Night Riding: Safe or Insane?

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.

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.

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.

38 Responses to “Night Riding: Safe or Insane?”

  • Dale says:

    Alan,

    Well, if I knew HOW to do it, I’d send you a photo of my old Bridgestone XO-1 that I used for commuting in the 90’s when I still lived in the city.

    It has the brightest reflectives known to man wrapped around the three main tubes, on the head tube & seat stays, in 4 places inside both rims, and on the crank arms. In addition to that I have those reflectives on my helmet and wherever else I could get the to stick.

    I looked like a UFO going down the street. Folks were constantly hitting their brights in order to try and figure out what all the reflective motion was.

    So Alan, tell me how to send the photo and I will.

    Dale

  • Smudgemo says:

    I love riding before dawn, especially when it’s foggy (which is often in Berkeley.) A few years ago I switched my normal work schedule to 7:00 – 4:00 because It means I’m almost always home before dark, even on the shortest days of the year. The bonus is that traffic is way lighter, and consequently much safer for both legs of my commute.

  • Randy says:

    I don’t see a problem with riding at night, as long as you have decent lighting (with enough battery power for however long you’re on the road) and reflectivity.

    Riding in the fog, though? Yikes! That scares me.

  • Elaine says:

    I’m commuting before dawn mostly by bike trail, and I’ve developed an absolute hatred of ridiculously high-powered lights, ESPECIALLY blinking lights! My eyes get adjusted after a while to the light of my own headlight, and then someone else’s blinding blinking lights come barreling towards me…. I get so disorientated that I’m genuinely afraid that I’m going to crash into the other cyclist, ride off into a ditch or just fall over.

    (Suggestions?!)

  • Jeremy says:

    I do think that it’s safer riding in the dark, as long as you’re not in heavily congested areas. I’ve noticed that a motorist will notice a couple of super-flash lights creating such a contrast from the dark more than they do anything else in broad daylight. During the day, you can only do so much to stand out from the environment around you. At night, you can create a much more significant contrast with the use of proper lights and reflectors. Like Dale said, people don’t know what is going on and slow way down to keep themselves safe. I wish planet bike made the super flash in blue. 3 red and 3 blue and I’m sure you’d get motorist to slow way down. Although they might not be too impressed after realizing they were slowing down for a cyclist.

  • Ben says:

    As the days get shorter, I’m commuting more and more in the dark and so far I would tend to agree that it seems safer. The recent purchase of a NiteRider MiNewt X2 has helped a lot and the trusty old rear-red-blinky has done me very well. My route is usually fairly low-traffic, but before 7 or so, it’s positively peaceful… although I did almost hit a raccoon this morning.

    I think the reflective tape is a great idea, though. I’m going to have to look into that, at least for the bike rack (I’m a little loathe to put it on my pretty bike). My biggest irritation is that all of bits of winter cycling gear I own (armwarmers, tights, booties, winter cycling gloves) are BLACK. Um… hello, companies? Maybe a little reflective piping or something? How about safety orange? Yellow? and making the Pearl-Izumi logo white on an all black bacalava does NOT count.

  • Darryl says:

    The main thing is to see and be seen. I use at minimum two lights, but usually use four to eight lights and reflectors and I’m planning on adding more.

    I had a tour director think I was insane to ride at night but I like riding at night because of less traffic, less noise and the solitary feeling of riding in a different universe.

    The biggest issues I have are stealth cyclists without lights that catch me by surprise and seeing headlights through wet eyeglasses.

  • Nate Briggs says:

    Alan:

    Nice choice of topic.

    For 3 years, my homeward leg was late at night – and I almost always got a lot of satisfaction from those rides.

    The feeling of being “cloaked” by summer nights is especially memorable. I heard many front porch conversations as I went by – which, of course, I would never have known about using any other vehicle.

  • 2whls3spds says:

    Nothing wrong with night riding as long as you take precautions. The only reason(s) I can think of not to ride would be the number of drunks driving home from bars and right at dusk and dawn when many drivers aren’t at their sharpest. I have put many a mile under my wheels after the sun has set and before it rises. Especially in the overly warm parts of the country, where daytime temps make riding a major chore.

