Stealth Bicyclists

Last night we drove our car across town between 7:30-8:30pm. In that time, we counted 8 bicyclists without lights or reflective gear of any kind – this was among a total count of 12 bicyclists. It was plainly obvious how easily I could have lost sight of any of the non-lighted bicyclists among the chaos of automobile lights, traffic signals, and advertising that was assaulting my visual field.

Studies have shown that a majority of fatal collisions involving bicyclists occur between the hours of 6pm-9pm. After my experience last night, I’m not surprised. Unfortunately, most of the bicyclists without lights appeared to be “non-enthusiast” (for lack of a better term), so it’s unlikely they have access to the information or resources necessary to ride safely.

Over the past few years, a number of bicycle advocacy groups and city governments have initiated free bike light programs; examples include Portland’s Shift and Police Bureau programs, New York DOT’s bike light giveaway, the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates’ “Light On” program, and more recently, Chicago’s “Share the Road” giveaway.

I believe this is an important issue that warrants the attention of any organization interested in promoting bicycle safety.

39 Responses to “Stealth Bicyclists”

  • Michael McMahon says:

    Also in Portland the Community Cycling center sponsored “Get Lit” a free light giveaway for riders w/o lights. Good on them!

    I agree completely that this is a huge problem. I see cyclists all the time riding Portland’s streets w/o lights. I really don’t understand it.

  • John says:

    Sadly, I think this will always be the situation, as quite a few folks riding bikes today have less than honorable intentions, and actually are attempting to be “stealthy”. In some communities, young drug dealers are known to use bikes as their primary mode of transport.

  • DerrickP says:

    Interestingly, I’ve been asked to speak to a Boy Scout group about bike safety. (By the way, did you know there’s a bike safety badge for Boy Scouts!)

    One of the things I’ve added on the list was lighting and reflective gear. These kids probably won’t be riding at night much at their age, but hopefully they’ll remember when they get older. Lights are easy to find, people just don’t know a lot about it.

  • CedarWood says:

    It’s too bad that Reelights aren’t factory spec’d on bikes. They are excellent be-seen lights, with fit-and-forget installation widely adaptable to various frames, but I suppose manufacturers would consider it too expensive.

  • Pete says:

    I think this is an important issue, but I really believe that a certain segment of the “People on Bikes” couldn’t care less. The vast majority of POB’s that I encounter are this sort – salmoning, weaving back and forth from sidewalk to road, across the road, etc. Yet, they don’t seem to get hit by cars any more often than I do. In fact, one sure-fire way I can identify a fellow “transportation cyclist” is by the fact that they have lights, and are riding on the correct side of the street!
    I would imagine many people who decide they are going to try using their bike for commuting, etc might take it to their LBS for a tune-up, buy a helmet, etc and probably get good advice on lighting and other topics from the people there. The vast majority of POB’s I see have probably never been to a bike shop, and would be essentially unreachable by any communication campaign short of draconian police enforcement.

  • Sharper says:

    Like Portland’s Get Lit, SABA sponsors an annual program in December handing out free lights to unlit cyclists. Perhaps we need to move it further up the calendar…

    At the same time, Pete has a point. I live on a relatively quiet one-way street, and yesterday while walking my dog, I saw a fellow in his late 20s riding a BMX bike the wrong way on the street with a young kid on the handlebars yelling at a car that almost hit the two of them. As if it was the car’s fault.

  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    Beware the Bike Ninjas!

    http://www.yehudamoon.com/index.php?date=2009-04-02

  • Mike says:

    I have had to cave in and purchase a blinking red light for the rear of my bike. Even though I don’t ride at night very often, seeing riders without any lights is increasing as cycling in general increases and it just seems kind of dangerous. Even reflectors don’t seem to be enough. I never fail to notice a flashing red light however.

    On the same topic, I have also noticed an increase in riders with all the lights and vests/dayglo clothes, etc. yet they seem to think that their increased visibility gives them some sort of invincibility. As a cyclist, motorcyclist, and an automobile driver, I take my responsibility for safety very seriously regardless of my mode of transport at the moment. Just because a cyclist has a bright green shirt and flashing lights all around doesn’t give him/her the right of way if they don’t actually have it. We all need to follow the rules of the road. (and that applies to the salmoning cyclist who tries daily to run me down as I exit my car after work. Although, were it not for his bright green shirt he’d probably get me!)

  • Brad says:

    @John – so the majority of cyclists riding at night are criminals???????? I guess if you live in a really bad area or something. I don’t get that statement.

