See and be seen

Daylight savings time is an odd beast.  I’ve heard several explanations on its origins – ranging from bankers and stock brokers, to farmers wanting their children to be able to get chores in during daylight hours before school, to railroad interests.  Clearly they didn’t consult with bicycle commuters on their opinions, though, as the time shift puts the normal commute home into complete darkness.

It is a very subjective opinion, but city traffic in the mornings seems to be less hectic than traffic on the evening commute.  Perhaps it is because folks are anxious to get home – or to the pub – quickly after work, but not quite so rushed to get to the office in the morning.  Whatever the cause, I much prefer to ride in morning darkness compared to evening darkness.

Anytime you have to ride in the darkness the key is to be visible.  Every state has laws on the books that outline the requirements for lights and/or reflectors that bicycle must have to legally be ridden on the roads in the dark.  Even if not legally required, basic lighting is pretty much a must-have.  While some may debate the safety issues surrounding helmet use, there are no reasonably intelligent arguments about why you shouldn’t have lights on your bike after dark.  That then naturally leads to the questions like “What lights should I get,” “Where on my bike should they go,” “What color should the lights be” and “Should I use a flashing or steady light.”

This article is not intended as a product review, so I won’t go into the question of what light to get.  Also, I’ve talked a lot about where and how to mount lights on your bike before so I’ll leave that topic alone here as well.  The questions of color and flashiness are interesting, though.

Color me blind

It is an interesting and somewhat dangerous fact of human behavior that we tend to become blind to things we see every day.  You’ve probably experienced this when driving a car yourself.  You can follow a car at night for miles and miles and not really be conscious of the fact that their tail lights are on.  However, when those lights suddenly become brighter because they’ve hit the brakes, you immediately (hopefully) notice and take action.  It is the change in state from dim to bright that you really notice, and not the real presence of the light itself.

Unfortunately, except for some specialty devices like the Acclaim system, bike lights never replicate this braking activated behavior.  That means that drivers can easily become blind to the red taillight, or white headlight, that blends in with all of the others on the road.

One way to address this issue that has caught some attention recently is to use a color other than red for the taillight.  While quite possibly originating as equipment for police bicycles, blue tail lights seem to be gaining in popularity.  The common argument is that drivers aren’t used to seeing blue lights in their path and are more likely to notice.  Be careful if you plan to purchase and use one of these, however.  It is quite possible that they may be illegal for road use in your jurisdiction.

Flashing isn’t just for college kids

The other, and frankly more common, approach to this issue is various forms of blinking or flashing lights.  I’m not aware of any jurisdictions where this is illegal.  In fact, I’ve also seen oscillating lights (not flashing on and of, but transitioning from brighter to slightly dimmer) on motorcycle headlights.  (As a side note, motorcycles actually face some of the same traffic dangers that bicyclists do.  They can often be great allies on infrastructure safety issues!)  You’ll want to give this some consideration, however.  Flashing lights – especially really bright white ones in the front – can indeed make you more noticeable.  It can also make it difficult for other drivers and cyclists on the road to accurately judge your speed and distance.  This “strobe effect” is much more pronounced on darker side streets with less ambient lighting from business and street lights.

Choose your path

You can also opt to use the “rode more lighted.”  If available, this can go a huge way towards making your more visible.  Most commonly though it is the busiest streets that get the most street lights.  Or, said another way, the amount of street lighting seems to generally be proportional to the speed and volume of traffic on the road.

Ultimately, you are the one out there on your bike, and thus you are the one with the vested interest in making yourself visible.  Do your homework, read the reviews and tips and know your local laws.

Perhaps even more important that what brand of light you have strapped to your handle bars, however, is to be aware of your surroundings.