Recreational cyclists can choose the conditions they want to ride in, but bike commuters, especially year-round commuters whatever the weather, don’t. They may need to leave before dawn or ride home after dusk and ride in poor visibility. As your own safety is always number one priority the question naturally arises:
Is it safe to cycle at night?
Cycling at night can be safe by making yourself visible to other road users, and by using lights that allow you to see the road and other road users, even if they are poorly lit. You need different lighting on lit city roads and on small dark country lanes. Equally important is to stay visible without blinding others. Let’s see how you can maximize your safety on the road when riding at night.
Three ways of bringing attention to yourself
The number one danger to you as a cyclist are vehicles that don’t see you or don’t spot you in time so they can react. There are three things you can do to draw attention to yourself:
- Mount lights on your bike
- Place reflective material on your bike
- Dress visible
There is a difference between riding in the city and riding in suburbs or on country roads, which require different ways of being visible.
Key to riding in the city: be seen from every angle
In a city there are intersections, roundabouts as well as long straight stretches, which means that traffic can approach you from any direction. Most of the streets are properly lit, which makes it quite easy for you to spot vehicles and even potholes on the road. But being able to see others is only half of the equation. The other, equally important part is to make it easy for others to spot you. City lights, other cars, blinking billboards all draw attention away from you and make it harder for you to be seen.
To enhance safety when riding in the city at night a good rule of thumb is: the more the better. Lights visible from the side, reflective clothing and reflective pieces on the bike help you with this.
The strength of light is measured in lumens. Bicycle lights typically range from 50 to 2000 lumens. This number determines how strong the emitted light is.
You should mount at least one headlight and one tail light on your bike for night cycling regardless of where you’re riding.
You don’t need as powerful lights in the city as outside the city, because you use them mostly to be seen by others. What you need to pay attention to is to have lights that aren’t directional (their beam isn’t focused in one direction), but can be seen from the sides too. There are headlights that have side-windows to shed light sideways too. Since these lights don’t need to be too bright but need to attract attention, blinking or strobing effect is a good feature to have in them.
It is a good idea to have a light with USB charging, which you can take with you to the office or can top up at home at night. You don’t need to worry about running out of batteries or having to carry a battery charger with you. These lights easily last 3-4 hours in blinking mode, which is enough for most commuters for 2 days or more.
Cateye is a well-established manufacturer, who makes lights that fit this category. They don’t only make you more visible, but they also mount easily to any bike frame and have a good level of weather protection. You can pick up their front and rear lights from Amazon for around 100 dollars.
You can certainly find other, cheaper options too, but you always get what you pay for. It is not recommended to save money on your own safety.
Hi visibility material can be seen from 1000 feet (300 meters) away when normal visibility is only 170 feet (50 meters). Hi vis reflective material is your friend when it comes to cycling at night.
There is a huge selection of cycling trousers, shirts, helmets on the market which come with plenty of reflective surface. If you get changed for riding it is good to pay attention to this aspect and purchase clothing that has reflective pieces on it.
If you don’t get changed into cycling gear and ride your bike in your work clothes you can pick up a reflective cycling jacket and an ankle band.
Keep in mind that bright, vivid colors stand out much better at dusk than anything else, so a cheap high visibility jacket is very handy indeed. They can be spotted much easier than a grey cycling top. It is a good idea to have one for those days when you need to ride at dusk.
Reflective details on the bike:
This is by far the easiest and more permanent way to stay visible, because you don’t need to worry about picking the right type of clothing. If you have reflective details on your bike you will be easily spotted if any light shines on your bicycle in the dark. They can be seen from the same distance as the reflective surface on your cycling clothes.
Another cool thing about reflectives on your bike is that they not only enhance your safety, but they also give a unique look to your bike when riding at night. Here are some really good options for reflective parts:
- Reflective spoke covers
- Reflective tape
- Tires with reflective sidewalls
- Reflective spray
Cycling outside the city: see far ahead and be visible from far away
In urban and country areas the roads are either poorly lit or not lit at all. Here you need to make sure that you are not only visible to others, but that you can properly see what’s ahead of you.