    In Missouri it is also State Law to have a headlight after dark but due to lack of public education and zero enforcement most dont use headlights.

    Most people I see riding at night in St. Louis in my part of the city are Students and a few older folks riding for fitness that get out when there is less traffic. The students usually have at least a blinky light on the back but the older riders (with no bags or cycling clothing) never have lights. The bike might have the original reflectors but not always.

    Then there are the commuters on their walmart full-suspension “mountain bikes” with the seat way too low commuting to and from work in the pre-dawn/post-dusk times with no lights either. Not criminals, just low budget.

    No one tells any of these people they need lights.

  • Ted Allen says:

    We maybe should consider some kind of mandate that either every bike sold must come with lights or at the very least some kind of mandatory disclosure/education to bike buyers about the use of lights.

    At least for every ‘commuter” and kids bike one must assume that they will be ridden when lights are needed. If I were selling kids bikes, I think I would be tempted to make Mom or Dad sign off that they knew there was a very high risk to their kids by not buying lights.

  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    @Ted Allen

    Pretty sure that in Germany and many other European countries it is the law that bikes are sold with lights. In the US they’re almost always added on at the shop, since bikes are not primarily thought of as transportation.

    Also, in the US, most parents don’t really expect their kids to be riding at night, much less on the street.

  • Adam says:

    I’ve gotten to the point where I turn on my taillight every time I get on the bike…even during broad daylight. My PlanetBike Superflash was probably the best $20 investment I’ve ever made and I believe is more important to my safety than my helmet. Once I started using it, I noticed cars gave a much wider berth when passing me.

    PS – I’m not trying to start a helmet debate…I always wear one. I’m just saying that avoiding getting hit is more important than a helmet that only functions IF I get hit.

  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    One thing I really really love about the B&M “Senso” lights is that they turn themselves on and off with an ambient light sensor, so I never have to think about turning on my light, or turning it off for that matter. You can also override this if you want so it’s always on or off. Of course, dyno systems are an investment, but it makes having proper (and very bright) lighting completely brainless. The less thought it requires, the better. It just works.

  • John says:

    @Brad: Where did I use the word “majority” or even imply such? I think you read into what I stated. By “…quite a few…”, I meant more than an aberrant sampling, but not necessarily a large percentage, and definitely not a majority. Spend significant time in a major urban area as I have done, and you will understand that what I’ve written is factual. It’s simply a reflection of society at large. Just because someone chooses to cycle, it doesn’t confer sainthood.

  • Pete says:

    @Adam: I’m with you – front white blinky and red rear blinky (also PB Superflash) day or night. At night I supplement a “to see” headlight but it’s not very necessary on my commute.
    I honestly think that motorists who see me blinking and flashing a mile away assume I’m a police officer!(it also doesn’t hurt that my bike is blue and black, and I’m often wearing black or grey pants and a blue shirt)
    I also recently added a big patch of white reflective tape to my head tube, and red to my rear fender ( to replace the long gone OEM reflectors), and bought a set of Schwalbe Marathon tires with reflective sidewalls. i might look like a UFO, but I’ll be seen!

  • Jay says:

    @ Adam,

    I’m with you – I’ve started the habit of “daytime running lights”. I wear an ANSI level 2 reflective mesh vest over whatever I’m wearing, a 1 watt blinking light up front, and a superflash blinking at the back, even in broad daylight.

    Maybe it’s a little bit of a hassle, or a little dorky, but if it even slightly improves my chances of getting home safely it’s worth it, and if I do get hit, it will be very hard for the person who did it to not be held liable, or say that he didn’t see me.

  • Fergie348 says:

    Wow, this post and the follow up comments cover two of my top three cyclist pet peeves – Riding at night with no lights, riding against traffic (the dreaded bike salmon..) , and the one not covered is riding in traffic with headphones. I saw the trifecta a couple of times on my way home last night..

    These three things are actually all illegal under California law, so it’s primarily an education and enforcement problem. I have an idea for the lights – have uniformed officers pull over cyclists riding at night and issue them a ‘fix it’ ticket, which can be redeemed at a LBS for discounted or free light sets. Once the lights are mounted and shown to the local police, the ticket is dismissed.

