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

Glow in the dark clothing: Melton Corp. and Dashing Tweeds use retroreflective yarns interwoven into stylish clothing. It looks normal in daylight, but glows in reflective light at night.

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

4 replies
  1. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    The monkeylectric lights are something new, but still based on the principle of persistence of vision (POV) that is used with the similar product known as Hokey Spokes (http://www.hokeyspokes.com) and also another product called SpokePOV (http://www.ladyada.net/make/spokepov/) which is a kit,rather than a completed product.

    My wife and I have used Hokey Spokes for a few years, but the product is somewhat heavy, as it’s enclosed in a waterproof plastic structure. It’s easily removed and very effective in illumination. I have had some older riders on a multi-use path tell me that he could not ride alongside our tandem, as the flashing light made him disoriented. They certainly attract attention and generate plenty of hoots and hollers.

    I found an online review that was slightly disturbing:
    But it’s only in these controlled environments of innocence where the MonkeyLectrics actually make me feel happy, make my bicycle seem more magical. Far more common is cycling past the KulturBrauerei as the disco gets out, only to have club-goers scream insults at me, or dangerously try to block me on the bike path, looking for a fight. Berlin drunks are a consistent problem: by being noticable, you make yourself a target, and I’ve had a couple of beer bottles hurled at me as I’ve ridden home from the pub, late at night. The police have stopped me, complaining that the MonkeyLectrics are flagrant violations of Germany’s rigid bicycle laws. And while I initially shrugged it off, the cops were right: the MonkeyLectrics’ visual noise has made me a more visible bicyclist at night, but contrary to the website’s claim, it is actually to my peril. Motorists don’t know what I am when they see me coming in their mirror. At night, you can’t really see, so you drive primarily by identifying standardized patterns of light and extrapolating from them vehicles and obstacles. But when I use the MonkeyLectrics, motorists see the lights, but I don’t look like a bicycle: their minds go to ambulances and police. They get spooked. They swerve. American bicyclists may be used to unpredictable drivers threatening life and limb, but Berliners are used to bicycles and are comfortable with accommodating them on the roads. That the MonkeyLectrics were actually causing motorists to drive more dangerously around me was undeniable.

    There have been some studies published that flashing lights in many different forms (police, fire, bike taillights) tend to attract intoxicated drivers into a collision course. Apparently non-flashing lights are not as much of a concern, so something like these POV lights could be increasing one’s risk on the road after dark.

    The fun factor is unmistakable, however, especially the SpokePOV programmable device. You can have anything you like displayed in the wheel, if it fits into the kit you’ve purchased.

    Just today, I found in a catalog a 17″ wide LED marquee display unit. It uses 12v, which I already have in place in my velomobile. It’s not particularly large and it’s fully programmable, but do I really need to send a text message to drivers behind me? 🙂
    If you visit the site, you might be amused at the canned message on the display.

  2. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    The Florida Freewheelers have an annual christmas lights ride and such accessories would fit in well. Perhaps the lights could be programmed to show christmas ornaments or just festive colors.

    The fun factor has to be the primary part and I look for reasons to get out for those rides that make it work.

    Not part of the illumination topic, but very much the fun part is a toy I picked up years ago called the Amazing Bicycle Bubble Machine. It’s a pinwheel with bubble wands on each petal of the pinwheel. Moving forward causes the wand to dip into the bubble mix and when it rotates into the airflow, a barrage of continuous bubbles are left behind. Apparently, there’s some glow in the dark bubble mix out there, so it could fall into the illumination category after all.

  3. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    For neon-like effects, take a look at this product: http://www.glowire.com and check out the photo gallery for ideas.

    To me, there is a difference from “being seen” vs. screaming “look at me!!” That’s how I see some of these lighting options … screaming. Fun maybe, but screaming.

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