Cycling is a versatile means of transport and cycling at night is a viable, safe means of transport. Cycling at night does present possibly greater safety risks than riding in the day but with the correct equipment and techniques it is still a safe activity. Anybody seeking to use cycling as a year round means of transport in Sydney could benefit from the knowledge and skills described in this article. Particularly in Sydney's winter months the short daylight hours mean that being able to cycle after dark (or before sunrise) is essential.

 This article is primarily focussed on night cycling in urban areas as most of Bike North's area is urban in character. It will briefly cover the equipment needed for riding at night and the techniques necessary.

Equipment

There are basically two available light sources for the cyclist riding in the dark. Firstly those external to the bike, from street lighting, vehicle lights and other external light sources. The second source of light is that on the bike itself, from its front and rear lights. In seeking to maximise your safety in riding at night you should make use of both light sources.

External lighting is useful in enhancing your visibility to other road users. The impact of external lighting on your visibility can be enhanced through the use of reflectors and reflective materials. Front and in particular rear reflectors are useful. Less useful are the wheel mounted reflectors. Pedal mounted reflectors are very useful. These tend to be very obvious to motorists due to their regular motion. Also useful is reflective material on panniers or the safety vests that may be worn over conventional clothing. One of these reflective vests allows you to enhance your visibility even if you wish to wear dark coloured clothing.

Reflectors and reflective clothing are not sufficient on their own to make your presence obvious to all other road users. The problem comes when there are no external light sources shining onto you or your bike. For example you are riding along a dark stretch of road and a vehicle approaches from a side street on the left in front of you. In this case without a front light the vehicle operator will be unable to see you easily. For this reason you should never ride at night without a front and rear light. Cyclists riding unlit bikes at night are heavily over-represented in accident statistics.

Lights mounted on the bike serve two purposes, firstly they allow other road users to see you, and secondly they allow you to observe your surroundings so you can operate your bike safely.

 The flashing red rear light seems to have become ubiquitous with cycling in recent years. These lights have the advantages that they are reasonably cheap, the batteries have a long life, and they seem to be observed readily by other road users. Unfortunately you see some cyclists using some very dodgy versions of these lights. Try to buy one with at least five LEDs and remember that although the batteries last a long time they do eventually need replacing.

 The steady rear light is still adequate although the battery life is less than with the flashing LED versions. Some experts claim they the steady light makes judgement of location and distance easier for observers. The reality is that a reasonable quality steady or flashing rear light with charged batteries will work adequately.

A number of options are available for front lights. Broadly these could be categorised as, flashing LED front lights, low powered battery front lights, high powered (6 or 12V) front lights, generator front lights.

 The flashing LED front lights seem to come in yellow/green colour. These may be adequate as a backup to a steady battery powered front light or to supplement a generator light. They meet the legal requirements for a bicycle front light but they do not do an adequate job of lighting the road surface or your surroundings. For these reasons they can not be recommended for use as a sole front light.

 Battery powered steady front light systems (both high and low powered) are suitable for use in urban areas. The high powered systems tend to be better observed by other road users and for this reason if you are riding regularly at night it is worth investing in one if you can afford it. If you are using a low powered system, with standard sized batteries it is worth getting rechargeable Ni-Cad batteries and a charger if you use them regularly. The high powered >6W systems do a better job of lighting your surroundings. Thus if you are riding in poorly lit urban areas, in rural areas or off road at night these lights are best.

Generator systems vary in quality but certainly represent a viable option. Some systems have a standlight so that even when you stop some light is available to allow you to be observed. Alternatively you could back up the generator light with one of the flashing LED front lights already described. Generator systems have the advantage that you do not need to worry about batteries running out, or keeping batteries charged. The additional drag produced by a good quality generator light is minimal.

Techniques

 The techniques used for riding at night are basically the same as those needed for daylight cycling although you need to be more aware of riding on the road where others will see you and keep in the back of your mind that another road user may miss seeing you.

It helps to be conscious of lights from other vehicles and the effect they may on the ease with which you may be observed. For example if a car is approaching from behind you, another vehicle operator in front of you may miss your headlight beam in the glare of those from the vehicle behind you. If you use adequate lighting and reflectors this is unlikely to happen but you should be aware that it may happen. For this reason observe the behaviour of other vehicles closely to see if you have been observed before trusting that they have seen you. Even this observation is more difficult at night as it is not as easy to see where the operators of other vehicles are looking as it is in the day.

It is important to be conscious of the need to ride where you will be seen. This means not riding in the gutter but riding sufficiently out into the roadway that other vehicle operators will see you. If there is other passing traffic and the road is sufficiently wide you should ride just to the left of the passing vehicles (say 1 m from the passing traffic). If the roadway is narrow (such that motor vehicles cannot safely pass you on the same side of the road) you should assume a dominant position within the lane, somewhere about the left tyre track of the motor vehicle traffic. Here you will be more readily observed by other road users, both behind and in front of you.

Your ability to observe your surroundings is limited during darkness, the extent of this limitation is dependent upon the strength of the lighting system you are using. You should moderate your speed at night time to compensate for your reduced vision. In some cases it may not be necessary to slow down at all, eg when going up hill. In other cases eg downhill on a poorly lit road with which you are unfamiliar it is best to slow down to a speed at which you have adequate perception of your surroundings.

The need to slow down is even more obvious when it is raining and/or the road is wet. In this case it is more difficult to pick up imperfections in the road surface with your lights. Also there may be new potholes after recent rain, if these are filled with water they can be difficult to see. For this reason if it is dark and the road is wet it is best to proceed with caution.

You should take care to try not to look directly into the headlights of oncoming vehicles. This can temporarily reduce your night vision. Try to look to the left, away from oncoming lights if you can.

Conclusion

In conclusion riding at night is not too difficult and with some basic equipment and skills it is a safe activity.

For more information about lights, see Bike Lights in the quick links.