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night time bicycle riding - how my commuter bike is set up for night riding

Night Bicycle Riding

Relative Proportions of Car-Bike Collisions Due to Darkness link to source
 Type of Car-Bike Collision Percent
Motorist exiting from side street 47.2
Motorist turning left 22.3
Motorist overtaking 21.0
Wrong-way cyclist head-on 9.5

I love riding my bike at night, although I don't set out for a nighttime ride nearly as much as I often end up coming home after sunset, usually because I've procrastinated or was overcome by events (OBE'd) during daylight. A few times a year I ride to work for a midnight shift; that's usually a solid night bicycle ride. I use my Trek830 as my designated night bike.

Bicycle Reflectors (passive lights)

The first thing I'd say about night bike equipment is that the CPSC reflector standard won't keep you safe at night, (it's insufficient) but it's still the legal standard. IMO the CPSC standard protects manufacturers, not bicyclists. Lots of people remove their reflectors because they're not "cool". If you remove the reflectors from your bike and some driver kills you, it's probably going to be your fault when the lawyers get done because you've removed the OEM safety equipment. I leave the reflectors on my bicycle.

On the back of my bike I carry a reflective "slow vehicle" triangle. My friend Mike tells me that every one of those Amish buggies that gets turned into matchsticks was carrying one up to the point of impact, but I'm in denial about that. I think the best source for these is REI or TeamEstrogen.com. I also have reflective tape on the frame.

To further minimize any remaining coolness or respectability, I use a reflective Sam Browne belt that I picked up in London. The Randonneurs require these and they have a lot of experience about night bicycle safety.

My final excess with reflectors is the plastic-flag-thingy I first saw among Parisian commuters, they fold against the frame when not in use and rotate out (like curb scrapers). I am astounded at how much more room cars give me when I extend this thing. I bought two of these in an Iranian bike shop in Paris, and I'm not sure why they're not used more in the states.

The tires on my nighttime bike are Schwalbe Marathons with a reflective strip in place of the whitewall. The booties I use for winter riding also have reflective stripes on the rear zipper hems.

Bike Head Lights

night bicycle head light

Nov 2010

In 2010 I've added a Planet Bike Blaze 2 Watt LED to my front lighting. This is a "see me" light rather than a light that helps me see. The "super flash" blinking mode is really impressive, I'm surprised (even in daylight) how much earlier cars on intersecting streets recognize me as traffic.

The Planet Bike Alias HID light continues to do a great job. I've had it for four years now, and the original battery is still doing well. The runtime on this is about 2 hours, so it's not a "ride all night" light.

In this photo, the Blaze LED light is seen on the left, and the Alias HID light is on the right.

Nov 2006

 In late 2006 I've invested in a Planet Bike Alias HID light from MEC, which is sort of the Canadian REI. An 10-watt HID (high intensity discharge) light generates an incredible amount of light.

The first time I saw an HID on a bicycle was on a dark rainy night, and I was waiting in my car to make a left turn. Between a gap in the traffic I saw what looked like a locomotive headlight working its way along the street. I sat and waited to see what sort of vehicle it was, and I was amazed that it was a bicycle. I fell in love with the HID right then and there.

March 2006

 In 2006 I've changed the helmet-mounted Vistalite for a Myolite3 headlamp I got at REI. I didn't like the Vistalite on the helmet because I hated the cord and battery involved. The Myolite is excellent, I can change to any bike and still have a light without worrying about battery mounts.

Also, I think headlamps generate more awareness from drivers - they're up higher, and they move around more.

Feb 2005

 Vistalite Code 15  For headlights I like the Vistalite's. I have 5-watt and 10-watt headlights on my front fork, and a 5W headlight mounted on my helmet. The fork lights illuminate where the bike is pointing, and the helmet light illuminates where I'm looking. I think the helmet light does a great job of catching driver's attention-- they may not recognize you as a bike, but they'll often perceive that there's something there and give a wider berth. I have an older helmet that I've strapped the helmet light onto, so it's my designated night helmet.

Bicycle Rear Lights

night rear bike light


In the 2010 update, I'm sporting three lights on a PVC-kludge at the back of my rear rack - a Lightman strobe on the left, a Cateye TLD1100 in the middle, and a Portland Design Works RadBot 1000 on the right.

