As residents of these northern latitudes, we already know the seasonal slide to short days and long nights is in full swing. For cyclists, this means lights, light colored clothing and increased vigilance on the streets. Just being seen during daylight hours is a concern for bike riders. At night, a cyclist needs to use as many tools as possible to be conspicuous and visible in traffic.
I can recall occasions as a driver of a motor vehicle and as a bicyclist when something or someone suddenly loomed up out of the darkness unexpectedly. Deer darting across a road, a dark disabled vehicle on a roadside, a pedestrian in dark clothing or a wrong way bike rider are just a few examples. Luckily, they were near misses not unfortunate collisions.
There are numerous ways to reduce the risk of a crash when riding at night. First, obey the traffic laws. Second, use lights; wear clothing that is light-colored and if possible reflective. Third, reduce your speed so you don’t override the limits of your lights. I’m going to focus on lights and my next column will highlight clothing options and technology available along with some riding techniques to increase driver awareness of cyclists.
If you have a headlight on your bike and haven’t removed the reflectors that came with the bike when it was new, you meet the minimum statutory requirements for riding at night in Minnesota. The reality is that these minimum requirements make you visible and attentive drivers should be able to react in a timely manner, but how many distracted, impaired or inattentive drivers are out there? For safe riding, you need to be more conspicuous on the road.
What are the options? Use more lights and use brighter lights. Cyclists should consider multiple lights when riding after sunset. A front light that meets the minimum requirement is not going to light up the road for you. It will only alert oncoming traffic of your approach. Think about all the lights you see as you drive down a street. Can you identify all of them and can you easily discern the moving lights from the stationary ones? A headlight that effectively illuminates your travel route will help you avoid potholes and other road hazards. A light mounted on your helmet increases your visibility to other road users because when you look at an approaching vehicle or a vehicle stopped at an intersection, the light on your helmet is shining in the same direction. That movement and change in intensity increases your visibility to other drivers.
On the back of the bike only a red reflector is required, but red lights are permitted. Consider a red light on the back of your bike and also one on the back of the rider. This could be belt mounted or attached to your jacket or backpack. Suing both flash and steady modes with these lights, again, makes your presence more conspicuous. If you just use the reflector on your bike, be sure it isn’t obscured by racks, bags or has been tilted to make it non-functional.
Lastly, have a spare light with you. Batteries fail, especially in cold conditions, mounting brackets loosen and hitting a pothole can send a light flying to the pavement where it will break apart. Whatever the cause, being without a light isn’t safe or legal. A small battery light that can easily be attached to your bike can literally be a life saver.
What’s a good bike light? A bike-mounted light needs a sturdy mounting bracket that holds the light steady when the bike is in motion. It should also have a way to remove the light easily from the mounting so you can take the light with you for charging, battery replacement and to eliminate the possibility of theft. The power source should also provide light 2 to 3 times longer than your usual ride. If you usually ride for about 30 minutes, your light should be able to run for 90 minutes or more. Some of the lights available have rechargeable batteries and use a USB cable. This allows the battery to be recharged through your computer. Also, there are some lights available that have solar panels built in. Most lights now use LED technology providing a more dependable light source. If you’re buying a light to illuminate your path, look for a light that produces a more focused beam. This will put light were you want it.
Check out the lights at your favorite bike shop and see the array of lights now available. Compare light output and battery options. Talk with the shop staff and talk to other cyclists to find out what works for them. Then, get one that meets your needs and light up the night when you’re out riding. Keep riding and take care.
Dan Breva is the manager of the Freewheel Midtown Bike Center at the Midtown Exchange. He has bike commuted for more than 10 years.