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Four Tips to Ride More Safely at Night

It's already September and the days are getting shorter. Since the summer solstice, we have lost over 2 hours of daylight. In Chicago. You will soon be riding in the dark on part of your commute if that hasn't happened already. This is a good time to assess how well you are equipped to ride in the dark.

At it's heart, this is a safety issue. Sadly, many deaths occur at night. According to the Institute for Insurance Safety, bicyclist deaths in 2013 peaked during the hours from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (21 percent).

Never assume that a motorist can see you at night, or even at dusk. It's your job to make yourself visible. While this may sounds obvious, it does require some effort and planning.

Let's take a look at four tips to ride more safely at night.

1. Use front bike lights

The main purpose of bike lights are two-fold: to see and be seen. in addition, the state of Illinois, as with many jurisdictions, requires the use of a front light that emits a white light that can be see for 500 feet.

In recent years, there have been significant advances in LED lighting technology. As a result powerful., lightweight, rechargeable front lights are readily available. The lights cast a powerful bright, white, beam which helps the rider to see the road and are easily seen from a significant distance. Typically, these lights have adjustable beams (i.e. high-beam, low-beam) so you can extend the time the battery will last. I use a rechargeable front light and plug it in each evening so it's ready to go the next day. My front light puts out 150 lumens which is great for urban commuting.

In addition, there are also AA-battery powered front lights available. While these type of lights don't help much in showing you the way, they are an effective and cheap way to ensure you are seen. I have one of these lights also mounted to my handlebars and set it to blinking mode so others can easily see me coming towards them.

Two front lights with two purposes. The head light LED with rechargeable battery pack (center) shows the way. The larger multi-LED with AA batteries (right) blinks to signal my presence.

Lastly, there are options for pedal-powered dynamo lights. These are typically light systems built into the hub on the front or rear wheel of the bike.. Many shared ride bikes have these types of lights that are basically turned on once you start pedaling. There is no need for batteries or recharging since the pedaling of the rider provides the source of power. Check with your local bike shop if you want to retrofit your bike with this type of system.

2. Use rear bike lights

Rear lights are designed to help others see you. Many of these types of lights lights cost $15 or less and are a must for any bike commuter. Most of these lights are powered by batteries and have options for steady or blinking modes.

I use two rear lights to increase the likelihood of being seen and for back-up. When the batteries go out on one, there is still a rear light flashing. I set my rear lights to blinking mode so drivers can see me.

3. Make you and your bike reflective  

Reflections are an excellent, third source of lighting. Car lights are substantially more powerful and making yourself and your bike reflective is a great strategy to enhance your visibility. Reflective clothing, reflective saddle-bags, pedal reflectors and bike reflectors are all sources of potential light working in your favor. Remember, the goal is to be seen.  

4. Ride defensively 

Most riders I know, including myself, occasionally drive a car. It's a lot harder to see a biker at night. While riding defensively is a good policy all the time, it's imperative at night. This means slowing down, avoiding driver's blind spots, making eye contact when possible, and wearing a helmet. 

Remember to follow these tips to ride more safely at night. 

View from night ride along the Chicago lakefront.

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