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Tag Archive: commuting at night

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.

Review: XLC 2-LED “Bright Flex” Light Set

The kind folks at Seattle Bicycle Supply (SBS) offered us a chance to try out their house-brand XLC lights a few months back. As lighting is pretty important for many commuters — besides keeping you safe, front and rear lights on your bike also keep you LEGAL in most municipalities — we jumped at the chance to take these lights for a spin. A courtesy pair appeared in the mail a few days later, and we were off.

The set we got is the XLC 2-LED “Bright Flex” light set…a lightweight pair of lights for the front and rear of just about any bike:

DSC05598s

The lights are simple: acrylic bodies and lenses encased in a soft silicone shell. These lights mount without tools; part of the silicone shell forms a stretchy strap that hooks to a protrusion on the front of each light. Each light contains two LEDs…red ones for the back and white ones for the front. Let’s make something clear right up front: these are “to be seen” lights, and the LEDs don’t have any impressive lumen ratings listed on the SBS website. You will be noticed by other road users, but these lights will NOT illuminate the street in front of you in any appreciable way.

Here’s a look at the strap:
DSC06039s

The strap is stretchy enough to go around most seatposts and handlebars, even the newer oversized 31.8mm bars. The rear light cannot be aimed, so the seatpost angle may affect the rearward visibility of the light. Here, take a look at my setup:

DSC06026s

The light is still pointing backwards, but perhaps not at the very best angle for optimum visibility. It is still noticeably bright from a couple hundred feet back, though.

Each light is powered by a single CR2032 battery, a fairly common size. The lights are claimed to have a run time of 40 hours steady and 80 hours flashing — I’ve had them for six or seven months of regular use and they both continue to shine brightly. Each light has three modes, cycled by pressing a covered button on the top of the body : steady, flashing and strobe. The strobe pattern is pretty eye-catching, so that’s the setting I usually run mine on.

XLC describes the lights as “water resistant”…and that may be true in some locales, but I got caught out in a Florida rainstorm on my very first ride with them. When the front light malfunctioned the next day, I was surprised to discover about a half-teaspoon of water inside the battery compartment. I thought that with the tight silicone housing and vinyl battery cap under the body of the light, these things could shrug off water better than that. Once I poured the water out and let the casing dry, the light started working again, but to this day it doesn’t reliably cycle through all three illumination settings on the first try. I also noticed some corrosion on the contacts between LEDs and the circuit board inside the acrylic body.

Otherwise, there’s not a lot to go wrong with these lights. The body and shell are rugged, the on/off button is protected by the silicone shell and the strap hasn’t stressed or cracked the way the rubber o-rings that come with other lights might.

DSC06024s

The Bright Flex lights are not terrifically bright, nor are they waterproof enough for daily use, so it is hard to recommend them as primary lights for nighttime commuters. But here’s the thing…with a retail price of as little as $13.00, they are inexpensive “backup insurance”. I’ve used them in that role in three ways. First, when I go out for early or late road rides on my road bike, I stuff these lights into a jersey pocket and snap them on when they’re needed. Second, I keep them in my messenger bag for late night backup…if the batteries in my primaries fail, I can always get these out and get home safely. Third, these make great “loaners”; we’ve all been out at night with someone who forgot their own lights, and these are great to have on hand to let a fellow rider borrow. Why, my own set of Bright Flex lights have been loaned out three or four times in this way, and all parties involved got home safe!

So, for the price, these are good lights for backups. Don’t try to scuba-dive with them, don’t expect them to illuminate every pothole on your 50MPH+ downhill commute, and don’t forget to let your buddy borrow them if they forgot their own lights. As long as you keep those three caveats in mind, you can’t go wrong with these XLC lights.

XLC lights and many other products in the SBS family can be ordered through your local bike shop, and you may also find many of these items online. This particular light set also makes a great stocking stuffer for the cyclist(s) in your life.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.

Just Ask Jack — No More Car?

Rick sent in the following question:

I want to ride full time – no more car. I bought a Randonee touring bike and have done a few 40 milers so I know I can do it. I am concerned about sweating and night riding. I need to wear a dress shirt and tie at work and have thought about buying a pannier bag for that. I am also worried about riding at night – I live in Southern Calif in a busy part of town. Any suggestions. I guess I just wish the roads were more bike friendly.

I just can’t seem to pull the trigger and go all bike.

Rick, we’ve written extensively on dealing with the heat, especially since most of us here at Bikecommuters.com live in areas that experience brutal summer heat. Here’s another article that has tips for you.

As for nighttime safety, I wrote an article in 2008 that covers some of the highlights of riding safely at night. We’ve also done several reviews of lights and a DIY article or two that may be helpful — simply click here to be taken to our archive on those subjects. Basically, nighttime safety means being visible and predictable: you can never have too many lights and reflective items, and maintaining your place on the road (no weaving, no blowing through stop signs, etc.) means that most motorists will do what they have to in order to share roadspace with you.

Overkill for nighttime visibility? There’s no such thing!
lights

It can be daunting at first to ride at night, particularly on busy streets. I commuted late at night for the first three years of my current job and quickly realized that the street I took home was rather peaceful as compared to the gridlocked nightmare it was by day. You may also consider finding slightly more out-of-the-way routes if traffic is still heavy on your return trip home.