    Aaron

  • Duncan Watson says:

    The bike I am getting built up now is being configured with lighting in mind. I commute so I must ride in the dark. My Corsa will have a Schmidt dynohub and Edelux headlight as well as a wired taillight. I also use knog frog’s at various points and reflective strips. I also have a helmet light.

    My morning route is pretty safe at 6am and longer than my evening route. In the evening I go a direct route as I don’t trust drivers as much in the evening. Personally I don’t worry about riding at night, except when I see people who forgot to put on their headlights.

  • Iain says:

    This is my first year of commuting on a bike, Monday just passed (the first after the change of clocks) was the first and only time that I have nearly been T-boned at a junction where an evening driver did not see with blinky and steady front headlight as well as yellow jacket with piping on gloves and jacket. The days will only get shorter in Scotland where it the sun sets by 3.30pm around the shortest day, at the moment its sunset and 4.30.

    I think we all need to be very aware of what might happen whether we have right of way or not, a defensive riding technique that I carried over from my motorbike days, ie there is no point claiming you’re in the right if you’re dead!

  • brad says:

    When I lived in rural Vermont, I used to buy a couple of pints of Ben & Jerry’s and ride to a friend’s house on the other side of our hill to play music for a few hours after work. Riding home around 10pm I would often have encounters with wildlife. One evening I came a little too fast around a corner by a loud brook and ran smack into a small herd of deer who hadn’t heard me coming because of the noise the brook was making. I came within inches of hitting two of them as they sprang off in either direction. I fell over because I was so startled, but nobody (deer, human, or bike) was injured. I had fun imagining the newspaper headlines if I’d actually hit one of those critters.

  • Troy says:

    My daily commuter (K2 with Xtracycle) is sporting three rear flashers, a Night Sun XC dual beam headlight, two tube Down Low Glow, and two MonkeyLectric LED graphic generators on the front wheel. It is ridiculous, I know. I tell my wife, that if I get hit now, rest assured, they MEANT TO DO IT! I agree that morning dark rides are by far safer than the return home at night.

  • Jeff says:

    I ride at 5:00 a.m. most mornings (except for weekends when I can be a slug). I also tend to think I’m more visible. I run one flashy pattern red light on the rear, one blinking red light on the left side of my seat, and one blinky light on my flagpole (I ride a ‘bent trike). One fairly powerful light on front, and a flashy light on the helmet. I used to run EL wire on my flagpole, but I’ve discovered it isn’t very durable over time.

    As far as the fog, I like riding in it too. With the flashing light on the helmet, I think it makes me, again, more visible. I can see the amount of light being reflected off of the fog. I probably look like some UFO flying down the road.

    The lack of traffic is good, too. I just have one iffy area where folks are coming out of a driveway with poor visibility after finishing their night shift.

  • Leo Kodl says:

    I love nighttime rides! The other night I was slowly cruising through totally dark Monterey neighborhoods on my Greenspeed trike – illuminated with three headlights and four rear blinkies. A voice called out to me from an unseen person sitting on a porch I was rolling past. It said: “Welcome to Planet Earth! Enjoy your visit!”
    I thought to myself: good advice!

  • Donald says:

    Give me properly illuminated night riding over early or late starts with the sun just up. The only time I was hit was an early sunny February morning by a car pulling out of a parallel parking stall. The more I thought about it the more I felt he probably could not have seen me as the sun was very low and to my back. Over his shoulder or looking in the rear view mirror he would have been looking right into the rising sun. Luckily he got up against me but got stopped before I was knocked over. At night I feel that I am more visible than in the day time.

    This year I am starting to commute on a recumbent, (Rans V-Rex), after many years commuting on an upright bike. (Trek 520). Most of the year both ends of my commute are on the American River Bike Trail with little street riding. This Monday daylight savings time starts here so the evening commute will be through town in the dark. I have a very bright front light, a large red flasher in the rear, and have added a safety flag with a cluster of battery powered LED lights at the top. On music night I will be towing a Burley Nomad with another bright flasher on the rear of it. I think it is important to get light up high. Either mounted on your helmet when on an upright, or on the safety flag when on a recumbent. This way you can be seen over the parked cars or through the car windows. (I sit pretty tall on the upright bike being 6′-4″) After next week I will see how it goes with the recumbent.

