Modern Headlights Make Night Cycling Unsafe

Background Reading

Summary

I was reading a recent article by Jan Heine which reminded me of a thought that I had intended to write about a month or more ago and had slipped my mind.

Riding through my neighborhood I was following a fellow on his way to the College of DuPage by bicycle. We were driving at night and I had seen the fellow pass our home and was impressed by his front headlight. It turns out that he was heading in my direction so I followed behind him.

He was wearing a reflective vest and had a red reflector on the seat post under his saddle to alert traffic approaching from the rear. But frankly once behind him (with only my headlights on in normal mode) he simply disappeared! Yikes!

What happened to him?

An Unintended Consequence of Modern Headlight Beam Focusing

What does this mean for cyclists? Really, the safest illumination is one that is powerful enough to show your location, but not so strong that it causes target fixation. When it’s completely dark, even a single red light will be plenty visible.

What does this mean for cyclists? Really, the safest illumination is one that is powerful enough to show your location, but not so strong that it causes target fixation. When it’s completely dark, even a single red light will be plenty visible.

The Germans have convinced us that keeping the headlight beam of automobiles low enough to hug the roadway but out of the eyes of oncoming traffic is “safer“. And that might well be true if the idea is to avoid blinding drivers in oncoming traffic late at night. In fact it works quite well in that it keeps the rearview mirror from being annoying as well.

But what it does in essence is prevents cars from seeing riders on bicycles from the rear when only reflection is being used. That photo to the right is about right when it comes to what a driver sees at night.

The only surfaces that are truly visible are the ones which allow light to pass through because they are serving as illumination. I simply love the Planet Bike series of rear flashers. They are cheap and run for many hours on a single set of batteries.

They can make you visible to cars approaching from the rear. They are much better in this regard than a rear taillight that is providing a steady red beam. These light actually have a “stutter pattern” that is not unlike that used on emergency vehicles serving highways.

That “Reflective Vest” Ain’t Cuttin’ It

Looking at the photo above from our Flèche last year, it’s easy to think: “Two of these riders are much safer than the other two.” The reflective vests really stand out in the flash of the camera.

Looking at the photo above from our Flèche last year, it’s easy to think: “Two of these riders are much safer than the other two.” The reflective vests really stand out in the flash of the camera.

Yet another of Jan’s images tells an even more horrifying story. What you are seeing to the right is a pace line of several riders at night. I am guessing here that when this image was made it was with the trailing automobile using “high beams“.

On “low or normal beams” light does not scatter far enough up the backsides of riders to make even reflective vests visible. Yikes!

If you are counting on having one of these on to serve as visible protection, forget it! You really are unable to see anything in front of you which is at a level above that of the headlights themselves.

The further out into the rural areas of our cities the worse this gets. In city limits you might be able to count on having street lamps aid you in seeing small, poorly reflective objects up ahead. But if there are no lamps or they are simply out then you are blind unless you run your headlights on “high beam“.

Drivers Have A Conundrum

The “safest thing” with respect to cyclists is to drive around with your high beams on. But that could get you a ticket and worse yet annoy the heck out of fellow drivers. So what are your options? Well in reality if you have been drinking or suffer from a mild to severe case of night blindness, you are screwed as a driver. Unless…

The Door Lane © GridChicago

The Door Lane
© GridChicago

Bicyclists like everything else about riding on the roadway you need to be pre-emptive. Don’t whine and wring your hands about motorists opening doors on you when exiting their vehicles. You have to be smart and avoid the “Door Zone“.

Likewise if you are a Ninja Cyclist you might as well leave your St. Christopher medal at home each night. Somebody is going to ride right up your back side even if you have on a very nice and highly reflective vest. Why?

Well if you are on an upright bicycle you butt is above the level of the lights of the approaching cars. You need to ride not only with a reflective vest but also “reflective ankle straps“. If you have any reflective surfaces they should be “below your butt“.

So that means those pedals you think are only for “Freds” (you know the ones with reflectors) are actually going to save your life. All those reflectors you took off to avoid looking like a “Fred” because you wanted your bike to look “fly“, well FTS. Put ’em back on!

And if you are using a rear flasher, use TWO of them. You cannot see when your lights burn out or the battery dies so you need to anticipate this. Have two rear lights and place them low.

Stay safe out there. And regardless of what some of your fellow Urban Cyclists say about the burden of having to wear high visibility gear and stuff that is reflective, tell them to kiss your tuckus. All of this blather about not being forced to “wear a helmet” or “look like a glowing pumpkin” if for zealots. Some of them live in Copenhagen and some of these idiots dress in Diane Von Furstenburg wrap dresses that have never been cleaned and refuse to shave their legs. Allow them to die in isolation. You on the other hand are preparing to grow old with me.