Cycling at night: tips to stay safe on the road

We've pushed past the winter solstice, but with many Stygian mornings and gloomy evenings yet to ride before summer returns, it's a good time to talk about riding in the dark.

One of the keys to safe cycling at night is visibility, both on unlit roads, and in areas where the eye can be distracted by a mish-mash of different light sources.

Everyone knows (or should know) that cyclists must use lights when it's dark, but it's easy to make simple errors that undermine their effectiveness. Here is some basic advice for riding in poor light conditions or at night.

Front lights

By law, the bicycle, or the rider, must display "a flashing or steady white light that is clearly visible for at least 200 metres from the front of the bicycle".

Two points about this. First, 200 metres is quite a long way - I like to visualise it in terms of an Olympic track, and it takes the Usain Bolts of this world almost 20 seconds to cover that distance. So it'll take more than a flicker of light to do the trick.

Secondly, a light that can be seen over that distance with new batteries or a full charge can lose its effectiveness - just because a light is flashing doesn't mean it's fulfilling the legal visibility requirements.

Front lights can be divided into two groups - lights to be seen by, and lights to see and be seen by.

If you're travelling on well-lit roads and paths, a basic light helps to make you visible to others. But if you're riding in unlit conditions, you'll need something that also throws a beam bright enough to light the way ahead.

A point of etiquette - try to ensure your lights don't bedazzle other road users, especially cyclists coming the other way on dimly lit bike paths. Adjust the mounting angle or brightness settings according to conditions.

Advertisement

Rear lights

By law, rear lights must be red. Like front lights, they can be steady or flashing and must be visible for at least 200 metres.

Rear lights can be problematic because you can't really see how they're operating while you're riding. On countless occasions I've spotted riders up ahead who don't appear to have a light, only to catch up with them and find that they do have one - it's just not effective.

I've seen people with a light on the seat post obscured by a bag on their pannier rack, cyclists with a light on the back of their helmets that's blocked by their backpacks as they bend to grab the handlebars, jackets that hang past the saddle and cover the light - the list goes on.

It's also important to remember that the direction the light is pointing is critical.

Most rear lights owe their brilliance to plastic lenses that focus the direction of the beam. If the light is attached to, say, a backpack, but flops over sideways, it'll send its strongest rays the wrong way.

Mounting a light on the bike frame is the best way to ensure that it's always pointing in the optimal direction.

Reflectors

The third legal requirement is "a red reflector that is clearly visible for at least 50 metres from the rear of the bicycle when light is projected onto it by a vehicle's headlight on low beam".

Many night-time bike riders also like to bolster the bounce-back effect by wearing reflective materials - but a distinction must be drawn between reflective materials and fluorescent colours; the latter get their glow from daytime UV light.

Happily, many fluoro cycling items also have piping or patches of reflective materials. Some riders also don reflective sashes or singlets, or favour light-coloured clothing.

A good choice is reflective items attached to the legs, such as bands like these, which show up as eye-catching up-and-down points of light in a vehicle's headlamps.

Assume nothing

One thing worth remembering is that most of the above is focused on fore-and-aft visibility. Many lights also flash out to the side, but not as brightly as to the front.

Side-on visibility can be improved with reflective items, but remember that reflectivity depends on being in someone's headlights.

When it comes to lights, is flashing or steady preferred? I'm a fan of flashing (as it were) as it makes for better differentiation from car lights - and the groovy patterns and sequences found on many lights serve to amplify this effect. I also know (and see) many cyclists who double up their lights - one flashing, one steady, especially on the front. 

It can be a good idea to check a new light set-up by leaning your bike against a pole and walking away from it to view it as others might - or ask a friend to have a look.

But there are no guarantees. You can be lit up like the Christmas tree in Times Square and people might still not see you - or they might see you, but judge your speed and direction incorrectly.  

When approaching an intersection, the lights of a car behind you might compete with your own lights - and in the dark, hand signals can easily be missed.

Low-light conditions also make it harder to recognise if you've caught another road user's eye.

So, as is always the case with bike safety - make no casual assumptions, be vigilant, and ride according to conditions. Don't wait until nightfall to light up, as twilight conditions have a significant effect on visibility. And remember to keep those lights charged.

What are your tips for safe cycling in the dark? Let us know in the comments section.

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

Comments