    Donald
    Sacramento, California

  • Henry says:

    What’s the big deal? How would we get around without cycling at night? We live in Holland, almost none of our friends have cars and trams cost money and don’t always go exactly where you need. We ride at night pretty much every day and its no more special than walking or driving at night. Getting home from work: on the bike. To a restaurant: grab the bikes. To the theater: maybe my wife sits on the top tube of my bike to avoid creasing her long dress.

    Even more shocking: We ride at night after drinking, occasionally while drunk. Have a field day with that one, folks!

    Henry
    Amsterdam, The Netherlands

  • Alan says:

    Rub it in Henry, rub it in. ;-) You’ve been away too long; you’ve forgotten what it’s like to ride a bike in the quagmire of automobile traffic that is the US road system…

  • Henry says:

    Alan,
    Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Of course I remember how scary cycling can be in the US.

    -Henry

  • Alan says:

    No apologies necessary – we’re just jealous.. :-)

  • Hercule says:

    I did read, only a week or two ago, a news item from the UK saying that official statistics had revealled that the accident rate for cyclists was lower at night than during the day time… can I find it now?? sadly not…

  • Lazy Bike Commuter says:

    I ride home in the dark every night now. It’s definitely a novelty at first, but it gets old after a while–not dangerous, but the tunnel vision starts to get to me.

    I, like some of the previous commentators, feel more visible at night than in the daytime, with the easy availability of very bright flashers.

    I have a “ridiculously bright” front headlight that has served me well, the only problem is that when I’m on the bike path at night I feel like I have to set it to the dimmest setting and aim it to the side when I see other people–don’t want to blind anyone! Of course, I haven’t seen anyone else on the path at night this week. Guess they’ve all decided to stay home until spring.

    I will mount more blinkies on the back of my bike when I can figure out somewhere to mount them.

  • Scott says:

    Me love night riding. Love it big time. Yup! On my cross country tour last year, I was getting up at super early hours to get in some miles before the heat of the day. I usually finished my riding about noon or so–it was great! My earliest start was 3:30am in eastern Colorado. I was up at 2:30 and on the road by 3:30 to beat an in-coming windstorm. I was successful and had a rest day in Ordway when the wind plasted like crazy all day long. Those hours before dawn on the high plains were strange and magical, virtually no one out there but me, my little lights, and the familiar form of Orion burning overhead in the velvet night. Sweet.

    Scott

  • Deb says:

    My morning commute is dark now, and like others I do feel more visible most of the time with my lights. I added a helmet light recently – it doesn’t illuminate my way at all, but I use it as a “light finger”, and I have seen people startle slightly, as they suddenly see me thanks to my light finger, and thus don’t pull out in front of me. Of course I can’t prove it with stats or anything even remotely scientific or tested, but I added it because I noticed that my fellow early morning commuters caught my eye more when they had a helmet light. Figured it couldn’t hurt.

    The WABA (washington area bike association) recently had a couple days where they were giving out free lights, precisely for the bke ninja issues. The “fact” that I kept seeing on the blogs and in the paper was: “Over half of all cyclists killed are hit while riding at night without lights, WABA says, even though only 3 percent of bike riding is done at night.”

    I don’t know where they get their numbers from, but it makes sense to me.

    I was at a light the other morning, at a heavily trafficked intersection (even at 5:30am it is constant traffic, only slightly lighter than rush hour) and a bike ninja passed beside me, went through the intersection on a red light, and even though I knew that he was there, I lost sight of him as he went through the intersection. He wasn’t hit, which I think was pure luck. I don’t know what he could have been thinking – black clothes, black bike, no lights, no reflective anything anywhere. I know some people like to ride stealth, but that just seemed stupid to me!

    Like most everyone here, it seems, I prefer my morning commutes to my afternoon commutes. It is more relaxing, even if I can’t claim that there is no traffic.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    @Scott
    Nice imagery
    Those hours before dawn on the high plains were strange and magical, virtually no one out there but me, my little lights, and the familiar form of Orion burning overhead in the velvet night.

    You make me want to ride at night more.

