Thursday, February 13, 2014

Taking the Lane: Night Time Visibility

As you start riding your bike more often for transportation, you will eventually have the opportunity to ride your bike at night. When I started commuting, I loved my first nighttime rides. The mechanics of night riding are the same as day riding, but you need to take a few extra steps to be seen. It is the responsibility of motorists to look out for us, but as courteous commuters, we should make this as easy as possible. I commute on unlit, narrow roads in rush hour traffic in a country where the sun can set as early as 4pm in the winter, so I have learned a few tricks to be seen at night. While bike laws vary from state to state and country to country, there is generally a requirement to have a front white headlight and rear red light. Your main bike should always be ready to out at night and should have these two lights installed. I will go through some of the visibility options to help you decide what is best for your ride. (I occasionally link to products that I use, but there are many more options and I do not endorse any particular brands.)

Rear Lights: Any bike that might be possibly outside between twilight and dawn should always have a red light on the back. In some countries, like Great Britain, this is the law. This is one of best and simplest ways to be visible at night. Rear lights can be obtained at any bike store, super store, or online. In my experience, I have found that LED rear lights work great and are usually nominally priced. I usually buy a nice one for main bike and a less expensive light for a secondary bike, if I have one. The best location for a rear light is under the seat on the seat post, however if it does not fit, anywhere on the back were it will not interfere with your rear wheel and be seen by drivers will work. To check this, turn your light on at night and stand a few feet behind your bike at night and see how well you can see the light. Red lights can also be purchased for the back of a helmet or a clip on light for a backpack or messenger bag. Since my route is particularly dark, I usually have two lights on the back of bike plus on one my bag. As a commuter, you will need to use your own discretion for the amount of rear lighting needed for your commute conditions, but it never hurts to be on the safe side. Rear lights also have a number of settings for blinking and a steady beam. There is some debate as to which setting is the most visible, so you can use any except a slow blink, as a slow blink has been shown to decrease visibility. I personally choose to use a quick blink on my rear lights.
Rear Lights on Bike and Bag
Headlights: Front lights serve two purposes: to help you see and to help you be seen.  Unlike rear lights, a little more consideration is required in choosing the best headlight for your commute. I ride on roads without streetlights and I do not use any bike/pedestrian paths so I have a very bright headlight. (A battery powered LED with around 3800 lumens). A bright light is ideal for dark commutes on roads. If you need a light this bright, it is always a good idea to travel with a back up headlight in case the main one goes out. I learned this the hard way as very bright lights often have low battery life. If you are commuting primarily through well lit roads and bike/pedestrian paths, a very bright headlight is not necessary and can be blinding to others on a path. In this case a standard LED bike headlight would be more than sufficient to help you see and be seen. Headlights should be on when traveling during the hours of twilight and dawn and in gray and rainy weather conditions. Basically, if the cars around you have their headlights one, you should too. Most headlights have the option to either have a steady beam or to strobe. If you are using your headlight to be seen, choose your favorite setting. However you should never strobe a headlight that you are using to see the road in front of you.

3800 Lumen Headlight
Reflective Options: Installing lights on your bike is one of the best ways to be seen at night, however if you feel you need extra visibility on your commute, there are a plethora of reflective options. Reflective clothing and reflectors are great inventions. They work by reflecting light, like car headlights back to the source and require no battery power. When I ride at night, I wear a reflective vest and helmet cover. Both of these options can be obtained very inexpensively and the vest can be worn over anything. Also, my gloves have a little bit of reflective material, which is great for hand signals. You can also choose to wear reflective ankle bands and/or arm bands. You also can attach extra bike reflectors to your bike or your bike bag. If you are not sure if you need to wear reflective clothing, I would offer the following advice: Extra visibility is always a good thing and if you are traveling on any higher speed roads I would highly recommend it as it gives cars more time to see you at speed. When I was commuting in primarily residential neighborhoods with streetlights, I relied on bike lights and a few additional reflectors. Now that I am on busier roads, I have found that additional reflective clothing has helped me be seen sooner by drivers on the roads.
Reflective Clothing in a Headlight

What do you do to be seen at night? Do you have additional comments or suggestions? Please do share in the comment section below.

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