  • Brad says:

    @John – I live in Saint Louis. It’s a pretty high crime city. I’m not saying everyone on bikes has good intentions. I suppose did read into your statement too much. It just struck me that way. I gues that makes me the blog troll doesn’t it :-)

  • Garth Madison says:

    If they’re riding without lights at night, I suppose they are by definition petty criminals, as they are violating traffic laws in most jurisdictions. Riding against traffic would be the same. The problem with mandating lights is they cost money, and most people don’t ride on the streets at night. Except, as we’ve established, the criminals ;)

    I’ve thought of switching to riding with lights in the daytime too. I always turn the lights on when I’m driving a car, and I’m more concerned with being seen when I’m biking. Studies have shown you’re more visible in a car during the day with your lights on. And all brake lights come on whether it’s day or night. Might be perceived as a bit uncool, but I’ll do anything to give myself a safety edge.

    Garth-

  • Billi says:

    Where I live it’s just easier to count the cyclist with lights. The question is how to get lights to those who would use them if they could, Lets not forget batteries cost money also, and a small segment may be “between living situations” where plugging in a rechargeable light is not possible. Reflective surfaces IN MOTION are very effective. Often the only visible reflectors on a bike are the pedal reflectors, but they are sometimes obscured by the shoes, and not visible from the sides. Since no one will enforce the current laws, perhaps a cheaper solution would be to give away decent reflective leg straps, not legal, but more visible than nothing. Another really cheap give away could be strips of DOT reflective tape with some information on the most effective placement on the bike frame.

  • Mike Flanigan says:

    I do not let bicycles leave my shop without lights. Sometimes I have to argue my point with my customers. They often say that they will never ride at night etc…but I see people every evening riding without lights at dusk or sunset or even in the pitch black. These are most often racer types and other road/fitness riders.

    If I had to a choose between a helmet or lights…I go with lights.

  • John Boyer says:

    According to statistics from the California Bike Coalition, migrant workers of Latino dissent have a higher fatality rate further acknowledging that those out of the loop of bike advocacy are at higher risk as they often are found riding stealth after closing hours. Nows the time to reach out to the workers of night time jobs.

  • Opus the Poet says:

    I have discussed riding Ninja with actual Bike Ninjas as to why they do it. Those who do it on purpose do so because they had a bad experience with a motor vehicle driver targeting them at night, so they ride with no lights or reflectors to make targeting them harder. I tell them that when they do that they are almost invisible so they have to ride like they are invisible and all the onus on avoiding wrecks is on them.

    The other ones are between jobs and couldn’t afford lights or batteries, didn’t know their lights were out, or never thought they would be out so late and “had” to get home.

  • Ken says:

    Another aspect of the visibility problem are bicycle riders with lights but without knowledge of what makes bike lights visible to cars. Blinky LED lights are very effective when they are aimed at cars not at airplanes. Clip-on blinkeys on backpacks often seem to be tucked into folds of the fabric rendering them ineffective. Many riders on my commute route seem to be using lights with nearly dead batteries. I give these riders feedback if and when I meet up with them. Cars have standardized lighting systems that ensure predictable visibility. Bike lights are far from standardized and often result in unpredictable visibility.

    Ride very defensively at night as if you are invisible!

  • Bomber says:

    Another point to all the lights and reflective gear and bright clothing; as most of us know the first thing out of the mouth of the driver who hits a cyclist is automatically and almost universally “I did not see you!”.

    The lights, Neon clothing, etc. proves otherwise if you have to go to court or if the cop is deciding whether or not to issue the driver a citation.

    Indeed when I was hit, on a bike path btw, that was what the driver actually had the nerve to say. She claimed that my blue/grey jersey and silver helmet blended into the surroundings. YUP true story.

    Granted, I was not really hurt but, now I dress like a road worker. The more muted jerseys I have are now reserved only for wear off-road, and even then I wear my US Army issue reflective belt with those on the way to the trail.

    Don’t wear anything resembling a muted colors, don’t offer them the excuse. Dress bright and wear the lights, deny our enemy (yup, that’s what I said) this ammo. I ride like all motorists want to kill me, but won’t admit it. I feel this attitude keeps me safer.

  • Lee Trampleasure says:

    and we thought helmet wars were flame ridden :-)

  • Joseph E says:

    I would love to see the legal requirements (in California, and many other states) enforced by having the police give out lights to bike riders, while writing a ticket for the cost of the lights. This is similar to what happens with a fix-it ticket for cars, but would assure that the “ninjas” had lights to get home safely.

    I believe 50% of bike ninjas in my area are recreational riders who just don’t plan to be out late, or don’t realize the need for lights. The other 50% are low-income folks who need a bike for transportation; buying lights new at a bike shop or even a department store would be a big expense.

