What you need to know about riding at night

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Published on 30 April 2019 by Mike Waters

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Filed under categories: Features, Tips and advice

Riding at night has its charms, so here are a few ways to get the most out of it. Mike Waters explores.

Whether for good reason or the sheer hell of it, plenty of people get on bikes after dark now and again. However, there are disproportionate risks involved in doing so and research by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has found that 40% of road accidents occur during the hours of darkness despite just 15% of a day’s traffic being on the roads at that time. Those are lousy odds, so how can you avoid becoming part of the wrong end of that statistic?

There are some people who flat-out refuse to ride a motorcycle in the hours of darkness under any circumstances. Then again, there are some people who see it as being no different at all to riding during the day and don’t change a thing about how they ride. Neither is ideal and both approaches get worse the closer you look. Fortunately, there are other options somewhere in the middle that strike a better balance between safety and practicality and those are what we’re going to talk about here.

Let’s begin with some first principles. As cutting-edge scientific research has confirmed and readers of an observant disposition have long suspected – it’s about to get complicated here, but stay with me – it gets dark at night. A shocking revelation, we know. The world’s light bulb manufacturers are in uproar.

Joking aside, judging visibility properly is a crucial part of riding safely and it is necessary to make certain adjustments to your riding style. These are simple common sense nine times out of 10 and they only tend to require minor tweaks rather than radical changes to how you ride. The road has not suddenly acquired gaping chasms or pits of spikes just because the sun has gone down, after all, but sensible acknowledgement of the reality of the road is never a bad thing.

The major problem is light, whether in terms of there not being enough or there being too much of it at the wrong moment. It can be tempting to think that your headlights will be all you need to make up for the decreased visibility, but it’s not quite that simple. Not all headlights are equal, so are yours in good repair, clean and angled properly? Making sure before you set out is a good precaution. Inadequate street and road lighting can be a problem too, and lighting not being there at all can be a worse one. Most riding accidents at night take place on poorly lit or unlit rural roads rather than in better-lit towns or on motorways, so using extra caution in such areas is strongly recommended.

Conversely, glare from too-bright lights can be a troublesome issue. As we age, our eyes take longer to recover after we are dazzled. At 15, that means an average of just one second and, while that’s not great, it’s not too awful either. At 65, that means an average of nine seconds and nine seconds or worse at 70mph while effectively blinded can be a lethal interlude. An anti-glare coating for your visor may help and keeping your visor in good condition, treating it to prevent fogging and so on is good practice, but there’s always the old trick of looking away and focusing on the road markings – just not for too long.

Time is another factor, because it’s harder to read the road ahead of you and respond properly if you can’t see as much. Hazards are tougher to spot, whether far off or closer to, and you’ll have less time to react to anything that suddenly comes up. We’re all familiar with the two-second rule for leaving safe amounts of space on the road, but tripling or quadrupling that at night (or more, depending on the weather) is prudent. Remember: you’ll want more time, not less, if something does go wrong.

One thing you’ll want to keep in mind is roving nocturnal wildlife. Deer, foxes and other critters tend to be more likely to put in an appearance at night, and having something apparently appear out of nowhere because it was hidden under cover of darkness until a fraction of a second before it enters your vision can really throw a spanner in the works. Sensible caution is advised, as is keeping an eye out for nearby signs about wildlife being in an area.

It’s also likely to be colder at night too, so that could have further impact on your basic comfort and your reaction times. In winter, this can be punishing indeed and you’ll want to assume the worst – layering up, keeping a thermos of something hot handy and so on. While this is less likely to be a problem in summer, the effect can sneak up on you at speed or if the wind takes a sudden unexpected turn. Keeping suitable bits of heavier gear or even just an extra undershirt and set of glove liners on hand and ready might be a worthwhile option.