Really, going completely car-free is a growing process…some people can do it abruptly, but it is often better to “work up” to it. Do your commute and also try to incorporate as many errands as you can by bike. Before you know it, you’ll wonder why you ever owned a car!

Good luck, be safe and have FUN. If anyone else has tips for Rick, please leave them in the comments below.

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.

Review: Fenix PD30 Flashlight

A couple of months ago, Michelle Lei, the marketing supervisor for Fenix Lights, sent me a courtesy sample of their new PD30 flashlight to test. While this isn’t a bike-specific headlight, it can easily be pressed into service as one.

pd30

Here’s some of the information from Fenix:

• Cree Premium (Q5) 7090 XR-E LED with lifespan of 50,000 hours
• 2 modes with 6 types of output
• General Mode: 9 lumens (65hrs) -> 70 lumens (8hrs) -> 117lumens (4hrs) -> SOS
• Turbo Mode: 220 lumens (1.5hrs) -> Strobe
• Digitally regulated output – maintains constant brightness
• Low Battery Indication
• Uses two 3V CR123A batteries (Lithium)
• 118mm (Length) x 21.5mm (Diameter)
• Made of aircraft-grade aluminum
• durable Type III hard-anodized anti-abrasive finish
• 49-gram weight (excluding batteries)
• Waterproof to IPX-8 Standard
• Toughened ultra-clear glass lens with anti-reflective coating
• Push-button tail cap switch
• Capable of standing up securely on a flat surface to serve as a candle
• Included accessories: holster, lanyard, two spare o-rings, and a rubber switch boot

The light itself is solidly-made and feels like it…quality materials and finishing. All parts are sealed with o-rings, so it is weatherproof (I tested that by being caught in a couple of late-season downpours…no problems with the light). The light is compact, so it is easy to stow away in a pocket or bag when not in use.

compact

I especially like the recessed lens — since the lens is glass, it could use some protection, and the light head has a built-in “lip” that keeps the lens away from scratches and other potential damages. The only drawback to the recessed lens is that there is ZERO side-visibility of the light. Since this light isn’t specifically marketed as a bicycle light, it’s probably no big deal, but many municipalities require front headlights on a bike to be visible from the sides as well as the front. Something to think about, in any case…

recessed lens

Let’s talk about the light modes…while there are six different settings, we’ll concern ourselves with the two settings in “turbo mode”. The first is the full-strength steady setting — a full 220 lumens (the Fenix website now shows that the lumen rating has gone up to 235). This intensity completely outpaces all but the expensive bike light systems on the market, and that light is easily enough to see clearly on dark streets. The beam itself has a fairly wide spread with a good “hotspot” in the middle for distance illumination. Here’s a shot of that pool of light (hotspot at top center of photo):

pool

I’m concerned that the wide spread of light may shine into oncoming motorists’/cyclists’ eyes — some of the more expensive bicycle lighting systems have lenses and vertical cutoffs that help eliminate that possibility, and again the Fenix really can’t be compared to them. No matter…I haven’t received any complaints from anyone yet!

Here’s another shot of the light pattern — the bicycle is about 25 feet away from the camera:
light

The other “turbo mode” setting is the flashing strobe…and this is the setting I use most often. The Fenix PD30 flashes at somewhere upwards of 120 flashes per minute (probably closer to 200), and it flashes with the full 220 lumen wallop. The flash is so bright that it will illuminate a reflective street sign from two blocks away in DAYLIGHT. I use this setting in the mornings on my way to work and it definitely gets motorists’ attentions…nobody is turning in front of me! At night, the intensity and speed of the flashing can be disorienting as it lights up everything around me in stark relief. I used the light during a recent Critical Mass ride, and one of my fellow riders said, “wow, that light is obnoxious!” It gets attention, that’s for sure.

Fenix indicated that they may develop a mounting system for this light for bicycle/sports use. Since it didn’t come with such a mount, I used a Twofish Unlimited “Lockblock” with great success. The light’s body is hexagonal, so it won’t slip in the rubber Twofish cradle. Using such a setup means that the light is quite portable and can go from bike to bike without a fuss. And, it doesn’t take up much handlebar real estate.

lockblock

My only real gripe with the PD30 is the battery situation…the light uses two CR123A batteries, and they’re not as cheap and as easy to find as AA/AAA sizes. Also, good-quality rechargeable batteries in the CR123A size can be hard to come by. Luckily, I found some great online deals on disposable batteries for this light. Battery life wasn’t an issue with the light, at least — I used the strobe setting every workday for 3 weeks (25 minutes per ride) without seeing any degradation in the strength of the light. I haven’t been able to test Fenix’s claims of other runtimes as I don’t ride so much at night anymore (no more late hours at the library!!).

Overall, I like the light — it does what I need it to do and it provides enough light to handle fast rides on dark streets. I don’t recommend the turbo-mode strobe setting at night, though — there’s another lower-intensity flashing setting built into the light that is a bit more friendly on the eyes.

The Fenix PD30 retails for around $60.00 USD…that’s a pretty good deal for a strong, well-made light that would be a valuable addition to the nighttime commuter’s arsenal. Check out Fenix’s full line of lights for every possible need by visiting their website.