Tips for riding your bike at night

safety in numbers
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Night ride in Montreal

With the end of daylight saving time, people commuting home on their bikes are often suddenly doing it in the dark. In many cities, cyclists have to share the road with cars and it can get ugly out there.

Get big bright red lights for your rear end

Most municipalities have laws that mandate front and rear lights, and some just mandate a front light and a rear reflector. But that probably isn’t enough; according to the league of American Bicyclists, forty percent of collisions, by far the biggest number, are rear-end hits, where the driver just rode right into the back of the bike. That means that the most important light is that red one to the rear. But it probably in the end isn't enough if the drivers are not looking at the road.

Pick your routes carefully

Most crashes happen because the drivers are likely not really paying much attention, and are just blithely riding into people who happen to be in front of them. Not only that, but according to the League of American Bicyclists, over half of the collisions happen on urban arterial roads, where drivers tend to go fast. It is pretty clear that you could have flashing red strobe lights shining behind you and still get yourself squished because as those drivers always tell the police, “the bike just appeared out of nowhere!”

So find roads with slower traffic or with bike lanes, preferably fully separated ones. Look for streets that have good bright lighting. It is also a good idea to travel on roads you know from daytime riding; that way you are less likely to end up on a pothole-ridden death trap.

Front lights

Front lights on bikes are not super bright like those on cars, and with the ambient light in a city are not going to do much to light the way for you; they are really a warning indicator for oncoming vehicles. A lot of people have them on flashing mode, but this is really distracting for other cyclists. Car headlights are supposed to be focused and directed down so that they don’t blind other drivers, bike headlights aim all over the place. Josh Cohen wrote in Next City:

All around the country, a scourge is rearing its ugly, eyeball-searing head. I’m talking about the insanely bright, flashing headlights that are now standard equipment for bike commuters. During rush hour in bike-heavy Seattle where I live it is impossible to ride more than a few minutes at a stretch without getting blasted with another retina-shocking dose of flashing light from another biker heading in the opposite direction.

He notes that flashing lights make it harder for others to judge speed and direction. So keep your front lights always on instead of flashing.

Side lights and reflectors

According to the League, 10 percent of crashes are t-hits; according to another study it is far higher. These are crashes where the motorist goes right through an intersection even when there is a bike right in front of him. So it is probably a good idea to put reflectors in your spokes or on your frame. But in the end, these are mostly crashes where the driver "just didn't see you there"- So look carefully when going through intersections, do not expect that the drivers will stop at stop signs or traffic lights, and be super careful when making left turns.

Reflective clothing and high viz

This is where I get conflicted, because I really wonder if one can get carried away with what Mikael of Copenhagenize calls the culture of fear.

The Culture of Fear is a nasty bitch. Destructive to our societies. It is, however, rather easy to trace where messages come from. In this case, it's the darling of the automobile industry... Basically, if you feel the need to advertise reflective clothing for pedestrians and cyclists, you are advertising your complete ineptitude about building safe and liveable cities. You are shouting to the world that you believe cars are king and everyone else is at their mercy.

I have written in a previous post about how none of this should be necessary:

With an infrastructure designed for bikes as well as cars, with appropriate traffic signals, cyclists are rarely gelatinous smears. With good enforcement of speeding, cyclists are less likely to be maimed and killed. But what's even worse, spreading these kinds of misconceptions about the safety of cycling are counterproductive and hurt the cycling movement.

I also don’t believe that it really does all that much good; As Michael Calore wrote in Wired:

We glue, sew, strap, and tie lights and reflective strips to our packs, bikes, helmets, and shoes–all in an effort to reduce, however slightly, the chance of getting killed by a driver who will ultimately claim he “just didn’t see you there."

can you see me now shirtLloyd Alter/ seen on Queen Street in Toronto/CC BY 2.0

Because that’s what they do. It’s why we need infrastructure, bike lanes, lower speed limits, safer roads, and more cyclists on the road for safety in numbers, instead of scaring cyclists off the roads by making them afraid to go out unless they are suited up in neon.

Having said all that, until we get to that point, I have this old yellow reflective rowing vest from Regatta Sports that I used for dark mornings, that I keep in my pannier for dark nights. These are much cooler and more comfortable than the usual vests.

Go slow

This is perhaps the most important advice: take your time, relax. If someone pops in front of you or opens their car door you have more time to react. You can see the potholes and the debris. Just enjoy the ride.

Any other suggestions or advice for night riding? Leave them in comments.

Tips for riding your bike at night
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