Having Fun in the Dark
The good news is, next week your ride to work will be brighter. But depending on when you leave work, you may find yourself in twilight, or darkness, on the way home.
One of the reasons it’s hard for bike commuting to take hold in Florida is that we have our optimum riding weather with reduced sunlight. The Northern Tier enjoys beautiful cycling weather and long hours of daylight at the same time. But just when the weather here becomes hospitable, the sun sets on our commutes. People who haven’t had months of beautiful weather to become comfortable with bike commuting, tend to give up at the thought of riding in the dark.
Riding in the dark is safe and fun. I sometimes find it more enjoyable than daylight riding. I also have found motorists to be more courteous and cautious at night than during the day.
Here are a few tips to see and be seen.
From the rear: you want to be seen and identified as a slow-moving vehicle.
- To be seen, a flashing red tail light and reflective piping on your cargo and/or body are effective. Make sure your tail light is mounted securely and aimed properly—you want the hottest part of the beam to be at motorist eye-level before they are on top of you.
- I also use a rear-facing, single-led, flashing red light on my helmet. The Planet Bike Spok light is perfect because it weighs nothing and is mounted easily with a velcro strap.
- To be identified as a bicyclist, reflectors on your pedals or reflective straps around your ankles is an instant announcement that you are on a bicycle (as opposed to a motorcycle or scooter) and the motorist will know to slow and change lanes early. If you have panniers, your feet won’t be visible. The flashing tail light sends this signal too. And retroreflective material on the panniers is a good clue.
From the front: you want to be seen by crossing and turning motorists, but you don’t necessarily want them to process you as a slow bicyclist (especially if you’re a fast bicyclist!). You also need to see the road, if you are riding in full darkness.
- To be seen, a bright LED headlight will get you noticed from the front. In twilight, blinking mode is effective. In full darkness, the light should not blink unless you have a supplemental steady light, because the blinking light makes it difficult for a crossing motorist to determine your speed and proximity.
- Be sure to aim your “be seen” light so its primary cone of light is at motorist eye-level. If your LED light is aimed at the ground, it may be very dim to a crossing motorist. You can also mount your “be seen” light on your helmet. This allows you to control the direction if the beam and point it right at motorists as they approach from a side-street. I use the white Spok light for this, because I don’t like a lot of weight on my helmet.
- Keeping in mind that 95% of crashes happen in front of you, skimping on a headlight is a bad idea. A common mistake made by faster cyclists is using a tiny, light-weight blinky in front to meet the requirement for a headlight. Then they fly down the road in low-light conditions (usually early morning on the way to a ride start) and get clobbered by a left-cross. If you’re in the habit of riding over 18mph, I recommend using a headlight that doesn’t send a “slow-moving bicycle” message to a crossing motorist… even if it weighs a couple grams more.
- To see, LED lights are not as effective. I’ve not found an LED that lit a dark road well enough for me to identify hazards at speed. I use a Night Rider HID. It lights up the road as well as a motorcycle headlight, and far enough ahead that I can’t out-drive its beam. Andrew has chosen a Dynamo system, read his posts about that.
Mount a generator or high-powered battery light low, so its beam pattern extends longest and reveals surface irregularities. Aim taillights and small battery headlights level. Test aim by rolling the bike toward and away from a wall. The center of the beam should stay at the same height.
—John Allen, Street Smarts
Now let’s have some fun
Color it retro: Retroreflective and glow-in-the-dark spray paints are available from several manufacturers, you can use it on racks and baskets… and, I guess, you’re bike. 3M™ makes Scotchlite™ reflective tapes, films and fabrics which can be applied to your bike, accessories and clothing. Have some fun with it.
Pimp your ride:
Rock the Bike makes very cool colored ground effect lighting for bicycles. Their safety arguments may be slightly overblown (I don’t advocate taking risks with yellow lights, nomatter how well you are lit, there are way too many lead-foot light-jumpers out there). I’m sure the side-lighting increases visibility, but the cool factor is good enough for me.
If subtlety ain’t your thing, try the Monkeylectric Monkey Light. Note: This won’t make you conspicuous on I-drive.
Some more info
Read Chapter 8 of John Allen’s Street Smarts – Riding in Rain and Darkness.
P.M. Summer has covered this topic today, too.
Tips for dealing with the rising and setting sun: The Blinding Sun