  • Opus the Poet says:

    I used to work second shift, which put me off work about 2 hours after the last bus going anywhere went by. So it was either live at work or ride a bike home at night. I made it 13 months before I got hit by someone that didn’t want my bike on the same road. But riding at night was so Zen, just me, the bike, the idiots and my police escort that followed me to catch the idiots, which after they arrested the idiots left it just me and the bike and the roads… I swear I got at least 3 patrolmen promoted because of the number of tickets they would write following me home from work. As one cop told me when he was relating his promotion, “Dude, you are like an idiot magnet.” Then the next guy got his beat and he was waiting for his promotion when I got hit outside his jurisdiction.

    Anyway now I use LED trailer lights and side markers made for trucks, and MR 16 LED bulbs as headlights. My friend Mark recommends using 2 trailer lights, one mounted centerline and the other about 3 feet to the left of center and riding in the right tire track in the lane. Car drivers will assume you are bigger than you are and pass with a little more room and if they pass to the left they give a bunch more room.

    The one bad thing about using trailer lights is sometimes a cop will pull me over thinking I’m drunk because my “motorcycle” is going so slow, only to find that I’m not drunk and not riding a motorcycle. Being asked for “license, registration, and proof of insurance” before he finds out I’m not riding a motorcycle is always hilarious…

  • John P. says:

    I love cycling at night when there’s no one around. I do this purely for pleasure so I keep off the roads and use the quiet Sustrans cycle tracks. People think that I’m completely mad (and who am I to argue) when I tell them that I do this but I think that they just don’t know what they’re missing.

    On a moonlight night I can switch the lights off and cruise silently along. I would never have seen the bats crossing right in front of my nose if I hadn’t done this. A couple of times when the lights have been on I’ve had a two of owls playing in the beam. I see foxes, roe deer and other creatures to small and quick to identify. The only downside is that I have to watch the track very carefully as I don’t want to harm any of the numerous frogs and toads which come out at night.

    Everyone should try cycling at night a few times.

  • No says:

    I was in the USA recently and the three borrowed bikes all had stickers saying something like –

    “Always wear a helmet. Do not ride at night”

    Personally I disgree with the first statement. But the latter I really can’t comprehend at all – it’s like American bikes are only intended for leisure activity. Adult toys or something. Completely insane.

  • andy parmentier says:

    “you’re emotion in motion..to me” ric ocasak (a song stuck in my head from a spontaneous night ride from milwaukee to green bay on my red tour easy back in the 80’s)..with the stars above..

  • John says:

    Nice topic Alan. I enjoy riding at night. My bike is lit like my life depends on it and I feel more visible and SAFER in the dark than in the light. The condition I try to avoid is the half-light time between daylight and dark. Of course work schedules messs with my planning but I make an effort to leave early enough that I can get to work before dawn.

    Regarding bright lights and bike paths. I try to dim my headlights by partially blocking them with my hand when I see pedestrains or oncoming bikes. Good lights on a bike are really annoying and perhaps blinding to those traveling in the opposite direction. We should give them a little consideration.

    John

  • Duncan Watson says:

    Good point ‘No’, my bikes are used for transportation 5 days of the week. Riding at Night is necessary at this latitude, daylight starts at 9am and ends at 4:30pm (in Dec).

  • Alan says:

    Many European-style headlights have controlled beam patterns that cut-off abruptly at the top, much like automobile headlights. Most American made headlights have circular beam patterns that are equally bright above and below the emitter. The former are better for riding on bike paths because they do a good job of keeping light out of the eyes of oncoming cyclists. The latter are popular among mountain bikers because they do a good job of illuminating the entire forest ahead of the rider. Some argue that lights with circular beam patterns are more eye-catching and consequently make a rider more noticeable to motorists. Others argue that circular beams blind oncoming motorists and can cause accidents.

    Here’s a piece I wrote on this subject last year:

    More on Lights

  • Elaine says:

    Thanks for the link! I can’t make anybody else change, I don’t think, but I’m going to look into picking up one of those Ixons for myself. :)

    And thank you, John, for your consideration of fellow trail riders.

    (My husband puts a bit of electrical tape over the top of his headlight to keep the light angled down.)

  • David Hembrow says:

    Wow, what a strange question. Around here everyone rides at night. The kids come home from visiting their friends or going to evening activities at night. No-one really thinks about it as dangerous.

    Some people even have (working) lights on their bikes.

