With good lights and sensible precautions, cycling at night is straightforward and only a little slower than doing so by day.
If you commute year-round in the UK, it’s inevitable that some of your journeys will take place in the dark. The end of British Summertime in October is the tipping point, the hour-earlier sunset spurring cyclists to rummage in cupboards for lights and chargers unused since spring. Some will stop cycling instead, worrying that they’ll be harder to spot by drivers in the dark. In fact, drivers often give you a wider berth when overtaking at night, because your white front and red rear lights remind them that you, too, are traffic.
It’s vital that you’ve got functioning lights whenever you might find yourself riding in the dark. That can easily happen unplanned. Maybe a meeting at work runs over. Maybe you get a puncture part way home and it takes a while to sort out.
If you’ve got dynamo lights, bolted to your bike and powered by a hub generator, then you’re more ‘ever ready’ than any battery-powered commuter. You can’t forget your lights and they can’t run down. Only a disconnected cable or vandalism is likely to stop them working, since modern LEDs don’t burn out like the incandescent bulbs of old. It is nevertheless worth having backup lights
Although they’re not common, you can get bolt-on battery lights – vintage-style ones that mount to the fork crown, and wide ones incorporating a reflector that fix to a rear pannier rack. Most battery lights are quick-release and attach to the handlebar and seatpost. Since you’ll remove them when you park to prevent theft, there’s a risk that you’ll forget them. Store them somewhere you can’t fail to take them with you – in your commuting bag, for example.
For commuting, rechargeable lights are more economical than ones with disposable batteries. USB charging is handy as you can top them up at work via a computer. Whatever lights you use, it’s worth carrying a couple of little LED lights as backup. A head-torch makes a useful front light backup and is invaluable if you have to fix a puncture in the dark.
The brightness of rechargeable lights tends to stay the same for hours, then drop off rapidly. Charge them regularly to prevent them going dim. If your bike lacks mudguards, then dirty water and road grime can compromise light output too.
Flashing lights draw the eye more than steady lights. Apart from emergency services, bicycles are the only vehicles permitted to use flashers. As a result, the flashing red rear light has come to be associated with cyclists. The problem with flashers is that they make it harder for drivers to judge your distance or track your movement. If you’re riding anywhere without streetlights, use a steady rear light as well as or instead of a flasher, or set the light to pulse mode (if available) so it never goes dark. Flashing front lights are of minimal use to see where you’re going and bright ones can distract other road users, so a steady lamp is better up front.
Reflective items also help pinpoint your presence. Pedal reflectors and reflective ankle bands are especially good as the up-down motion is unique to cyclists.
Lighting your way
How much light you need to see where you’re going will depend on where you ride. If you ride solely under streetlights, you don’t need much of a beam at all. If you ride on unlit roads, you’ll need a strong beam that illuminates the road at least 10 metres ahead. That’s determined by how well the light is focused as well as how powerful it is, so it’s difficult to be prescriptive, but around 200 lumens should be enough to ride confidently on unlit roads. Riding off-road, you’ll need more light (500 lumens or more) in a wider spread.
Adjust your speed to suit your front light’s beam. You must be able to stop within the distance you can see ahead. At 15mph, you’ll need around 10 metres to stop – and you can double that or more if it’s raining or you’re tired. It’s very easy to hit potholes in the dark. For that reason, it’s best to stick to familiar routes as far as possible. That way, you’ll know roughly where the potholes and raised draincovers are from your daytime commute.
There are some routes that you might use in daylight that you’d rather avoid at night – that unlit cycle track, perhaps, or that inner city underpass. Bad people are rare but unfortunately they do exist; use your judgment.
Oncoming car headlights on full beam can blind you. The driver is legally obliged to dip the headlights, but don’t count on this. If you see a car with full-beam lights approaching, don’t look directly at it. Slow down and dip your head so you’re looking just in front of your front wheel. If you can do it safely, turning your handlebar side to side will move your front light and might remind the driver to dip.
These days, there are cycle lights available that are more than capable of dazzling drivers. Resist the temptation to give them a taste of their own medicine. Apart from being annoying, it’s against the law. The Highway Code (Rule 114) says: ‘You MUST NOT use any lights in a way which would dazzle or cause discomfort to other road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders.’ If you’ve got a high-power front light intended for mountain biking at night, toggle it down to a lower setting on the road, or at the very least shield it with one hand to avoid blinding oncoming road users.
You must have
Between sunset and sunrise, your bike is legally required to have:
- White front light, lit
- Red rear reflector
- Red rear light, lit
- Amber pedal reflectors
Lights must be mounted to the bike, centrally or on the right. They must be marked as conforming to BS6102/3 or an equivalent EC standard. If the lights only flash (no steady mode) they’re exempt from these standards if they emit at least ‘four candela’ (translation: are reasonably bright). Additional lights are permissible, so long as they’re the right colour, and they don’t have to be fixed to the bike.The good news, for anyone despairing of finding a BS6102/3 light in the shop, is that the police interpret the UK’s out-of-date lighting regulations more liberally: if you’ve got lights of the right colour and they’re easily visible, they’ll let you go on your way. And they’re unlikely to pull you over if your clipless pedals don’t have pedal reflectors. A lawyer might take a different view, if you were in an accident.
You might want:
- Backup lights
- Tyres with reflective sidewalls
- Reflective ankle bands
- Additional reflectors on the bike
- Hi-vis waistcoat/jacket/etc
The best supplementary lights and reflectives are ones that help identify you as a cyclist from a distance.
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