I have friends who think I’m insane for riding my bike in the dark. They’re convinced riding at night is asking for it, akin to skydiving, tight rope walking, and alligator wrestling. They tell me I’m crazy for commuting in the winter, that riding in the dark everyday is playing a game of Russian roulette, and that I should put the bike in the rafters until spring.
The funny thing is that I find the early morning hours, before the heavy commute gets going, to be the most peaceful and relaxing time of day to ride a bike; and arguably, the safest. Traffic around here is nearly non-existent before 5:30 in the morning; our commute really gets rolling around 6:30-7:00 am. Prior to that, the roads are quiet and the occasional car can be heard and seen from a great distance. And drunk drivers, probably the biggest threat to any nocturnal rider, are already off the roads and passed out somewhere by that time of the morning.
It goes without saying that if you’re going to ride in the dark, you need high quality front and rear lights. My approach is to use a number of smaller lights and strips of reflective material placed here and there to produce a “road hazard” effect. Doing so causes motorists to give me a wider berth at night, when they don’t know what I am, than during the day when they know what I am and they don’t perceive me as a threat.
It’s also a good idea to slow down a little at night. Even if you have a ridiculously high-powered lighting system, we tend to overestimate our ability to see road obstacles in the dark. In his excellent book on traffic, Tom Vanderbilt cites a study that concluded automobiles should be driven no faster than 20 mph at night to allow sufficient time to react to obstacles in the road. For complex physiological reasons I won’t go into (and don’t understand anyway), all of us, whether on bikes or in cars, underestimate the amount of reaction time we need at night to respond to unexpected obstacles, whether they be potholes, raccoons, or SUVs.
Statistics do show that a high number of cyclists are killed at night. But if you dig deeper, the numbers seem to indicate many of those riders were caught after dusk without lights, riding at a time when traffic is still relatively heavy and motorists are tired and distracted. I’d argue that with proper lighting and a little restraint, riding in the dark can be as safe as riding during daylight hours, and I’d even venture to say the early morning hours before sunrise may be the safest of all.