Thursday, November 8, 2007

Winter Bicycling Challenges: Dark

Related: Winter Bicycling Challenges: Cold
Coming soon: Winter Bicycling Challenges: Slippery

(This is a LONG one... but hopefully worth reading.)

Appropriately, we just switched from Daylight Saving Time back to Standard Time.

(It's obvious that our friends in Congress are not tech-savvy, or they'd realize that their arbitrary change of the DST rules has a profound impact on computers, VCRs, TV sets - pretty much anything that has a built-in electronic clock. But that's a different topic.)

Which means it's dark at go-home time, rather than at leave-home time. For a month or so - at which point it will be dark at both times, for 3 months or so.

And I'll get "SAD." You know - that "Seasonal Affective Disorder" stuff.

Isn't it amazing that the illness-abbreviation would spell out "SAD"? Because when you think about it, it makes you feel kinda sad. I'm glad it's "Seasonal," and not "Midwinter Affective Disorder." Or worse yet, "Brightness Affective Disorder."

Oh - I'm digressing again. Sorry.


It poses particular challenges to cyclists. To see... and to be seen.

Every so often, you hear about a night-time accident involving a motor vehicle and a bicyclist - the cyclist ends up mashed, squirrel-like, on the road. More often than not, the bicycle has no reflectors (or mud-covered reflectors), no lights, and the rider is dressed in dark clothes. And
frequently riding in the wrong direction. It's hard to fault the car driver in such situations. (Maybe Darwin was right, huh? About that "natural selection" thing.)

Here's what is required in this jurisdiction (Boise City - Code Section 10-14-03):

When in use at nighttime, a red reflector on the rear visible from a distance of three hundred feet (300') when directly in front of lawful upper beams of a motor vehicle, and a forward-facing white light attached either to the bicycle or the bicyclist which is visible from a distance of at least five hundred feet (500') in front of the bicycle. A bicycle shall be equipped with a front-facing white or yellow reflector when the bicyclist uses a generator powered light which is unlit when the bicycle is stopped.

I imagine most places have similar rules. If they don't they should.

Let's start with that headlight (or "forward facing white light").

Headlights can be anything from a tiny LED "micro light" clamped on your handlebars or even handheld in a pinch, to a $500 HID light with an external battery pack.

The smallest lights are likely visible from 500 feet - if the other guy is paying attention. On the upside - they are better than nothing, if you get stuck out after dark. (And I'm sure most of us dedicated cyclists have had a change in plans, and found ourselves in the dark unexpectedly.) On the downside - they provide little, if any, assistance in lighting your way. Something as insignificant as a pothole, or even a manhole cover, could cause you a major problem if you don't see it.

At the other end - those HID lights are so bright they'll peel paint at 100 yards! Well, not really, but they will have other roadway users flashing their brights in your direction, if you don't have them properly aimed. The downside? Who's got 500 bucks for a flippin' headlight?!!

There are a myriad of choices in between... from downright-bright LED lights powered by throwaway batteries, to rechargeable handlebar lights, to generator-powered lights, to helmet-lights, to multiple-beam high-powered incandescent lights with an external "bottle battery."

My practice (and advice) would be to ALWAYS carry an "emergency" headlight, that will at least alert other roadway users of your presence. (I carry a little "keychain light" in my flat-tire kit. I've also been known to carry a small 2-AA flashlight, when I've been pretty sure I'd end up after dark, but had not yet installed the "real" headlight.) During the "dark" season (typically mid-October to mid-March??) I install my "real" headlight. Currently, and for the past 6 or 7 years, it's a 10-watt incandescent handlebar-mounted light, with an external rechargeable battery. (For comparison purposes, a car's low beam is supposedly 55 watts... but those 10 watts are plenty bright for 20-mph travel.) It's supposed to be good for 2 hours or so of continuous lighting; when I'm just using it for the evening commute, a couple weeks can go by in between charges. (And it's just a matter of plugging it in overnight, to charge it back up. You know it's time when it starts losing some of its luster.)

(I've got friends who are seriously into the mountain biking. But they hate crowds, so during the summer months they use similar lights, and head for the hills just as the sun is going down. Their lights throw plenty of brightness to navigate the single-track... so you know they'll be quite adequate for rolling down the pavement.)

