Night Riding: personal observations and experiences

From a Darwinian standpoint, it may be that fear of the dark is an inherited trait, passed down since the beginning of time by those humans prudent and afraid enough of the dark to avoid being eaten by nocturnal predators.

Lamppost, Gateshead Request for condition reports on street lighting. One of these is on every lamppost. Photo borrowed from http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1199747

Lamppost, Gateshead
Request for condition reports on street lighting. One of these is on every lamppost. Photo borrowed from http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1199747

There is definite wisdom in being wary of traveling in the dark. However, humans are able to learn and adapt, and riding in the dark is no exception. Having made some errors and sustained injuries during night riding, I have kept some strategies for riding at night that have helped me avoid major trouble thus far (knock on wood).

RL had posted an article a while back about riding at night and below are the comments taken from that article. I have them summarized below:

Be safe, first and foremost: wear a helmet; find a route that keeps you away from the major streets…even if it means extra miles or time…it’s worth it to find a quiet back street with little or no traffic; wear clear or amber sunglass lenses after dark; put in a little extra thought…use your own super tuned senses and hyper alert riding habits to keep yourself aware of any other moving objects, as well as upcoming potential hazards.

See and be seen: reflective vests; orange reflective triangle pinned to your back, blinkies, DOT reflective tape, reflective stripes; the goal is to light up like a Christmas tree…better a geek with a heartbeat than a macho fixie rider without one; run two headlights (one steady, one blinking); helmet-mounted light to shine into the eyes of oncoming drivers; consider a product made for motorcycles called the “halo helmet band”;  have a good back up light.

Be prepared: may get flats at night…so carry a head lamp to make bike repairs a lot easier.

One way to get noticed and seen.

One way to get noticed and seen.

Below are some of my own tips for night riding, some of which echo the advice given above:

1. Slow down. The less you can see, the less time you have to react, so the higher likelihood of crashing if you go at your normal daytime speed.

2. A key distinction with bike lights is being seen versus seeing. Both are equally important. When cars see you, they avoid you. But if you don’t see your surroundings, you risk the chance of an accident.

Example: my blinkies did not help me see a piece of car tire in the middle of my bike lane late one night. It got caught in my spokes when I rode over it, and my bike stopped dead in its tracks, and I catapulted forward. I was also going pretty fast that night.

I use a yellow reflective strip, a white reflective plate, and a red blinker (Blackburn Flea)

I use a yellow reflective strip, a white reflective plate, and a red blinker (Blackburn Flea)

Solution

– As stated above, you can run more than 1 headlight on your bicycle, one flashing to be seen, one steady to see.

– There are a wide range of powerful bike lights, like a 4000+ lumen lamp for a pretty penny.

– Try slowing down just a tad; if I had ridden just a little more slowly, I feel that the severity my accident would have been reduced.

– If all else fails, and you just cannot make out the road ahead of you, try what I call “vicarious lighting.” This technique basically takes advantage of cars’ bright headlights as they pass you or drive towards you from the lane of opposing traffic. By looking at the road as illuminated by these headlights as the car drives ahead or towards you, you can gauge if there are any major debris or potholes lying ahead for the next 10 meters or even further, depending on the circumstances of the car, the curviness of the road, etc. You just have to train your eyes to track the area of the road illuminated by the car and estimate when your bike will reach any area of potential concern or danger. However, use this technique with caution because in the few seconds when the road is not illuminated, you cannot guarantee that a cat, for example, has not scurried in front of your bike.

Using a car's headlights to help illuminate the road ahead.

Using a car’s headlights to help illuminate the road ahead.

3. Usually, I bring only one pair of lights (front and rear) and have a USB charger to charge them up at work. But sometimes, I have picked up a riding buddy on the way home who doesn’t have any lights. Or, I am biking in a group and one person’s lights have died. In this situation, I “split” the one set of lights between two people: put the front light on the front cyclist and the rear light on the rear cyclist. Of course, the pair now has to be much more careful about keeping a safe distance from each other.

How I use a pair of bike lights for 2 bicycles.

How I use a pair of bike lights for 2 bicycles.

4. Dooring sucks during the day time, and I’m sure it sucks even more at night. To reduce my chances of dooring at night, I slow down. I also keep a distance from the parked cars on the side of the road and am especially vigilant when a parked car’s lights are on or if I see any movement inside of the car.

