headlights and an unsuspecting driver might turn or pull out in front of the cyclist. A rule of thumb as far as power of headlights goes is a minimum of 10 watts, plus one watt for every mile per hour over 10 that you plan to ride. Thus, if you plan to ride at 15 mph, you need 15 watts of power.

In addition to all this, the biggest safety device for night riding is your own mind. Stay calm, centered and alert; you will likely see any car long before its driver sees you.

Riding at night is a special treat. Properly lighted and with a good dose of common sense, a night ride can be as safe as a daylight ride.

Steve Chambers rides home safely in the dusk from his office in downtown Salt Lake.



This article was originally published on July 30, 2009.