    Actually, that’s quite a funny story. When we’d only been here a few months, I was still thinking on British “dangerous” mode, and my daughters were out alone at night, I’d ride out to meet them if they were returning home from friends. After school, one of them decided to visit a friend 20 km away, and when she was about to leave for home she telephoned to say she was on the way. I set off in the opposite direction on my bike, lights blazing…

    I passed lots of bikes coming in the opposite direction, none of which had working lights. Then, about half way there, I spotted a bike coming in the opposite direction with bright lights, just like mine. My daughter spotted me for just the same reason, and the two of us had a well lit ride home together, seeing plenty of other unlit cyclists all the way back home.

    This is the safest place in the world to cycle despite everyone cycling after dark and a lack of attention to lights, reflectives and brightly clothing.

  • Alan says:

    David Hembrow’s response to the question, “Safe or Insane?”:

    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2008/11/night-riding.html

    Thanks Dave..

  • Mark G. says:

    I ride in semi-rural SE Virginia from 4:00 to 6:00 AM daily. Dynohub, Inoled Extreme main light, 4 LED helmet front light, two Downlowglow tube lights for side vis, Dinotte rear 4 LED tail light and two rear Planetbike blinkies—one mounted in the center of a slow moving vehicle DOT truck triangle, multiple high conspicuity tape locations and a Class II vest. Mirrors are important at night:early warning system. You can see the cars coming from great distances; hear ‘em too!
    On my RANS Stratus XP it looks like I am riding an alien “chopper” space craft. Tacky? Sure. Ugly? Probably. Seen and avoided by even the most infirm/tired/just-plain-distracted drivers? You betcha. ALL the police and ERT folks know me “on sight”.
    But the zen like glide on open roads in the quiet seeing the stars, the dark and the dawn all unfold on a ride…..is purest joy. One heck of a great way to start the day—rain, shine or cold.

  • ksteinhoff says:

    Alan,

    You are a man after my own heart. I can’t wait to catch up on reading all your stuff so I can be posting replies to current messages instead of old ones. I feel like I’m running to catch the train pulling out of the station.

    I live in hot and humid South Florida, so I switch to night riding long about May. I really like cruising through neighborhoods in the evening when residents are tending to their lawns, walking their dogs, pushing their kids in strollers.

    Everybody is much more relaxed then. You get to know the regulars. I like to stop when I see someone working on their landscaping and compliment their progress over the weeks. I figure that’s missionary work that may spill over when they strap on their impersonal steel cages.

    Like you, I feel like I get more room at night. Part of it is that you stick out more when there are fewer distractions to see. Part of it is the novelty – the Hey, Maude, what’s that? – factor.

    My lighting situation somewhat mirrors yours. I started out with a NiteRider Pro-12E, but was disappointed when I’d run out of battery on long rides. when it was time to replace the battery, I almost dumped it, but I had grown to like the NiteRider taillight.

    My solution to battery life was to buy a SON generator hub. Now I had light as long as I had legs. I started with a LUMOTEC oval senso plus paired with a secondary Busch&Müller Lumotec. When the LED version, the DLumotec Oval Senso Plus, came out, I switched to it for primary. It comes up to full power sooner and I like the light better. I find that the secondary light doesn’t add that much to it.

    Before doing a cross-Florida ride at the end of 2007, I picked up some ViewPoint Flare 5 LED Headlights from Performance for family members and a spare. I find that it makes a great been-seen light and I run with it on all the time.

    Here’s what I have on the rear of the bike:

    http://www.palmbeachbiketours.com/2009/01/02/bicycle-taillights-that-work/

    When it comes to night riding, you either get it or your don’t.

    I met a guy yesterday who had these gizmos on his spokes. I may have to give them a try. (Scroll down to Dave Rosenthal)

    http://www.palmbeachbiketours.com/2009/01/05/was-there-a-dolphin-football-game-today/

  • commutergirl says:

    I feel safer at night for all the reasons everyone has suggested (though I’ve never had cops tail me for a promotion) and because of what I can see at night that I can’t see during the day. At night I can see around corners, or at least tell when a car is coming from behind a block of apartment houses. Corners that are blind during the day are a thing of safety at night (as long as everyone has their headlights on, that is).

    commutergirl

 
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