There are more conditions to be aware of than just physical ones, and it’s time to be cynical. Let’s be honest: even at the best of times, roads everywhere are full of idiots who shouldn’t be on them and the rest of us have to put up with them. At night, they’re probably going to be even worse because they are more likely to have their judgment and reaction times compromised by being tired from being awake all day, perhaps being under the influence of alcohol or somehow misjudging their response to controlling a vehicle in the dark. In light of this, making defensive assumptions about your fellow road users and adjusting your own riding accordingly to build in the greater possibility of someone doing something they shouldn’t is wise. If it helps, think of it as being realistic rather than paranoid.

In the interest of fairness, keeping an eye on your own condition is the smart thing to do as much as it is the decent thing to do. The same RoSPA research quoted earlier also found that falling asleep while in charge of a vehicle was the cause for 20% of serious accidents. Regular breaks (the Highway Code recommends 15 minutes every two hours) are for the best and you shouldn’t travel at all if you’re too exhausted to safely control a bike − riding while tired is as bad as riding while drunk. On that note, riding while impaired is never a good idea and not getting plastered is an obvious point that everyone knows already, but checking the small print of medication and things like that might well save your neck.

Your bike and your gear are a factor too. For example, it is entirely unremarkable for bike gear to be all in black or darker shades. Stylish, yes, but not very practical if they mean you simply disappear into the night. As buying a whole new set of equipment and possibly a whole new bike too just to ride at night is a bit unreasonable, look into hi-vis reflective jackets, outer covers and gear.

One inexpensive but excellent potential extra is hi-vis tape, available for pocket change prices on Amazon and in plenty of motoring/biking supplies shops, which you can add to your equipment or your bike itself to help people see you in the dark. I once came across an ingenious biker who added his blood group (for the record, A+) to the back of his helmet in hi-vis tape on a two-birds/one-stone basis, and whose inattentive mates took several days and about 600 miles of a continental riding holiday to realise that ‘L’ and ‘R’ had been discreetly applied to their boots...

Reflections on the road itself can be something to keep an eye on too. If we see a light of some kind in the distance, our instinctive reaction is to head towards it in a straight line. The road, however, might be built differently so watch out for where the road actually is, not where you think it ought to be – an easy mistake to make if you’re tired. Cat’s eyes can be a great help here, where they’re installed and in good condition, so look out for those or their temporary reflective strip equivalents. Again, rural roads where they are more likely to not exist or be broken can be a serious issue.

So there you have it. Riding at night isn’t something you should be scared away from, but nor is it something you should just charge into either. With a little preparation and a little common sense, it can be an excellent way to get from A to B when the roads are at their quietest and you can enjoy them pretty much all to yourself.

There’s plenty of kit out there that can help make riding at night easier, safer or just that little bit more comfortable. Here are a handful of ideas to get you started:

LED headlamp light bulbs
Modern LED light bulbs are much more powerful than their traditional incandescent predecessors and have a more reasonable power consumption rate too. Aftermarket replacements are available just about everywhere nowadays, although you’ll want to make sure a load resistor is fitted and that what you’re buying is road legal.

Non-optical glasses
Simple, reliable, reasonably priced, no need for a battery and completely gluten-free, a pair of non-optical glasses with treated clear or yellow lenses can be a great help with glare and bright lights. Tucking them away somewhere in your kit, jacket or even on the bike itself just in case you need them is a simple way to make your life easier if you’d rather not modify or replace your visor.

Hi-vis tape, decals and patches
Cheap, cheerful and endlessly adaptable, stick-on hi-vis material can help people see you from greater distances. A little creativity goes a long way, and it’s an option for both your bike and your gear. It can fade after a while, though, so periodic replacement might be called for.

Reflective waistcoat
A simple lightweight layer of reflective cloth that goes over your regular gear but doesn’t get in the way. All of your usual protection and additional visibility as well sounds like a very good thing to us, and it can simply be folded up and kept in a bag or pocket when not in use.

The sort of thing you only remember to think about after you realise you need one, keeping a decent torch on you can make your life much, much easier if you’re dealing with a breakdown by the side of the road. Test it before you set off, put it in a pocket and forget about it. Again, modern LED options are more powerful and last longer.

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