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Bicycle Safety

Riding at night

One of the greatest problems we face on the road at night is not being seen by other road users. At night (or in other conditions of reduced visibility, like fog or rain), your safety and the safety of other road users depend on meeting two specific needs:

  • You have to be able to see, and
  • You have to be seen

Most states follow the Uniform Vehicle Code, which requires that a bicycle operated during darkness have, as a minimum, a white light on the front that is visible 500 feet to the front, and a rear-mounted red reflector visible from 600 to 1,000 feet when illuminated by motor vehicle headlamps. Some states require a red taillight. Failure to comply is a moving violation in many jurisdictions and can result in a ticket.

Seeing and being seen

Here’s what the League of American Bicyclists has to say about illumination for nighttime driving:

" A common crash scenario involves a motorist turning or pulling out in front of an approaching cyclist. A helmet-mounted light can dramatically reduce the chances that such an accident will happen to you. A helmet light allows you to aim the beam directly at another road user (including pedestrians and other cyclists) who might not otherwise see you coming. The almost universal reaction is to stop, which is exactly what you want them to do.

" Bicycle headlights, mounted on the front fender, are usually rated in watts. A 3-watt headlight can be adequate if you only travel on well-lighted streets at moderate speeds. If you cycle through areas without street lights or where surface hazards are difficult to see or at higher speed, you should have at least 10 watts. However, if you ride on mixed-use trails be aware that too-bright lights may blind oncoming cyclists. Take care to ensure that the beam of the light is not blocked by other bike accessories (bags, racks, etc.).

" Reflectors can only increase your nighttime conspicuousness when they are illuminated by the lights of other road users. They are effective only when that light strikes the reflective surface at about 90 degrees.

" A good lighting system, however, provides enough light for you to see the roadway ahead and be able to identify road hazards in sufficient time to avoid them. Note that the faster you ride the more light you will need.

Power sources

"There are two choices here: a generator or batteries. Generators are a renewable power source and will usually be cheaper and weigh less than a battery system. Some disadvantages, however, are that there is no light when you are stopped (such as at an intersection); you are limited to about 3 watts; they can cause additional tire wear; and they can be difficult to maintain in wet conditions. In the case of batteries, it's either dry-cell disposables or rechargeables. Dry-cells are practical only for low-wattage (fewer than 3 watts) systems and when travel time is short. Rechargeable batteries (either NiCad or sealed, lead-acid) can deliver lots of power with long burn times but carry significant weight and initial cost penalties.

" As you prepare for your nighttime ride, be sure to include a spare bulb among your riding essentials. If you are a night-rider, get a friend to ride your bike with your equipment while you drive a car and carefully observe how easy it is for you to see ‘yourself’ in various situations. You may find the results illuminating!”

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