Motorcyclists: how to see and be seen at night

bmf night bike

Published on 7 October 2016 by Robert Drane

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Filed under Category: Tips and advice

Many wise and experienced riders have a rule of thumb when it comes to riding at night: Don’t. Especially if you live in an area where deer are abundant. There’s no getting around it: when riding at night, you face a higher degree of risk than when you ride in daylight for a whole host of reasons besides deer and other nocturnal animals.

That said, it’s important to remember that in motorcycle safety circles we talk in terms of relative risk. There’s no such thing as ‘absolutely safe’, only varying degrees of probability. By taking certain precautions and learning (or brushing up on) a few basic principles, you can reduce those risks and take some danger out of the darkness.

Be seen

The ability to be seen is the most important aspect of night-time riding. You may have heard the term ‘conspicuity’, which is the art of making yourself conspicuous to drivers and other riders. There are many ways to do this.

Make sure you’re using all the lights available to you. If your motorcycle features any auxiliary lighting, make sure it’s on when you ride at night. Use the high beam when it’s appropriate. Flashing your brake light when slowing or preparing to stop is a good idea any time, but especially so at night. It’s also absolutely crucial to use your turn signals consistently.

Another important consideration is to wear reflective clothing. Many riding jackets feature integrated reflective materials, but it never hurts to put on a reflective vest as well. Consider adding some reflective tape to your helmet, especially if it’s black.

Finally, make sure all your lights are clean. It’s often said that motorcyclists should ride as though they’re invisible. That's a good tip in general for riding defensively and doubly so at night.

 

S.E.E. and be seen

Make sure you can see things as clearly as possible. Things that can reduce this ability include eyewear and eye protection (goggles, glasses, face shields, windshields) that are scratched or dirty. Smudges you may not notice in daylight can cause problems when streetlights or vehicle lights shine on them. If you have goggles or a helmet with interchangeable lenses or face shields, make sure you have the ‘clear’ options with you at all times in case you get caught out after dark. It’s also a sound idea to make sure your emergency kit includes a flashlight.

Keep in mind that things don’t look as sharp at night. When your pupils dilate to compensate for lower light levels, the edges of things tend to not look quite as sharp. If you sometimes wear glasses to help you see things far away, make sure that riding at night is one of those times!

‘Seeing’ also means not overriding your headlamp. That is, don’t ride so fast that you don’t have enough time to react to an obstacle that suddenly appears in the far reaches of your headlamp beam.

The S.E.E. system recommends actively scanning the area up to 12 seconds ahead of you; that is, an area ahead of you that will take 12 seconds to reach. The faster you ride, the larger that area becomes. This is difficult enough in bright daylight, but it can be nearly impossible at night so keeping your speed in check becomes especially important.

One trick is to use the headlight of a vehicle in front of you to expand your view. By paying attention to what may appear in the headlights of a leading vehicle, you’ll have more information on hand to help you make good riding decisions.

 

Animal eyes in the darkAnimals

The most important part of avoiding animals in the road is to know when they’re more likely to be present and then to actively look for them. Take warning signs seriously! They are usually posted in places where there have been a higher-than-average number of vehicle-animal collisions. Remember that deer and many other animals are nocturnal, so look for them at dusk, dawn and after dark. Watch for shadows that move and for glowing eyes at the side of the road. Ride with your high beam on when there’s no oncoming traffic.

 

Added risk factors

Riding in the dark presents plenty of hazards on its own, but when you throw in other risk factors it can be treacherous:

  • Adding rain to darkness can make it doubly hard for you to see clearly and for drivers to see you. Light from oncoming vehicles will reflect on raindrops and create a starburst effect on your eyewear, face shield and windshield.
  • A construction zone can feel like a minefield at night.

 

Training

Ride within the capabilities of your motorcycle. If you need to, ride with your flashers on and keep a safe margin between you and other traffic.

  • Fatigue can become a bigger risk at night. Even if you don’t feel you could fall asleep on your bike, being tired affects your judgment. Assess your level of tiredness and how ‘necessary’ it is to ride.
  • Ambient temperatures can drop rapidly at night. If the temperature approaches freezing, use extra caution on bridges (where ice tends to form first) and areas where moisture is present. Also, carry a few extra layers of clothing with you when you expect to be out after dark.
  • Unfortunately, night-time is also when you’re more likely to encounter drivers who may have overindulged, so keep an extra eye out for swerving vehicles and give them plenty of space. In some cases, you may want to consider pulling over to alert the local authorities.

 

Don't sweat it

In conclusion, one ‘unseen’ hazard of riding at night is that it can increase your stress level – which can in turn affect your judgment and ability to ride intelligently. However, by taking the principles presented here to heart, you can learn to ride in the dark with added confidence, less stress and more enjoyment.


Image credits: High visibility jacket, author Magnus Mertens, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany licence. Other images under CC0 licence.