Cycling Dangers in the Night — and the Simple Solution

My favorite light, EagleTac D25LC2. Super bright with Li-ion batteries.


San Francisco Chronicle
October 21, 1985
[One of my old columns. Used with permission. While digitizing the columns I came across this one.]

The end of Daylight Savings Time on Sunday is an ominous occasion for bicycle commuters. Your risk of injury while cycling home from work increases ten-fold.

Those peaceful rides on warm fall evenings, catching the last sun’s rays reflecting off the golden hillsides, are replaced with a sinister darkness.

Fall evenings on the eve of Halloween are better suited for sitting home and reading a Stephen King horror novel than braving the inky blackness. Riding bicycle at night is unquestionably hazardous to your health. I went to the trouble of digging up some sobering statistics.

More than 40 percent of all bicycle fatalities occur at this time, even though it only accounts for four percent of total miles cycled.

Now I know why I never like to ride at night without a light. That’s enough incentive to make the most confident bicyclist think about buying a searchlight and mounting it on his handlebars. Of course a searchlight won’t fit, but you can equip your bike with smaller lights to reduce the risks. Wearing reflective clothing, attaching reflectors and using a light are inexpensive and sensible means for being seen at night.

Most bicycles must be sold with a reflector in the front and rear, and reflectors attached to the spokes of both wheels. They’re a good backup in the event of a light failure. No matter what type of lighting system — even a combination of systems — you use, there’s always a chance that some drunk motorist careening down the highway won’t see you. So you have to ride as though you can never be seen. That means ride defensively.

There’s an assortment of lighting hardware available, including reflectors, lights operated by a generator or battery, flashing battery-operated lights and reflectorized clothing, tape or tires.

Reflectors are definitely not the final solution to being seen at night. In tests by Bicycling magazine, author Fred DeLong said his confidence in reflectors was shattered while re-creating an accident. He was surprised how hard it was to see a bicyclist equipped with only reflectors.

DeLong observed that flashing or moving lights on a bicycle or rider were the best attention-getters. Recent tests by “Bicycling” (July ’85) show that some reflectors can now be detected by an approaching car on a clear night as far as 1260 feet away. A car traveling 55 mph usually needs a 550-foot stopping distance.

The magazine’s tests revealed that the lower the reflectors are mounted or worn, the greater the distance at which they are first perceived. I like to wear yellow reflectorized leg bands with Velcro. They are low to the ground and move up and down as you pedal. They’re a good addition to pedal reflectors.

Reflectorized vests and other special clothing will help, although the Bicycling test showed that reflective tape attached to a helmet was invisible until the driver was only 386 feet away. (A new windmill reflector that extends on an arm-like device toward traffic may be a prospect. The device, called The Whizzzz, is made and used in Finland but will be available to U.S. cyclists next spring.)

Generator-operated lighting is popular because there is no need to deal with batteries. The generator is either attached on the rear stay of the frame or on a tube brace near the bottom bracket. But when you stop pedaling, the lights go out.

Some cyclists, who would easily qualify as master electricians, jury-rig elaborate systems with batteries and generators to get around this.

Generator light bulbs burn out quickly; be sure to have spare bulbs handy. You must also check the generator adjustment, which has a tendency to become misaligned and reduce lighting.

One generator light was cleverly made to run off a bicycle hub. The generator is enclosed near the front hub with a light attached near the fork dropout. Unfortunately the hub is hard to get and requires building up a new wheel. [Jobst Brandt’s favorite. Not hard to get now, but requires a new wheel.]

We all know the hassles of battery-operated lights. Batteries don’t last forever. A flashing light or beacon that clips to your bike or clothing is a good way to get motorists’ attention. It costs about $15 and uses batteries.

Personally, I’m never without my battery-operated leg light. It’s easy for motorists to spot when you pedal. Sorry. You’ll need a more powerful light if you want to see the road. Of course night riding can be fun. Did I ever tell you about the time we rode up Mount Tam via the railroad grade under a full moon?

[I didn’t do that ride, but Jobst Brandt and friends did. I rode down Mt. Hamilton under a full moon. Not fun.]

One Response to “Cycling Dangers in the Night — and the Simple Solution”

  1. Daniel M Says:

    There is simply no substitute for a modern dynohub and front and rear LED lights. The latest dynohubs from Taiwan cost barely over $100 (about a third of their German counterparts), a good headlight about the same, and taillight far less. The drag is close to zero, so I leave mine on at all times, increasing my safety during the day as well as at night. The transition from day to night riding becomes seamless; as dusk sets in one gradually notices a bright headlight beam on the road ahead.

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