5. Last, but probably the most important, in my opinion, is planning. If I am thinking of biking a new route and know I will likely be riding at night, I try to drive the route before biking it. Sometimes, I even drive the route at night if I feel it necessary to scrutinize the surroundings before committing.

Questions I consider while driving and surveying the route:

– Do other people bike this route? If there are and I can safely drive by them, do they seem very cramped for space?

– How fast do cars drive on this route?

– Does it seem safe in the surrounding areas at night? Is it a busy street at night and well lit, or is it desolate and scary?

– What is the quality of the road? If I can feel lots of bumps while driving, it will probably be about 500 times worse on a bicycle. And you run a greater risk of pinch flats, among other bad things.

Thinking about these sorts of issues is critical to preventing major trouble during a commute, especially at night when bad can get worse very quickly if you are not prepared. If any of these questions cause concern, time to look for another route.

If you have any other tips about biking at night, feel free to comment. Do good and ride well.


8 Comments

  1. Jason April 2, 2014 11:03 am 

    Just an observation as a driver: recently I found I didn’t observe a bicycle approaching a queue of traffic in front of me as early as I would have liked to – I could just see a sea of red lights. I was still in plenty of time to be safe, but a driver less alert than I happened to be at that time might in some confluence of circumstances have had an accident.

    This is unequivocably the driver’s responsibility, and I don’t have a particular suggestion for cyclists to mitigate the potential for error (that cyclist didn’t have blinky lights which might have helped, but probably not infallibly) but it might be another thing worth being aware of.

  2. Andrew April 2, 2014 12:00 pm 

    Hi Jason, thanks for the comment. From what I have read and heard, it seems that drivers in most of continental europe are very familiar with having cyclists nearby, as opposed to a lot of the U.S. What is it like in the UK?

    I agree that driver responsibility and awareness plays a large role in cyclist accident and injury prevention. Certainly, a cyclist has a lot more to lose when getting into an accident with a car; so for me, when I encounter a car at a critical junction of traffic, I always assume that the driver does not see me.

  3. dave h April 2, 2014 5:21 pm 

    Good article. Commuting in northern Idaho, I’m commuting in the dark about 4 months a year. I use 3 headlights; my Planet Bike used as a blinky, a rechargeable light as my main light, and a Schmidt headlight powered by a Shimano generator front hub. Batteries die, rechargeables lose their charge, but a generator powered light is always there.

  4. andrew April 3, 2014 7:07 am 

    Dave, sounds like you have a pretty intense commute! I will have to check out the generator system as it sounds like pretty much fool proof way of avoiding a dead battery or suboptimal charge. Thanks for the comment!

  5. BluesCat April 3, 2014 12:49 pm 

    On my recumbent, my main commuter, I have two headlights: a Blackburn Voyager 3.3 and a NiteRider MiNewt Mini. I put the Blackburn in blink mode (because it is more of a spot light than broad headlight) and make sure the NiteRider lights up the road a good ten yards ahead of my front wheel.
    .
    Front of ‘bent with back light:
    .

    .
    Front of ‘bent without back light:
    .

  6. andrew April 3, 2014 7:01 pm 

    Hey BluesCat, do you think a recumbent would be safer in the event of a collision given that the rider is closer to the ground? I have never ridden one before, so I have never gotten into in accident in one yet. Would be curious to hear your thoughts.

  7. BluesCat April 4, 2014 7:18 am 

    andrew –
    .
    When I was first learning to ride with clipless pedals, on both my ‘bent and my mountain bike, I had a few Arte Johnsons (where you come to a stop and you can’t unclip, and can’t dismount, and you flop over onto the ground). I learned that since you fall a much greater distance on a regular frame bike, it hurts a lot more than on a ‘bent.
    .
    Way back when I was riding a bike with drop handlebars, I learned that in a crash on that bike your head was oftentimes the first part of you body to the accident. Not so on a recumbent: you’re more likely to land on your butt (which, unlike your head, is kinda MADE for landing on).
    .
    Of course, in a bicycle/car collision, ANY bicycle, the bicycle will ALWAYS lose and I don’t think a ‘bent would be any “safer” in that situation.
    .
    I have heard some riders voice the opinion that since a recumbent is lower to the ground than a regular bike, it is much less visible and you’re more likely to get hit by a motorist who doesn’t see you. My experience is that since a recumbent looks much different than a regular bike, it grabs the attention of motorists more and they seem to give you an even wider berth.

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