I'd say expect to spend $60-130 for such a setup (depending on features, and how bargain conscious you happen to be).

A note about generator lights. When I was a kid, I had one on my "lightweight English 3-speed" bike. I never cared for it. It was one of those that has a gnarly little wheel that rolls against the sidewall of the tire. I didn't like that it went off when I was stopped, and it whined, and it seemed to effect rolling resistance more than you'd think.

Nowadays, some commuter/touring -oriented bicycles have some kind of hub-mounted generator, and possibly even a battery or capacitor for energy storage, so the light doesn't go off when you stop. I have not had experience with such a setup. It looks rather complicated and expensive. If somebody reads this and has had experience, either good or bad, please post your thoughts.

Taillights. A reflector is all that's required, but I'd never venture out in the dark without a taillight.

There aren't quite as many varieties. Most are the blinky-LED types. And I believe they are quite effective... at least I know I can see a bicycle rider from blocks away, if he's got such a taillight, and the lens is clean, and the batteries are fresh. (I don't do a lot of night riding, but in blinky-mode, one set of AAA batteries lasts for a season.) I leave my taillight mounted on the bike all year 'round. It's tiny and lightweight, and better safe than sorry.

Such a taillight will cost $5-30, depending on how fancy-schmancy (and shopping the sales).

Beyond lighting, what can you do to improve safety while riding in the dark?

- Wear bright/light clothing. A white jacket can be seen WAY farther away at night, than a black one. Better yet - wear clothes with reflective material. That reflector stuff can be seen from blocks and blocks away, when headlights are aimed in your direction.
- Reflectors! You can get a sheet of peel-off sticky reflectors in various shapes and sizes for 4 bucks. Put 'em all the way around on your bike, helmet, etc.
- Multiple headlights and/or taillights, if you really want to get serious.

A few months back, I was driving the wife's minivan one night. I saw something coming up the road toward me. Frankly, it looked like those UFOs in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." I bet it was a mile away, when I first spotted it! As it got closer, I was able to identify it. It was a guy riding his bike (on the sidewalk!). He must've had 4 headlights, and twice as many blinkie-LED lights in both red and amber. His bike was totally covered by those little reflector-stickers... he had 'em twisted around all the tubes like a barber pole! He had some white saddlebags covered with reflectors and lights. He was wearing white clothes and a highway-worker reflective orange safety vest.

That might be overkill - but that guy taught me a lesson. You CAN be totally visible at night! (I bet that guy does not get smashed like a squirrel, even if he's riding up the road in the wrong direction or whatever!)


Clancy said...

Big blinky in the front for me and some custom/retro led lights in the back. The Xtra has some additional reflector material also.

Here is a link rear light pic.-(bikeboy, you can wait till you get home.)

Most my night riding occurs under street lights, so no need to light my way just be seen.

Bob T said...

In front I use a 16 watt dual halogen plus a clear strobe light. Behind I have a red blinky in constant on mode plus an amber stobe light. Passively I have an orange safety vest (which I use day and night), a reflective "slow vehicle" triangle, a "flash-flag", and other miscellaneous reflective material.

Someday I'm hoping to upgrade my front light as the one that I am using does not seem provide enough illumination, especially in areas where there are no street lights or where there is a lot of traffic coming from the opposite direction.

ScottNorthSide said...

I use two headlights, a cateye EL-500 with a Viewpoint Flare 5 LED (in the blinking mode). I have 4 LED taillights all in the blinking mode. With reflective on the rear and a orange reflector on my rear mudflap. Since I've added this stuff, I can actually hear the cars slow down as they come up behind me. The blinking headlight as literally reduced to zero the cars that would attempt to turn left in front of me. Prior to that, I would have them turn in front of me at least 2or3 times a week. Something I took precaution in when I was faced with this situation. The whole thing is to "Be seen or be dead".

Bud said...

Bikeboy, I enjoyed your post on the challenges of riding in the shorter hours of the winter. If you don't mind, I am going to post a link to your article on my site The Incidental Cyclist. I am sure the readers in my area will find the information useful while riding in and around Charlotte, NC.

Personally I am not an evening rider and do not own a light, but I have those blinky handlebar plugs on both our tandem and my rain bike.