    Requiring lights to be included with all new bikes would be the best solution, and a cheap dynamo / LED headlight system made in China would only add $10 or 20 to the price of a Walmart bike. Yeah, that’s a 20% increase in cost, but I imagine this would be much more cost-effective than getting people to spend an equal amount on helmets, or almost any other safety feature. Germany and some other European countries mandate all bikes be sold with lights to certain standards. This also helps the poor, because used bikes become readily available with lights included, much cheaper than when bought new.

  • Joseph E says:

    When my cash flow becomes positive, I plan to buy a bunch of cheap LED headlights with AAA batteries, and give them out to people I see riding at night without lights, when I have time to stop on my commute home.

    I’ve already this AAA LED headlight for under $5 which works pretty well: http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.454
    This one is much brighter, just enough to illuminate a dark path, and has a nice aluminium body which holds 4 AAAs: http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.18307 I’ve already given this to a friend who recently started commuting. (This light is about the same: http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.22095)
    These are only $6 for a pair (though you have to buy two of each color at a time; and they use pricey disk batteries): RED http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.44096
    WHITE http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.44066

    I’m still looking for a super-cheap taillight; the $1 ones I’ve tried from dealextreme came dead on arrival or broke the first time they were dropped (by my kid…), unlike the relatively durable headlights. I’ve bought a usable $1 AA taillight at ACE Hardware before, but can’t find them anymore, and they were a little bulky and heavy with the AAs.

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  • Ralph Aichinger says:

    Having grown up before the mountain bike boom of the 80ies, I remember the huge culture change it brought to biking in Europe, and not only to the better.

    Before mountain bikes became mainstream, almost every bike sold here in Austria (and Germany) had a fixed, dynamo light. Most of these were cheap sidewall dynamos, that worked better in good weather than in rain or snow, but in good weather they did indeed work. If you left the bikestore with a new bike, you were sure, that you could ride it home in the dark, and you were supposed to be able to do that. When I was a child, no policeman would accept the excuse “but I ride it only in daytime”. You were supposed to have a fixed (i.e. you can’t forget it at home) dynamo (ie no danger of “forgetting” to buy new batteries) lighting working even in broad daylight. You are supposed to have working car headlights, even if you use your car only by day, I think a bike should be no different. A good dynamo system weights maybe 500 grams. Unless you are a serious sports cyclist, there is no excuse for not having lights “just in case”. Especially children should have lights on their bikes, when I was a child I would never come back home at the planned time, and especially when I was out&about alone.

    Unfortunately mountain bikes changed all that: While before non working lights ware caused by bad maintenance, as soon as mountain bikes (with their cultural influences of defining cycling as a sport, not as taking part in traffic) became popular, within a few years most of these laws became unenforced, and probably unenforcable.

    With the new cheap (about 30 EUR/$ in a new bike) and efficient hub dynamos it is completely ridiculous that it is actually allowed to sell a bike that will not have a dynamo system. Of course there sould be exceptions for *real* competitive cyclists, i.e. by giving a weight limit of 10 or 12 kg for bikes where having no fixed lights makes sense. A limit like that would ensure that 90 or 95% of bikes sold and all sold at big box stores had lights.

  • Zweiradler says:

    @ Dolan:
    No, a lot of bicycles in Germany are sold without lights, especially mountain bikes and lightweight models. However, it is required by law to have lights on your bike when you’re riding in public, but many riders are ignoring that.

    Nico

  • Moopheus says:

    Saying that most accidents occur between 6 and 9 doesn’t say much about the value of lights. I mean, that’s when there’s more traffic, so it’s not really surprising. Does that vary seasonally (when it is darker in winter you would expect a higher accident rate)? And what percentage of those accidents were folks with no lights? Who knows? I ride with a 10W HID headlight, and my experience is that cars WILL see that! (It also lights up the roadway pretty well for me!) This is especially effective with cars turning across the bike lane from side streets, which are always a concern.

    I’d be willing to bet that many of those accidents also involved a lot of the usual contributing factors: riding the wrong way, running lights, etc.

    Here’s the odd thing about complaining you’re seeing people riding at night without lights: you’re seeing them. They’re not actually invisible. Now it’s true that people who ride frequently are probably more aware of bikes than other people, and I’ve had some close calls with riders suddenly seeming to appear out of nowhere. So I do not discount the value of lights, except that most bike lights are pathetically underpowered. It’s just that people have to remember that the #1 piece of safety gear they have is Mr. Brain. Nothing else can substitute for that. My #1 safety rule is always–stay alert and aware of what’s going on around you, because there’s a good chance the other guy isn’t.