When it comes to choosing lights, it is important to choose one that illuminates the path in front of you sufficiently so you have enough time to react to potholes, curbs, curves, hanging vegetation, road signs etc. The rule of thumb is that a 400 lumen light gives sufficient light at a 16 mph (about 25 km/h) speed on most paved roads. If you drive faster or on more challenging terrain, such as unpaved roads or forrest roads, you need more powerful lights. A 2000 lumen light is really bright and illuminates your path even if you’re riding off road.
Beam distribution and shape
More lumens only translate into better visibility if the light is properly dispersed. This depends on the construction of the lens. Think of a very powerful laser beam that can literally make someone blind. It is a very concentrated source of light that only illuminates a single point and therefore completely useless for a cyclist. Some cheapish bike lights can promise a lot of lumens, but still provide very poor visibility. On the other hand, if the light is not directional at all, it gets too dispersed, which means that less light shines on on what you really need to see.
A well-distributed light illuminates the road immediately in front of you, and the more distant parts of the road ahead of you, thus letting you see what’s further ahead.
In areas that are poorly lit or not lit at all it is wise to have a light with slightly wider beam. A wider beam can be useful in pitch dark to help you see what’s on your periphery. That will result in a more comfortable ride giving you enough time to react if something unexpected were to come from sideways.
A well balanced light recommendation
A solid recommendation for urban commuters is the Cateye Volt 800. It is a reliable, solid light from Cateye, who has engineered and manufactured products for cyclists for over 70 years. It offers plenty of brightness and the beam distribution seems just perfect even for cycling in pitch dark.
The Volt 800 offers plenty of power for higher speeds and it can be used at lower outputs too (all the way down to 100 lumens), which prolongs battery life.
If you want to get something similar to Volt 800 at a significantly lower price, you can pick up the Volt 700 for half the price of its bigger brother. The trade-off is slightly less output and oddly, reduced running time despite identical batteries.
We have talked about headlights, but haven’t mentioned tail lights yet. Their primary function is to make you visible. As such, there is no need to have specific tail lights for city and urban cycling. Red light doesn’t blind the way white light does, so with a strong blinking tail light you’re good to go.
Avoid blinding oncoming traffic
Adjust beam angle
A headlight that is powerful enough to provide visibility in pitch dark is powerful enough to blind oncoming traffic. Consider that an average car headlight produces 700 lumens of light, and it can blind you at night if it’s not properly adjusted. Even though the size can be deceptive, a bike light can be just as bright, and even brighter than the car’s headlights. In order to avoid blinding traffic coming your way, your headlight needs to illuminate the road by pointing slightly downwards.
Blinking lights can make you visible, but they can also be very distracting, and can cause more harm than help if not used properly.
They can be used to let others see you, but they are insufficient to illuminate your path. Less powerful lights designed to be seen in city traffic are most suited to be used as blinking lights. They stand out from other lights and make spotting you very easy, yet they don’t cause anyone looking into them squint or make them blind.
Most bright lights, including the Volt 800, also have blinking functions. They should be used in daytime or in the city at night where there is sufficient available light to ride safely. On high power blinking setting it is even more important to tilt it down, as failing to do so can lead to accidents. It is advisable to select a lower output when in blinking mode if your lights allow it.
On darker roads even just a few reflective parts on your clothes and on your bike go a long way. Since there are no other distracting lights sources, you will be spotted easily. Side visibility is helpful on country roads too, but it is crucial to have reflectives that can be seen from the front and the rear. Putting some reflective tape on your seatpost, your handlebar, helmet and your outer ankle make you visible from the front and the rear alike.
Let common sense dictate your choices when it comes to night cycling. Make sure that you can see and you are seen, but without being a distraction to other road users.