Riding at Night?

Take Along a Good Light, or Better Yet Two!

by Bill Moritz

When riding at night (or in other conditions of reduced visibility, like fog or rain), your safety and the safety of other road users depends on meeting two specific needs. First, you have to be able to see, and second, you have to be seen.

Let's get the legal stuff out of the way first. Most states follow the Uniform Vehicle Code, which requires that a bicycle operated during darkness have, as a minimum, a white light on the front that is visible 500 feet to the front, and rear-mounted red reflector visible from 600-1000 feet when illuminated by motor vehicle headlamps. Become familiar with your state requirements. Some states require a red taillight. Failure to comply is a moving violation in many jurisdictions and can result in a ticket.

Visibility vs. conspicuity
Cyclists who ride at night usually attempt to meet the see/seen issues by both active (lights) and passive (reflectors and reflective materials) means. Both have their place but often too much emphasis is placed on the passive approach (lots of reflectors) and too little on the active (inadequate or no lights).

Reflectors can only increase your nighttime conspicuity when they are illuminated by the lights of other road users. Further, they are effective only when that light strikes the reflective surface at about 90 degrees. To rely only on reflectors is to dramatically decrease your safety while cycling at night.

The focus here is lighting. A good lighting system must provide enough light for you to see the roadway ahead and to be able to identify road hazards in sufficient time to avoid them. Note that the faster you ride the more light you will need.

One of the greatest problems we face on the road at night is not being seen by other road users. A fixed light may not be seen easily by other road users. A common crash scenario involves a motorist turning or pulling out in front of an approaching cyclist. A helmet mounted light can dramatically reduce the chances that such an accident will happen to you. A helmet light allows you to aim the beam directly at another road user (including pedestrians and other cyclists) who might not otherwise see you coming. The almost universal reaction is to stop, which is exactly what you want them to do.

How many watts?
Bicycle headlights are usually rated in 'watts.' How many you need depends somewhat on the amount of ambient light available where you will be riding. A 3 watt headlight can be adequate if you only travel on well-lighted streets at moderate speeds. If you cycle through areas without street lights or where surface hazards are difficult to see or at higher speeds then you should have at least 10 watts up-front. Many bike commuters think nothing of packing 20 or 30 watts of lighting power. However, if you ride on mixed-use trails be aware that your bright lights might blind on-coming cyclists.

Where you place your light is also very important. Care should be taken to insure that the beam of the light is not blocked by other bike accessories (bags, racks, etc.).

Power sources
You basically have two choices here: a generator or batteries. Generators are a 'renewable' power source and will usually be cheaper and weigh less than a battery system. Some disadvantages: no light when you are stopped (like at an intersection); wattage limited to about 3; can cause additional fire wear; and they can be difficult to maintain in wet conditions. In the case of batteries, it's either dry-cell disposables or rechargeables. Dry-cells are only practical for low wattage (less than 3 watts) systems and when travel time is short. Rechargeable batteries (either NiCad or sealed, lead-acid) can deliver lots of power with long burn times but carry significant weight and initial cost penalties.

As you prepare for your nighttime ride, be sure to include a spare bulb among your riding essentials.

Take a night time survey
If you are a night-rider, I strongly recommend that you get a friend to ride your bike with your equipment while you drive a car and carefully observe how easy it is for you to see 'yourself' in various situations. You may find the results illuminating!

Reprinted from "Bicycle USA", magazine of the League of American Bicyclists, Mar/Apr 1997. Effective CyclingTM.
For more information about the League of American Bicyclists, visit their web site, www.bikeleague.org, or e-mail them at bikeleague@aol.com.

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