The Lightman strobe does a great job of distant visibility. The Radbot 1000 has a "cornea blitz" blinking mode that is very, very bright and remarkably attention-getting. The Cateye TLD1100, once best-in-class, is now really there as a backup in case the other lights fail.

Also in the photo is a Princeton Tec Swerve light, affixed to the back of my trunk bag in the middle of the "slow-vehicle" triangle. It's another reliable light that's mostly there for redundancy.


  In 2006 I gave up my RealLite for the Cateye TL-LD1000. It's an awesome taillight with lights across both sides and the back. Very bright, daytime visible. I think it's the best rear light I've seen. The mounting system leaves room for improvement, but the light is excellent.


  Lightman strobe, I have clear lenses Xenon strobes are a technology that really generates more visibility than LED flashers.
I have white Lightman xenon flashers mounted fore and aft; use of a white light on the rear is inconsistent with policy, but it's my butt I'm worried about and white is the most visible. The front flasher replaces the required white reflector and augments the front headlight- while the headlight helps me see, the flasher helps others see me. I found the best price at www.swps.net, which is a police supply warehouse.

These xenon flashers are very effective with cars; when they're turned on, overtaking cars give me more room, and cars ahead of me seem to recognize me earlier. I started off running these at night only, but now if there's a hint of twilight I turn them on. I have not had to take evasive manuevers from a driver that never saw me when I've had the xenon flashers turned on.


  RealLite For my rear light I started out using the Real Lite. It's heavy but in 2003 it was the best bike LED available. I've had an email that they aren't getting any more from the supplier, but there's still a small supply available. April 2006 update: I've had an email from Dick Janson that says they're available again, in Red, Gold, and White.

How the lights go together on the bike

  So here's how it all goes together. The photo at left shows the front fork, front fender, two headlights, the front white xenon flasher, and the handlebar bag. The photo at right shows my rear rack back with it's mystical yellow slow-vehicle triangle, and my Real-Lite and white xenon flasher which are mounted on a Jannd Expedition rack. The orange flag in this photo is rotated into position, perpendicular to the frame.

Most night vehicle/car accidents are not car-overtaking-bike; the chart above shows that a lot of accidents are a car in front of the bike (either exiting a sidestreet, or opposite direction turning left) where the driver doesn't see and recognize the bike. The front xenon flasher is a response to the most frequent night car/bike collisions.

The dark image on the right side shows my bike from a distance of 25 feet, no flash used, no streetlights. It's a good illustration of the power of the Lightman xenon strobe (the white light) compared to the 12-LED Cateye TL-LD1000 (the red light). The orange triangle is illuminated by light spilling back from the strobe and LEDs.


2006 Night Bike Riding Updates

In 2006 I've replaced the Real Lites with the new Cateye TL-LD1000. It's advertised as the only light bright enough for daytime use. It's gone ten LED's in two rows of five. Each row consists of three across the face of the light, and one on each side of the light - it's this side lighting, IMO, that sets this light above the others. Although this is the best light out there right now, the mounting brackets and equipment aren't the best.

In May 2006 I read an interesting thread on BikeForums.net that talked about extreme rear lighting, and so I followed up on this photo and used a Minoura Space Bar to attach another TL-LD1000 light to my night bike. I want to add a BLT Rear Flare to it.

I also just learned about 3M Diamond Grade Conspicuity Tape, which is amazing stuff. I bought a few short strips from this Ebay store for the back of my fenders.

Nathan Reflective Tape  




What I really want1: I have always wanted a back-lit bicycle computer, sort of a Timex Indiglo presentation, so that I could see what I was doing at night. In 2005 Cateye introduced their CD300 wireless cadence backlit computer, and I want one, but I really can't justify a $140 bike computer just because it's backlit.

Other Details: I carry a small flashlight in my rack bag. I wear glasses with yellow lenses in twilight, and switch to clear lenses for darkness.

Dc Randonneurs Lighting Requirements
Night Riding and LED headlights
Bicycle Lighting Systems, enough info to build your own
Why Bicycle Reflectors Don't Work
John Allen: Lights and Reflectors
Night Equipment Policy, League of Effective Wheelmen
Atlanta night bicycle death, second cyclist charged: Bike Forums Atlanta Constitution Journal

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