  • Pete says:

    95% of the people I see on bikes without lights, etc most likely did not buy their bikes new, and so wouldn’t be helped by any mandate. They ride mostly on the sidewalks, in between random forays across or against traffic.
    I’m sure there are some riders out there who would benefit from a little education and prodding, but in my experience there are basically two groups – those who care to know and probably already do, and those who don’t care and have no interest in behaving any differently. I guess in other (nicer weather) parts of the country there may be a broader demographic out on bikes and thus more people in the “education and prodding” group.
    In fact, if I think about it, except for the Saturday morning road warriors and the crowds on the “sanitized” bike paths and parks, I NEVER see any of the people out riding that I see in LBS’s buying bikes.

  • Adam says:

    Question: Is a bicycle a vehicle or a toy?

    Answer: Both, depending on how and where you ride it.

    That’s the reason I’m hesistant about any sort of sold-with-lights mandates (or bicycle licensure, helmet laws, etc. for that matter). I clearly see the very important benefits of mandates like these, but I fear it might be taking us down a path of overly-strict regulation. And where does it end? Forcing 8 year olds to carry cycling licenses? Ticketing people at midday for not having a light-equiped bicycle (cars with busted headlights aren’t legally allowed to drive during the middle of the day)? Pulling over grandma riding 0.5 mile down a neighborhood street because she wasn’t wearing a helmet (while a Harley rider goes by without any sort of helmet)?

    I’m all for strongly encouraging people to have lights and ticketing them after dark if they don’t have lights, though.

  • Alan says:

    @moopheus

    “Here’s the odd thing about complaining you’re seeing people riding at night without lights: you’re seeing them.”

    The thing that prompted the counting and subsequent blog post is that we nearly collided with one of them. And, of course, it’s impossible to know how many we didn’t see. Once we started counting, it was remarkably difficult to spot them until we were right upon them. It makes me think that in many cases, unimpaired motorists who collide with lightless bike riders didn’t see them until it was too late to take evasive measures.

    Alan

  • Joseph E says:

    @moopheus

    “Here’s the odd thing about complaining you’re seeing people riding at night without lights: you’re seeing them.”

    I actually don’t mind if people rider without rear lights. Cars and bikes should have lights of their own, and should ride carefully enough to see an unlit pedestrian in the roadway ahead. Pedestrians have the right-of-way, even at night, and are not required to carry lights, so it is the responsibility of drivers and bikers to be able to see them. In the same way, you should be able to see a “Bike Ninja” before colliding.

    However, bikes need headlights, so pedestrians can see them. An unlit bike could easily injure a pedestrian, and reflectors only work if you have a headlight of your own. This is the most basic reason that a headlight is essential.

    For personal safety, a good headlight and taillight are probably more important than helmets, reflectors, and anything else besides good lane position. I highly recommend them. But a headlight should be legally mandated for use at night. That means new bikes should include them.

  • Jeff says:

    This week a Greenfield Indiana police officer was hit and killed by a driver that did not stop. He and two fellow officers were riding their bikes at night with reflective clothing, lights on their person and lights on their bikes. The driver that hit him has since contacted her attorney and this attorney is negotiating her surrender to the athorities. Apparently, this negotiating process is not only perfectly legal but according to an attorney who spoke on the news last night is the smart thing to do.
    This, in his opinion, is because of Indiana’s strict drunk driving laws. The charges for leaving the scene of a fatal accident is much lower than an impaired driver causing a fatality. All of this is taking place while the widow and two small children try to find a big enough place to handle the crowd expected to attend this officer’s funeral. Now that the entire listening area knows that hit and run is the way to go and the general sentiment around here is ” While this is sad for the family, who in their right mind rides a bicycle after dark?” I have to wonder what it will take to change public opinion of cycling.

  • peteb says:

    I took a trip to Boston/Cambridge, MA last week and was outright shocked at how many cyclists were out at night, more so because almost none of them had lights or reflectors. In my little corner of suburbia I still wear bright/reflective clothing, and at least run a rear flasher, regardless of time of day or ambient light. Even on the bikepaths around the Charles you still have street crossings and areas where you will be on surface roads, not to mention sharing the paths with your fellow users, bike or not. Point again: I wouldn’t feel safe riding like that at noon, and given my experiences with Boston drivers, riding unlit at night is suicidal.

    One observation about rear lights in daylight: I have noticed that cars give me less of a wide berth when I have a rear blinker. Do they think I am more “car like” or more alert to their presence? I am probably both (thanks to the Mirrycle, and my Cateye rear flasher).

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