QUESTION: Is it safe to road bike at night? — Anonymous
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: With the right lights and reflective clothing, it can be about as safe as daylight riding and perhaps a bit more so, because after dark, your lights really stand out and call attention to your presence on the road. The exception is if you are in a high-traffic area where your light is just one of many drivers have to pay attention to.
Regarding lights, you need two types: one to enable you to see the road surface in front of you and make you noticeable to oncoming drivers and one (or more) to enable overtaking drivers to see you. But with the modern LED lights now widely available for bicycles, it’s not difficult to acquire these.
The front unit, which should be put out white light, illuminates the road to help you avoid potholes, debris, scurrying animals, parked cars and other obstacles, while also making you noticeable to oncoming traffic. Typically, this light should be mounted on your handlebars and aimed so as to light up the road immediately in front of your wheel and keep you visible to oncoming drivers. This light shouldn’t be so bright that it blinds oncoming drivers.
When using a front light for daytime running, it’s advisable to use it in flashing mode, but at night, it needs to be constantly on, so you want to be sure that light will burn for as long as you plan to ride.
The rear light, which should be red, helps drivers be aware of you. Where you mount this depends on whether you have a fender, a rear rack. an under-the-seat bag, or some other provision for carrying cargo, but it is essential that this light be aimed toward the rear parallel to the road. Some rear lights come with a bracket that mounts to your seatpost, but a light in that location is easily blocked by other stuff on the bike, so you may need to create a bracket of your own. Too often, mounting it on a seat bag leaves the light sagging and shining downward instead of rearward. For more about this, see “Living to Ride Another Day.”
Whether using your rear light for either daytime running or nighttime riding, it should be pulsing for maximum noticeability. If, however, you have two rear lights, you may want to keep the second one steady, so that, as with tail-lights on a car, the steady light will help drivers recognize their proximity to you.
But lights are just the start. It’s also important to wear reflective clothing — this is no time for black garments or other dark garb that renders you virtually invisible. I recently acquired and reviewed a jacket that’s expressly designed for visibility, but there are many options for bike clothes with florescent accents.
And these reflective accents, especially when they are on your feet or legs, really increase the likelihood of you being seen as the up-and-down movement of your legs as you pedal is proven to catch the eye of overtaking drivers. (For more on this, see “Study: Cyclists Safer on the Road when Using These High Visibility Items.”) Some pedals include reflectors on the edges that face traffic, which also provides eye-catching movement, and you can add patches of reflective tape around the heels of your cycling shoes for the same purpose.
If possible, avoid high-traffic areas when riding at night.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.